Wednesday, April 17, 2019



Lesser Moments in Agriculture
1997

Our profession has known some pivotal events in its glorious history. The Homestead Act, the introduction of fertilizer, the invention of the cow, the reaper, hybrid seed corn, the tractor, the seed corn cap - all seminal occurrences that directed the path of agricultural progress. Interspersed with these, however, were those instances when the march of progress stopped to take a stone out of its collective shoe, a hiccup in the saga of the advancement of farming. These happenings, although justifiably ignored by serious ag historians, have had profound impact on farmers’ lives, and deserve to be brought to light by a commentator of (what can I say?) some considerable weight.

Lesser Moment Number One - Hydraulic Destiny
April 31, 1947: [Somewhere in Chicago at the Farm Machinery Association, Grand High Executive Potentates Council, several beers after 11 pm.] Chairman: Next item on the agenda - “Standardized Remote Hydraulic Fittings”. Now boys, we’ve been over this and over this. Currently there are 43 different kinds of couplers being manufactured and our customers are getting confused.
Company Rep #1: While it would be better for farmers to have a uniform, simple way of hooking up hydraulics, we mustn’t rush into this. How do we know which type is best without thirty of forty years of field experience? Company Rep #2: Right. In the meantime, we can help our customers by selling them thousands of adapters, which, I might add, have a profit margin of (whisper, whisper).
All: (excitedly) (whisper, mumble, whisper) (giggle, giggle)
Company Rep #3: (speculatively) You know...., if we were to start using two or three different thread pitches and change styles completely every five or six years, we could maximize our profi-, I mean, field data before settling on one style in, say, 1985 or so.
Chairman: (shouting above the cheering and belching) Gad! I love this business. Drinks on the treasury!

Lesser Moment Number Two - The Great Patriotic Wire
February 8, 1943 - [Pothole, Nebraska]
Son: Jeepers, Dad! These “bale” things are great. It sure beats a pitchfork, and we can store a lot more hay in the barn now. But, what should I do with these loops of wire?
Copyright 1997 John Phipps
Dad: Just more junk to throw away I guess. Come over here and help me fix this gate. It keeps falling over.
Son: (after struggling with the gate for several minutes) Man! This just isn’t working. If only we had something we could sort of tie it up to the posts with. Wait a minute! What about those bale wires?
Dad: Sounds crazy, but it just might work. This will only be temporary, of course. We’ll come back tomorrow first thing and fix it right.
Son: Absolutely, Dad. We wouldn’t want our whole farm to be held together with wire. Ha, ha, ha!

Lesser Moment Number Three - Overheads Up
November 23, 1962 - [The University of Northern South Dakota, College Of Agriculture, Division of Ag Economics]
Prof. Weems: Whoa, Finster. Whatcha got there?
Prof. Finster: Oh, nothing much. Just a revolution in the whole field of ag economics.
Weems: Right. I believe you said the same thing about your so-called “cash flow plan”, and we all know how far that went.
Finster: This time is different. This little baby is a genuine “Overhead Projector”, and its going to set the winter ag meeting circuit on its ear. Weems: How so?
Finster: (getting excited) Well, according to the salesman, you just plug this thing into a nearby outlet (it only needs a short cord) and you can lay these easy-to-handle sheets called transparencies on the top and they are projected up on the screen. It’s practically foolproof, impossible to get the sheets on wrong, and the bulbs are cool and last practically forever. But the best part is that you can draw and write all over your charts and graphs, making them even clearer to your audiences. They make special pencils that are extra- legible and smudge-proof. No more clumsy slides or messy chalkboards. Those farmers won’t know what hit’em.
Weems: Gosh, it really does sound great. Boy, if this won’t keep farmers awake and excited in a warm dark meeting room after lunch, nothing will. Finster: Oh yeah. I think it is safe to say that ag economics will never be the same. This technology is going to make color TV seem dull and lifeless by comparison. Finally, we economists will be able to put the same sparkle and zoom in our lectures as the entomology boys with their fancy-pancy “larva slides”.
Weems: (running after Finster) I’ve got to have one! Finny, old buddy, wait. I’ll trade you my autographed picture of John Maynard Keynes...

Real history, because it is made by real people, is seldom pretty.

Monday, March 11, 2019



The Stuff of Life

August 1994

It fills our pockets, crams our desk drawers, occupies our basements, and packs our machine sheds. It's our Stuff. And we love it. One of the most wonderful aspects of farming is the ability not just to store, but semi-justify the accumulation of enormous amounts and types of Stuff. We can stack it on long shelves, pile it in unused buildings, line our fencerows, and load our dashboards with it. The ownership of vast heaps of Stuff is an outward and visible reassurance of our success and well-being.

I have done some deeply serious research on Stuff and the unusual importance it has in our lives. Take Pocket Stuff, for instance. Men carry lots of change because there is something slightly unmanly about ever using it to pay for anything, so it accumulates in a large jingling mass in our right front pocket. Into that receptacle also go small parts we don't want to lose, but never seem to get back on the machine. Many of us also carry a pocketknife of some kind here in direct defiance of our mother's wishes. This act of rebellion can be so strong that to express it fully we need to strap an 8 inch Swiss Army Knife in a special holster onto our side, to be admired by all, and ready for some split-second Corkscrew Emergency. [Technically speaking, it then becomes "Belt Stuff".]  In one rear pocket we find the ubiquitous Hanky - large, loud, and sporadically laundered. In our pockets also lives the Wallet. Wallets double as filing cabinets and bookkeeping systems - sometimes becoming three inches thick. This substantial weight causes many trousers to be worn at half-mast. It also explains the shape of the driver's seat cushions in used pickups. These wallets can produce business cards from 1955 and hog checks from last year. This is the origin, I suppose, of the phrase "running your business by the seat of your pants". Other popular items of Pocket Stuff include the ever-popular screwdriver/fingernail clipper, woefully abused checkbooks, enormous rings of mostly unused keys, scraps of paper with 6 out of 7 digits of a phone or part number, various office supplies, lunch particles, and anything given away free at the last store visited. At my farm supply store, the farmer ahead of me dumped his pockets on the counter to find a nickel. Along with everyone else in line, I checked out his Stuff, which included: various capsules of medication (loose); two bullets (caliber unknown); a Brillo pad; and most interestingly – a mascara pencil. Eyebrows were raised, so to speak.
  
At the end of the day Pocket Stuff is transformed into Desk Stuff. As farming becomes a larger and more complicated business, many of us are spending increasing amounts of time driving a desk. To help us feel at home, we bring some of our Stuff to be with us, pocketful at a time. It accumulates and breeds in the drawers and under paperwork until interred into modern storage devices, such as old coffee cans. Desk Stuff has other components, mostly paper. Articles, or even whole magazines to be read diligently at an appropriate time, warranty cards to be sent in from tools long since broken, school pictures of now fully grown adults, important papers to be filed when the new improved filing system is in place, unlabeled computer disks, eight-track tapes, appliance instructions (untouched), and forests of old newspapers comprise the hoard. It bulges the file cabinet, buckles shelves, and buries every square inch of horizontal space. 

Of all our Stuff, however, it's the Farm Stuff that is dearest to our hearts.  Farm Stuff is divided into two general categories - Machines and Tools.  The difference being that when a tool drops on your head it doesn't kill you, usually. We spend our lives accumulating a respectable herd of Stuff and when the End comes at our auction, we hope for that highest of accolades, "He had Good Stuff". 

Stuff is our equivalent of a picture album, I have discovered. While Jan can waste an entire afternoon on a baby book discovered while doing the biennial dusting, I can kill a similar amount of time looking for the right piece of angle iron amidst my Stuff. In a large old corncrib built in my youth is a mother lode of machine parts, metal scraps, replaced tools, and broken, but still valuable, leftovers of my and my father's farming careers. Wandering through it produces an irresistible urge to identify and reminisce over rusty heirlooms nearly forgotten. I emerge from this quality Stuff-time at one with my heritage, and on rare occasions, holding what I went for.  

Tool Stuff, for many of us, is not just an astronomical farm expense; it is a fundamental reason to exist. Look at the lustful eyes of farmers in the tool tent at a farm show. Likewise, what farmer doesn't secretly like to look in his competitor's shop and scope out his tools, forming an instant opinion of him as a human being?  The welders and grinders, saws and compressors; the gleaming wrenches and pungent fluids of our profession - with these we wreak our will on the steel and wood and earth of our world, leaving a visible mark of our existence. They are extensions of our hands, and seldom argue with our purposes. They are our closest friends (which explains our social lives).

Machine Stuff is just grown up Tool Stuff.  We have had many visitors to our farm and I am convinced that corporate executives privately envy our ability to surround ourselves with large, noisy, shiny evidences of our personal power. To top it off, they are tax deductible!  Eat your heart out, Lee Iaccoca. This characteristic of machine stuff has impacted the evolution of our industry. The trend to no-till is doubtless slowed by its Stuff-diminishing effects. There is a palpable sense of loss in a half-empty machine shed, regardless of the economic benefits. 

Of course, these are the Nineties, and we all realize that true self worth is not associated with possessions and comes from within, blah, blah, blah, etc.  People are much more important than things, but until the world has come to the full realization of this most important concept, don't mess with my Stuff.

Monday, February 11, 2019



I’ll stick with an apple a day

November 2006

There comes a Moment in every real man’s life when he has to look deep, deep inside himself and see what’s really there.

It’s called a colonoscopy. And apparently it’s legal in many states.

But first some backstory.  Like most men I schedule my annual physical exam dutifully every 6 years or so.  Minor medical problems - which I define as those without medicines advertised during sporting events on TV – are meant to be endured with stoic sniveling and pathetic attention-begging until our spouse threatens to reformat our hard drives.

Oh yeah? – well, that’s what spouses threaten in my house.

One problem with this approach to medicine is we guys often don’t get very attached to the actual service provider. In our part of the woods, doctors come and doctors go.  Mostly back to their own countries, I think.

So when I passed a certain age, I succumbed to the fad of the moment and agreed to have a “checkup”. Since my last doctor – caustically referred to among my friends as Arthur “Big Hands” Johnson – had moved to places unknown, I asked some of my friends about their physicians.

Imagine my astonishment when they could name several area urologists, but no family doctors. Hmmm, I thought. 

Anyhoo, acting on a tip from one of Jan’s exercise friends I called up a Dr. Dennie Lim.  I was sure old Dennis and I could come to an understanding and he would sign off on my vital signs with a gentlemanly wink.

But as luck would have it, as I was waiting in the exam room checking out the posters depicting what people looked like without any skin, a young girl knocked perfunctorily and burst into the room with a flurry of introductions and questions. 

I edged back warily. “Look, miss – there’s been a mistake” I replied kindly, “This is my waiting room, and I’m sure Doc Lim will point out yours to you if you ask.”

She drew herself up to her full 62 inches, offered her credentials, and whipped out a stethoscope while pulling on rubber gloves.

Over the course of the next few minutes I was poked, prodded, and bled – and sometimes just for fun I think. Dr. Lim asked all those questions to which we both knew the answers to see if I would respond like a man, or tell the truth.

It was like dental assistants asking if you floss. They know already – it’s just important for them to force you to admit it. Boy, do they have issues!

We reached a point in the interview that remains etched in my memory. “You know,” the doctor said thoughtfully, “men your age need to have a colonoscopy for preventative reasons.”  To prevent what, I thought bitterly – happiness?

Actually, I did know. I visit webmd.com on a regular basis. By the way, here’s a hint for your next visit to your doctor: come armed with a list possible aliments gleaned from doing your homework on the Internet. They love to debate amateurs.

Another trick is to ask what a procedure costs. Doctors hate that. Eyebrows shoot up and inevitably they bleat, “You don’t have insurance?” This is the deadliest of all possibly health problems. Lately, thanks to HSA policies, medical providers actually have guesses, but it’s still fun to spin them up.

I found I would be paying about $3000 to boldly go on this unsentimental journey. For the benefit of readers who might be anxious about a similar directive from their physician, let me reassure you, the procedure is simple and painless. I think.

You see, for a colonoscopy medicine has invented a special drug, called Versed which is not only a potent sedative, but prevents the formation of memories. You can’t remember anything and you don’t care. As such it merely reinforces what it is like to be a man. Here’s how it goes down (so to speak):

I spent one sad day very close to a bathroom drinking cocktails of unexciting ingredients to promote – indeed, command – “cleansing”.  This continued merrily all through the day Monday.  And the night. 

Early Tuesday morning I reported to a surgical center and within minutes was wrapped in a charming, but poorly designed gown, and plugged into an IV.  Various nurses wearing those colorful jammies so popular with medical professionals would stop by to explain stuff and get my signature. Then they wheeled me into a “procedure” room and the nurse squirted some stuff into my IV. Some dude came in and introduced himself… and, um…they…

Wait – let me start over. I woke up and got into the car. Jan drove me to this place. I remember taking off my shoes…and then…uh…

No, hang on, I’ll get this. I know I went to church on Sunday. I guess I came home afterwards…

Anyway, I somehow made it to Wednesday and I’m pretty sure I had a colonoscopy. 

I was very brave.

Want to see the DVD?

Saturday, January 12, 2019

©John Phipps 2002

Stop Me Before I Verb Again


Shakespeare used a vocabulary of tens of thousands of words, perhaps as high as 30,000, frequently making them up as he went (probably played a lot of Scrabble).  After this historic vocabulary high point, our Mother tongue, as abused by all of us daily, has diminished to an average working toolkit of a few thousand words, almost all of which are routinely displaced by some combination of “like”, “you know”, “relate”, and “paradigm”.

This may not be a bad thing. As a professional (as in IRS Schedule C, not as in subsistence) writer, having fewer bullets to shoot means fewer decisions of which bullet to use. Plus, erudite writers with vast lexicons are now forcibly reduced to the level of semantically-challenged scribblers such as I me I him us me. But the best news is that the most powerful weapon in years in the fight against clear communication has been deployed. I refer, of course to the now-widespread tactic of making a verb (defined as a word in a sentence on a blackboard that the teacher underlines twice) out of any word you wish. By making sturdy nouns, adjectives, propositions, subcontinents, etc. into action words, a small vocabulary can seem to express all kinds of new thoughts without the added bother of actually thinking.

The result is a unique style of writing or speaking that can make you sound like the guy who hones the cutting edge. Magically, the burden of comprehension is on the listener or reader, as they try to interpret your clever reductionist substitutions. The added bonus here is, of course, that deliberate obfuscation is now practicable by even the most straightforward layman, something once limited to public relations specialists and Andersen accountants.

The classic example of this practice is the word “parent”. For most of my life “parent” was a noun meaning a person who had, to use the scientific terminology, sprung off. A few years ago, in one of the boldest pioneering moves in the history of lingo, “parent” became a verb defined as “to do the stuff that parents do”. The speed with which “parenting” became standard usage opened the floodgates or, as we now say, “floodgated” the development of a myriad of new verbs.  Soon we were busy “partnering”, “dialoging”, and “networking”; devising new names for old activities in a self-deceptive simulation of innovation. In some cases we attached the ubiquitous “-ize” to lend an air of legitimacy to our verbing. This was good strategizing.

Throw away that thesaurus – any word can serve multiple functions, virtually extincting the synonym. Stylistically, it is hard to argue with the quantum leap these literary land mines have provided. Consider the following blurb:

Here in 2002, as our great nation roads to the future, one central question is brained by all good citizens: Will our country keep economying? The vigorous moneying of last decade seems to be sputtering, bummering the National Attitude.

Politicians of all flavors have worded on this troubling development. On TV, commentators pundit daily on the causes and cures. Only this is sure: nobody knows, except Chairman Greenspan. Unfortunately, his carefully Englished pronouncements are insufficiently jargonized to give much guidance.

But, as we all know, the American spender fickles. Even with consumer confidence aheading well in recent polls, recovery is far from being certainized. Only time will tell what history will reveal. Or maybe not. In either case, the important thing to remember is these pungent thoughts were firsted here by me.

As our language devolves its way back to grunts and gestures, this DIY approach could cause us to end up with 270 million lingoes with few common words except basic profanity. Already separate dialects exist for athletes, politicians, geeks, and women over 50 who communicate principally with eyebrow movements.

I myself, am relanguaging like anything. For example, I have coined the words “floodmare” – a realistic dream about sump pump failure; “hyperoptionated” – a trance-like state induced by War-and Peace restaurant menus; and “preproactive” – getting the jump on guys who are merely proactive.

I am also looking into word-buzzing – creating business slang like “rightsizing” or “off-balance sheet”. So far I’ve buzzed “subinteresting” – the act of rolling a 7% CD into a 2%; and “infraculture” – a word that can mean almost anything (I expect it to show up in the new farm bill regs).

Language – it’s not just for the literate.


Saturday, October 27, 2018



Showers of Blessing
Feb 2001

I have been accused of many things, but never excessive cleanliness. My motto is that on a farm, cleanliness is not next to godliness – it’s next to impossible. Plus many of us simply enjoy a modest amount of dirt about our person. Arguably, the more obscured our features, the more attractive we seem.

Nevertheless, one of the signal events in my life was the moment of my first shower. When I was in the 5th grade, my parents built a new house, which had two (count ‘em, 2) bathrooms.  The “kids’” bathroom had a shower/tub – cutting-edge sanitation.

Bathing was at the time a supposedly necessary evil. The advent of a shower lifted the concept of personal hygiene to a bearable burden of polite society. 

Even at that early age, as a precocious engineerling, I was appreciative of the stunning efficiency gains of the shower.  Instead of a tub full of hot water giving up its caloric payload largely to the cast iron mass of the tub itself, providing a scant few moments of warmth to the bathee, the shower propelled the heated liquid first over the grateful showerer. Pure genius!

Adaptation to this technology was rapid. Within days, I had mastered the art of balancing the flows of hot and cold, even though in our home, two separate water systems supplied them. The hot was drawn from the cistern, the cold from the well. This mismatched plumbing meant that shower temperature was a moving target. Regardless, we all soon became expert at behind-the-back faucet manipulation, avoiding the freeze-boil cycle of unattended operation.

Remnants of these skills still serve me well when a toilet is flushed or the dishwasher loads during a shower.  It is all about focus and concentration. The instinctive sensing of the tell-tale pressure drop, the subtle change in the pipe whine, or even the ker-thunk of the washer valve triggers lightning response with little conscious thought.

It was the shower itself that lifted our lives. Assuming that you were the first to claim the contents of our prehistoric electric water heater, the day offered one good chance for quality personal time. A refuge from the trials of life brought to you by the British Thermal Unit. The sacrament became a moment of comfort that soon embedded its ritualistic motions in our psyches. Indeed, I have noticed I scrub myself today the same way I started as a boy – missing the same places in exactly the same order.

So deeply ingrained is this moist ceremony that if interrupted by a shouted question, for example, many of us cannot remember where in the cycle of soaping and rinsing we were. More astounding, I have discovered (as only a “Dilbert” type would) that my showers all last 7.2 minutes ± 14 seconds.  These are important things to know, I think.

I have noticed my sons develop similar shower skills. The youngest, Jack, blossomed into a human Rolaids – capable of absorbing 47 times his weight in hot water. Jan and I worried that when he left for college and the nirvana of “city” (i.e. unlimited) water, he would eventually develop gills. To this day when he visits as a grown man, the humidity in the house can drop by 25%. 

In fairness, I think that for men, whose cleansing chores involve at the most soap and/or shampoo, the shower is a moment of pleasure free from mental involvement, thus allowing the mind to wander, the imagination to soar.  Many of my best (in a relative sense, of course) columns were conceived in those steamy confines. 

Showers thaw frozen fingers, toes, and personalities in the winter, and a cooling sprinkle is the best relief from a layer of soybean fuzz after a combine repair. 

Men require little support equipment for these ablutions. Soap is a nice touch, especially when eroded to the right size and shape for easy driving around our manly forms. The less accommodating stages of the soap life-cycle – the Graspless Sliver and the Square Corners of Grief – are endured with manly pouting.

Women, as usual, make showers far more complex. The tank mixes required for hair upkeep alone resemble alchemy. Jan’s collection of unguents, potions, sponges, swabs, skewers, drop nozzles, foamers, and what-not has led this forward thinker to suggest a shower “tool belt”. (Oddly, the concept has been ignored.) And of course, it’s a woman’s job to clean the hair out of the drain.

It is, too!  Regardless, I think we should all be grateful for the simple blessing of rehydration. So take the phone of the hook and grab a towel off the floor and celebrate this miracle of modern hydraulics.

Why wait until Saturday?

Saturday, October 1, 2016



Make Mine Oughta-Steer

Farm Journal 2005

You can’t swing a dead cat at a farm show any more without hitting an auto-steer salesman. Plus they won’t let you back into the farm show either.
Hey – I love unneeded technology just as much as the next farmer, unless he is my friend John. This guy gets all the gadgets two weeks before they are invented. He has his own MRI, for example. In fact, you could be on the cutting edge with his hand-me-downs.
In fairness, I depend on John to blaze a technological trail to the future. The problem is that inevitably I begin to hope that once, just once, I can get the jump on him. Once I got a replica of a Star Trek communicator badge. He saw it immediately and asked, “Is that what I think it is?” “Oh yeah”, I replied, “This little baby can teleport me anywhere in the galaxy”. He smiled gently, “They are super, aren’t they? The new ones can be implanted.” He pointed to a small scar on his arm, as I whimpered piteously. My life is a geek tragedy.
So I have pondered the ads, pored over the paid testimonials and university studies [which are getting harder to tell apart, by the way], and actually fondled the components. I have even gone so far as to ask the price. As is typical for such items that I need to be truly and spiritually fulfilled, it was about 3.5 times the upper absolute limit of my most optimistic budget if I have 5 consecutive bumper crops and above-average prices. So money really isn’t a factor. I’m just not sure that auto-steer is an upgrade my farmware can support.
If I understand the mechanics of these widgets, we are on the verge of reducing the “active” portion of our career to something about as aerobic as flossing. One advertisement even boasts that operators (and I am using the term in its most inactive sense, as in “slot machine operator”) can be freed up to attend to other pressing tasks. Like watching TV.
‘Scuse me? Have you watched any TV lately? Did you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards? I can’t recall one USDA official urging more daytime TV as major part of farm policy. Unless you could get a LDP doing it. The idea that auto-steer will free up time is reasonable; the idea that time will be used productively is laughable.
For example, proponents urge auto-steerers to fill in the empty hours talking on their cell phone. There are two problems with this concept. First, most rural areas are not saturated with good cell coverage. My phone works OK except when I am 1) at home, 2) in a tractor, or 3) am late to meet Jan. In fact, if I do have a grabber somewhere on my farm, my survival will likely be determined by the sunspot cycle.
Second, who are we going to call? Everybody else is busy driving, because they don’t have auto-steer, right? So the most likely conversations are two auto-guys jabbering away between turns. This will last for about 3 rounds, I predict. After weather and markets, what is left to talk about? Feelings?
Of course, we could all be on the phone with our commodity brokers. My experience however, is that during high stress periods like planting and harvest when I am way too close to the problem, a direct link to margin-call-generating opportunities is a bad, bad thing. Doing business at 7 mph. may work for some, but I need to be standing stock still when buying options. In fact, when trying to execute some of the more complicated spread schemes, it might be best if I was lying down with a cold cloth on my head.
Another popular fantasy is that we will all take a laptop computer out to the cab with us. Oh, goody – more time in front of a computer! I yearn for spring and fall so I can get away from my office – not take it with me. So far I have identified exactly ZERO office chores that will be done well in a tractor cab. Except FreeCell, of course. Show me a tractor cab with a laptop and I’ll show you some DVD’s stashed away in the operator’s manual pocket.
On the whole, I just don’t believe that steering a machine is a waste of my time. Consider the “idle hands” syndrome. Jan is always relieved during working seasons, since she knows where I am and what I am not doing. If I am in the combine, for example, I cannot be wiring a singing bass to the doorbell.
Steering is admittedly closer to channel-surfing than a triathlon in terms of physical effort, but farmers running around in Speedos is not a pretty picture anyway. At least, having to steer a machine puts a premium on remaining conscious during the doldrums of the day. Anyone who has come to with a field cultivator miles from home in strange field – and who of us hasn’t, eh? – can testify to the power of that memory to prop open traitorous eyelids after lunch. Oh sure, auto-steer devices could assure alertness with howling alarms at the end rows, but who wants to terrified awake fifty times a day?
Besides, after thirty years I have finally gotten passably proficient in self-steering. During corn harvest, for example, I have a game of trying to get the combine heading tweaked to cover a half-mile through without touching the wheel. My record is four consecutive passes, with a Mulligan for the tile hole.
Furthermore, if any nincompoop can push a button and plant perfect row, where’s the sport in that? How will we pick out operators to ridicule in a supportive, loving way?
Word: If we start letting computers drive our machines it won’t be long before they take over lying about the yields. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015



A tractor tenor's Top 10

April 1996

Tenors are handmade by God. Basses and baritones you get in twelve-packs at SAM'S. This profound truth is acknowledged by me and all my tenor friends. For musically challenged people, a tenor is defined as a man in love with the sound of his voice - and for good reason. Tenors are always the good guys in opera, and despite my personal experiences, should always get the beautiful girl in the end.

One of the best things about being both a farmer and a tenor (almost too much good fortune for one man) is being able to practice my art while on the job. Not only is this a pleasant pastime, but since hitting the really high notes is marginally easier if done loudly to very loudly, it seems to be a popular place with my family for me to sing.   

Oddly, singing in the shower, that old cliché, has fallen out of favor in my house. One evening not long past I was vigorously attacking "Una Furtiva Lagrima", an emotional tenor aria, using my own personal version of Italian, whilst pursuing my nightly purification. After several near misses at the dramatic high note, I called to my beloved bride in the adjacent bedroom, "Dearest, did that sound like "C" to you?"  "No, honey, it sounded like "L" to me," she replied. I did not have the heart to tell her that the scale rarely goes past "J", except during heavy metal concerts. 

So for many of us, our finest musical moments are lost to our fellow human beings because we are out in a cab somewhere, accompanied by the radio.   To enhance these lyric occasions I would like to offer the following list of Tractor Tenor Top Ten Hits. If you have a tape deck, you could create a collection such as this to bring hours of singing pleasure to yourself and your greatest fan (also yourself). 

  1. "Crying" by Roy Orbison.  Almost any song by Roy is great tenor stuff, but you can't match this one for cool background accompaniment.
  2. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" - Simon and Garfunkel.  This is not only groovy to sing, it will probably bring back memories of girls you always wanted to date, but never had the nerve to ask.
  3. "Cool Water" - Sons of the Pioneers. Drift back to those golden Saturday mornings of yesteryear, watching horse operas on a black and white TV. If you can manage the lilting "water" echoes of this song without sounding like a vulture dying of thirst, you're a real man, my son.
  4. "The Eagle and the Hawk" - John Denver. This mercifully short, but vocally brutal ballad can sprain all but the toughest of larynxes.
  5. Anything by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (i.e. "Woman, Woman"). After years of study, I have discovered that Puckett really only had one song in his brief career, and just kept singing it over and over - the same melody with the same words about the same thing.
  6. Anything by Ann Murray. On a good day a first-class tenor can sing most of her songs as written, although I was shocked to find she could hit low notes beyond me. 
  7. "Hallelujah" from the Mount of Olives  - L. Beethoven. When sung in a four part men's arrangement, this vocal obstacle course opens with a savagely high and loud series of hallelujahs, making it one of the most fiendishly difficult tenor pieces to do at an Easter Service. Don't even think about trying this at a sunrise service.
  8. "Along the Way" - The Association. This short poignant ballad sung quietly with just piano was a rapidly forgotten cut from a rapidly forgotten group, but if you can sing this with sensitivity and feeling without hurting yourself, you are a major tenor.
  9. "How Can There Be Any Sin in Sincere" - Buffalo Bills (From the Music Man) - just a short barbershop song with an aeronautic tenor part made famous by the Broadway musical. As a plus you will probably continue on through the soundtrack to chant the "Trouble in River City" monologue. 
  10. "Nessun Dorma"  - from Turandot by Puccini - This is the aria which has been dang near sung to death by the world famous "Three Tenors" (Luciano, Placido, and Harpo) that you will see approximately 8-10 times during your local PBS station Money Grubbing Week. Despite that, it may be the three best minutes in a tenor's life. Every time I come close to getting this right, I cry. When I don't everybody else cries. Music like this is what vocal cords are for. It is thought that this aria was almost the last thing old Puccini wrote. That would be like cashing in your chips right after harvesting 500 acres of 350 bushel corn.
  11. (Special Bonus Selection) - "The Star Spangled Banner" - F.S. Key.    This tune was originally an old British drinking song, which would explain the melody. Be that as it may, it is still a challenge for any tenor to sing well. Judging by what I've heard lately before championship games, we'd better all start singing it before nobody remembers how it really goes.

Many may notice that I include no Country and Western music here.  Despite years of listening to C&W in order to hear the markets, its manifest charms elude me. But if you enjoy listening to music sung through the nose by ear, and many do, I would commend to your attention works by Larry Gatlin or Jimmy Rogers. 


One last note: The greatest possible experience in an agritenor's life is the opportunity to sing in an empty Harvestore. Grain bins are OK, wells have a certain ambiance, and steel water tanks are not without their charm, but the Big Blues can do things for you voice that will make your family have to drag you out of the thing. I recommend "Santa Lucia".