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Creative destruction

I have been engaging in some creative destruction lately.

That’s not entirely true. It’s been mostly destructive; there hasn’t been much creation involved.

My partners in crime – actually, the main actors – are my brother Les and his son Dustin. They own a construction business, and it turns out that the same powerful tools that are used to build things can also be used to destroy. It’s similar to social media.

This saga began in May when our region was ravaged by a powerful derecho. The storm hurled the calf barn at my parents’ farm onto a pair of grain bins. As if that weren’t enough, a few weeks later a tornado hit the farm and our erstwhile dairy barn was reduced to a jumble of wreckage. Parts of the barn were found a mile away.

Mother Nature can be fickle. While the dairy barn was rendered a total wreck, its attached milk room/ parlor survived intact. A couple of derelict old hog barns that sat nearby and could have benefitted from a little destruction also remained unscathed.

The wreckage has to be cleared from the farmstead, so I hired Les and Dustin for the job. It felt right to keep things in the family.

It reminds me of how, back in the day, most people passed away at home. Family members dug the grave and prepared the deceased for burial. Something similar is presently taking place on our family farm as Les and Dustin prepare the earth to receive the remains of a former life.

At one point, Les asked to me assist by using his skid loader to pile up some dirt. I had spent hundreds of hours in a skid loader as a dairy farmer, so I assumed this task would be a snap.

I assumed wrong. I was accustomed to loaders that have a lever-and-pedal operating system. Their skid loader has no pedals and is instead controlled via a couple of small joysticks. Deep-seated habit caused me to repeatedly jab my feet ineffectually at the bare floor.

I quickly discovered that their skid loader is defective. Its hydraulics reacted jerkily, and it would buck like a wild mustang when I commanded it to move. Strangely, these defects disappeared whenever Les or Dustin operated the thing.

Dustin spent much of his time running their ginormous excavator. He controlled the 27-ton behemoth with the precision of a brain surgeon. Not that I would ever recommend having an excavator perform brain surgery, mind you.

Dustin and the excavator took down our two old hog barns in a matter of minutes. Were it not for the context of the situation, I would say that it was a thing of beauty. There was no wasted motion as the excavator swung to and fro, its powerful bucket-and-thumb picking up the debris like a giant hand. Trees that would have taken hours to take down with a chainsaw were summarily plucked out like so many pesky little weeds.

Late in the afternoon, Dustin cajoled me into operating the excavator. I tried to demur, saying that I would likely wreck something. Dustin helpfully pointed out that wrecking stuff was the whole point.

I was dismayed to discover that the excavator is controlled by a pair of small joysticks. My attempts at operating the humungous hand could best be described as ham-handed.

Since the parlor wing is mostly intact, we might repurpose the structure into something else such as a shop. In any event, I knew that the rusty old milking parlor stalls had to go. I set to work with my cutting torch.

As incandescent beads of molten steel sprayed from the parlor’s anchor points I recalled watching while Russ Reeter, our dairy equipment guy, installed the milking parlor 40 summers ago. I remembered how pernickety Russ had been and how that contrasted with my slapdash deconstruction methods.

We chained the parlor stalls to the bucket of the excavator. The stalls at first refused to move, but the outcome was never in doubt. Russ’s meticulousness was obliterated in a flurry of pops and creaks.

We are piling the wreckage in a hole and plan to burn off the wood, thus giving the barns a Viking funeral. This is fitting, given our family’s Norwegian ancestry.

The next step will be to recycle as much of the steel as possible. After that, Les and Dustin will fill in the grave.

Perhaps some of our steel will eventually wind up in a farm kid’s bicycle. And maybe that kid will, as I did, ride his bike to the hill above his family’s farmstead on a summer’s evening and daydream about the barn that he might someday build.

Jerry Nelson

About the Author: Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear County Agent Guy,” which became a book of the same name. The book is available at and in bookstores nationwide.

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