By Diana Prichard
“Never race a train,” my Grandpa, a stout German man whom we all called Poopsie, used to say. “Even if you tie, you lose.”
I’m reminded of him each year at this time as the black walnut trees shed their leaves, speckling fall’s signature dark green carpet with gold, and kicking off nature’s welcome party for winter. In America’s farm country, autumn is a time for racing trains. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was those first black walnut leaves that act as the starting shot. A loud bang only to the ears tuned in, it manifests as the low and steady grumble of tractors and combines coming to life. On many farms they’ve never really taken a break, but the crisp air swooping in from Canada seems to carry their song further and louder — or maybe I’m just listening for it more.
Around our little slice of America the dairy farmers go first, chopping silage for the cows that fill our glasses with milk. Next come beans and corn — wheat, straw, hay, and sorghum silage having had their season in the dog days of summer. A few farmers carve mazes into their corn fields, while others haul pumpkins out of orange dotted fields and sell them on hay wagons next to the road. The apple orchards bustle, and everyone races towards a finish line that never stops swaying — every year unsure whether or not they’ll make it.
By Halloween, farm kids whose families stopped praying for rain at the end of summer will add hopes for a little wet stuff back to their pre-supper plea. Rain means some chairs at the table won’t go empty another night, because as Dad, Mom, and older siblings work twenty-hour days to stock supermarket shelves for the next three-hundred and sixty-five, their own family dinners are suspended.
Fall has always been my favorite time of year. As other children anticipated the mischief of Halloween or the merrymaking of Christmas, I looked forward most to Thanksgiving. Now as a farmer and the wife of a man who spends long hours field-side every autumn, you might think fall would drop a couple pegs on the list of seasons I look forward to, but it never has. For all the long days and nights, for all the racing of trains and empty chairs at the dinner table, it’s still my most favorite time of year. I live for it, and I can’t help but think it’s because we all live as a result of it. And for that we have America’s farmers to thank.
Diana Prichard, author of The Cow in Patrick O’Shanahan’s Kitchen, is a food and agriculture writer and a farmer who brings bacon into the world, raising pigs from farrow to finish on her small Michigan farm. She lives and works with her husband, Ben, and their two daughters. To learn more, visit www.dianaprichard.com.