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SF Blog: The Smells Remember When

In rural America, the sights, scents and sounds are in full display.

It is a little-known fact that the best place in the world is a 4-mile stretch of dirt road in Jewell County, Kansas, in mid-October. It is here that one’s senses are deluged with the sights, sounds, and smells of a glorious autumn.

I have finished drilling wheat on our Cashman Place, some land east of the tiny town of Randall, along 260 Road. The wind – whipping out of the south the day before – is slight. It carries the sweet scent of freshly baled alfalfa. Dust rolls on the horizon, where neighbors Ramsey and the Behrends are harvesting soybeans, cashing in on the bounty of a difficult year. I hear nothing, except for a breeze rustling leaves of grain sorghum plants in the adjacent field. They, too, give off a pleasant aroma, one that I enjoy in a deep breath before beginning to move equipment back home.

I run Whitey, the ’87 GMC pickup truck that does most of the farm’s dirty work, the 4 miles back to the farm. It rattles and rolls on the dirt roads, which are pocked with ruts and washouts. There is no radio, so it is me and the machine, crafting a dirt road anthem of our own making. I park Whitey and its contrasting red seed tender in the shed.

Being a one-man show, I use a Polaris Ranger attached to a two-wheel trailer, carrying an old four-wheeler to get from field to field. Inefficient? Yes. But it gets the job done.

I hop onto the Ranger to drive back south to the field. Along the way, I see a flock of young pheasants scurrying along the roadside. They are funny to watch. I wonder: Why don’t they hop into the road ditch? Why don’t they fly instead of run? They scurry, as if hoping I’ll take an alternate route. I contemplate how it’s been years since the pheasant population has been heavy enough for good hunting. I hope farmers’ soil and water conservation efforts are paying off, and these upland game birds are making a comeback. The pheasants see that I’m not about to abandon chase so indeed, they scatter into a wild plum thicket.

The road dips as I drive by Marsh Creek, where the cool breeze gives me goosebumps. Leaves on the trees that hang over the road are beginning to turn color. The sweet smell of maturing foliage takes me back to fall days as a youth, taking this same road on a school bus, twice a day, five days a week. For a moment, I’m 11 again.

The alfalfa field sits to the east, with a few round bales scattered throughout. Behrends took three cuttings this year, the first two of which are stockpiled at the field edges. He surely would have moved this latest cutting were it not for the business of fall harvest and winter wheat planting. Just south of the alfalfa, he has a pasture in which momma cows watch me as I saunter past on the Ranger. They stop for a moment to gaze – blades of grass between their moving jaws, looking curiously at a human who today has already made four trips on this seldom-traveled road.

Moving southward, there is winter wheat planted on both sides of the road. For all the talk of farmers avoiding planting wheat this fall due to low prices, there sure is a lot being planted on both sides of the road of this 4-mile stretch – more than 1,100 acres by my count.

I pass by the old dairy farm. This, one of the last dairies in Jewell County when they stopped milking a few decades ago, is the home of Mrs. Barrett, my first-grade teacher. I hope she is walking on the road this evening, as her amazing disposition never fails to lift my spirits. When my dad farmed the Cashman Place before me, he and Mrs. Barrett enjoyed roadside chats. When I took over, I vowed not to waste her time in a similar fashion. Life, I reckoned, was busy. She wouldn’t have time for idle chitchat. I find the older I get, the more I enjoy these roadside chats myself. But not tonight. Maybe she’s visiting her grandkids; perhaps she’s running errands. I must admit, I would have loved to catch up.

I see a cat running across the road. The dairy may be gone, but there still are a few reminders of days gone by; this quick-moving feline is one of them. The Barretts have beef cows now, and just south of their place on the east side of the road, one of their crew has strung an electric fence today. I note they’ve left several feet on the outside of the field so today’s wide equipment has room to get through this narrow road. Before long, they’ll turn cattle out. It’s a practice they’ve done on this same field for as far back as I can remember.

I’m nearly to my aunt’s wheatfield, where I’ve spent the last two days in a tractor. It’s second nature to veer to the west side of the road to avoid the big washout on the east side of the road. It has plagued this road for decades. No matter how often the county grader patrols this road, there is always a healthy set of bumps there. It gives the road character.

I pull into the freshly sown wheatfield, careful not to disturb with tire tracks any of the nearly 4,000 carefully laid rows of seed in this field. As I gaze westward, the sun is fading behind the clouds, and the beautiful pink-blue sky of early dusk is turning an amazing orange-and-black. It’s the kind of sunset you see only in the fall, and I’m glad I haven’t missed this one. I see our locally owned Randall Farmers Co-op Union elevator on the horizon. To the south, the silhouette of a cellular phone tower. It’s a new addition to a familiar landscape, a sign of the times, I suppose. As I take in the view, the air is becoming thick with moisture, adding another dimension to autumn’s unique fragrance.

I load the four-wheeler onto the trailer and make the trip back, a little slower than when I came. October 10 only comes around once a year. I want to savor every second of it.

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