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Farming Before Dawn

Saturday morning, I was nursing our baby when I heard a sound anyone familiar with farming recognizes instantly: a tractor.

The sun was just coming up as I looked out our son’s bedroom window. I saw my husband in the tractor. He was getting the field beside our house ready for the sweet potatoes that would be transplanted later that morning. 

As I sat there, I started thinking about all the things that happen in farming before the sun comes up.  

Sometimes the day starts early out of need. It’s been a wet spring so farmers are behind. This planting season, tractors with planters are often in the field before daybreak, dropping the seeds for this year’s crop. We have a small window to get corn planted so it has enough time to grow and produce kernels. The planter didn’t get into the field until four weeks after we typically start planting. It was getting so late, we almost didn’t plant any corn. 

During the summer, work often starts early to avoid the heat of a southern summer day. For people working outside, summer heat can lead to heat exhaustion or stroke. During the summer harvest, when afternoon temperatures can hit the upper 90’s or even 100’s, the day starts before dawn and ends just after lunch.

As tobacco grows and the flowers bloom, workers are in the fields before the sun rises, topping each plant. This process involves breaking the flower stem and removing it, so the plant puts energy into growing leaves and not flowers.  

Once plows start turning the soil and exposing the sweet potaotes that have grown underground, work begins before dawn. It’s not unusual for my husband to leave home before 4 a.m. to plow the field, so sweet potaotes are ready for the workers who arrive at 5 a.m.  

The day can start when the moon is still up because it’s what’s best for animals on the farm. The heat can also affect livestock. I talked to a friend of mine who raises pigs, and her animals are often loaded onto trucks at night during the summer. Doing this is less stressful on the pigs. 

When I visited a turkey farm last year, I talked with the farmer about how they move the birds. No matter the time of year, birds are moved into and out of houses in the dark because they like nighttime. Doing it then helps keep the birds calm and is less stressful for them.

Sometimes the day starts early because of routine. Last year, I visited a dairy that milks its cows twice a day – at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. The ladies are brought up from the field an hour before milking, which means the family is herding cows at 2 a.m. every day, rain or shine, weekday or weekend.  

Whatever the reason, much of farming goes on before dawn. Are there any jobs on your farm you would add to this list?

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