It never failed. I always managed to smash a finger. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to be careful, my tiny, child fingers always got in the way. Forty-plus years later I still remember the quick-as-lightening pain suffered when a digit got pinched between two rocks. Wearing gloves softened the sting slightly, but not entirely, and I’d shake my hand to hurry the hurt out. The annual job of picking up rocks on the farm was one of the many tasks of spring, and as a kid, one I wasn’t exactly eager to perform.
Growing up on a wheat farm in Lath County offered a built-in job helping Dad with chores. No matter what, he’d find something age-appropriate for me to do. I learned early on that hard work always paid off, even if I got a smashed finger or two. The little odd jobs I was assigned didn’t involve Dad breaking any child labor laws, but getting dirty and physical were usually on the menu.
Before the official Rock Picking Extravaganza took place every year, spring had to advance a bit to make picking possible. The snow and ice melted, offering the promise of new life bubbling up from the land. Crops planted in the winter shook off the cold, almost bursting with pride they’d survived the harsh weather. The rolling hills of unplanted farm ground sat eagerly awaiting plowing and seeding. And the special secret of the crocus was always revealed, sometimes even before the snow melted entirely. When the crocus arrived, we knew spring wasn’t far behind.
Spring definitely meant unpredictable weather and outside chores cleaning up winter’s residue. Inconsistent weather was the most consistent forecast. And if you didn’t like the weather, during springtime on the Palouse you’d just have to wait five minutes, and it’d change. One day you’d be mowing, the next day it’d be snowing.
Spring brought longer days, which meant Dad was working furiously to ready the fields for another growing season. The flurry of spring work was a stark contrast to the slower days of winter. Spring made me melancholy for the winter months, coziness of the fireplace, holidays, and family. Upon reflection, that might be why I wasn’t especially fond of spring.
Spring always seemed like a waiting room for summer. A few more months of the school year still loomed ahead. It stood as a blockade to the freedom summer brought, with sunny, long days and flip-flops. Sure, Spring Break offered relief in there somewhere, but that week just prolonged the remaining days of school and the fussy weather patterns of the Palouse.
There were highlights of the early season, however. Springtime allowed for riding bikes. After the winter thaw and as soon as Mom gave us the go-ahead, my brother and I would haul our bikes out of the shed, dust them off, maybe oil the chains, and then take off for adventure. I loved our driveway after spring rains. No matter how hard Dad tried to keep it smooth and the gravel spread even, eventually the traffic from his trap wagon (farming pickup loaded with tools and equipment), tractors, and trucks pushed aside the rocks and left two smooth paths centered on the driveway. Water would seep into the low spots, creating puddles. Beautiful, rich, brown puddles just beckoning my brother and me.
Starting far enough away to get good speed was key. We’d mount our bikes by the barn about 30 yards away from the smooth runways and awaiting puddles. When it was my turn, I’d go full bore, and when I hit those puddles, I’d lift my legs up, with only momentum and sheer joy speeding me along. The dirty water would gloriously spray all over. My brother and I would have races and contests to see if we could empty out the low spots. Our successful completion of the game undoubtedly left us mud-spattered, but deliciously exhilarated. Mom usually stayed calm when we traipsed in, filthy and soggy. Occasionally, she’d grit her teeth, but all-in-all she probably expected it. She took slight revenge when she’d make us strip down to our socks and underwear in front of each other in the utility room.
Another springtime highlight involved Mom’s tulips on the edge of the garden starting to poke through the ground. Seeing those little green nubs pop through the dirt gave me a thrill, almost like finding buried treasure. Sometimes I’d carefully brush a little dirt away, so they didn’t have to struggle to break free from their earthen-bound home. Mom planted dozens of tulips and daffodils, so the hunt for the signs of life turned into another adventure.
Spring brought out the birds emerging from their winter refuge. They’d chatter away as they monitored the farm activities from the overhead power lines. The trees shot thousands of buds out of their branches that only days before were just black scratches against the grey winter sky. Everything woke up from a long winter’s slumber. Everything had something to show off.
Sometime between mid-March and mid-May, spring work preparation took place. One of the major jobs Dad and Grandpa (before he retired) faced included readying the acreage designated for the spring crop. It all depended on the weather. I personally called the waiting around on Mother Nature to deal the perfect hand “Outdoor Gambling.”
The soil had to contain enough moisture content to be crumbly or friable. If it was too wet, a consistency like cookie dough emerged, making it impossible to work. If it was too dry, the seeds wouldn’t germinate. Over the five generations who have worked my family’s farm, the judgment call when to plant—based on the soil—was referred to as the “Grandpa Factor.” My Dad learned from his dad the complex process to gauge the optimal time for planting, and his dad learned it from his dad, and so on. My brother, who also farms, probably learned the “Grandpa Factor” at an early age with both Dad and Grandpa overseeing his education.
Once the “Grandpa Factor” hit, it was all hands on deck at our house. Dad performed the spring tilling to shove the residue and stubble from the previous harvest’s crops into the soil to squeeze out every last nutrient. Using a harrow (or spring-tooth harrow) and/or a cultivator, he’d masterfully work the ground smooth. The resulting dirt clods were insignificant in size when he finished his labors. A sea of beautiful, rich, brown dirt stood ready for planting and to receive the blessings from Mother Nature. Then, with furious determination and hope for the perfect crop, seeding commenced.
In the hustle of spring work, crops planted the previous fall started to wake up, too. Mom always described spring work as exciting because the weather started warming up, and the mystery of how the fall wheat survived the winter was revealed. As many times as she witnessed spring—both as a kid on her family’s farm and after marrying Dad—Mom always held a sense of anticipation and eagerness to watch the tender, green sprigs of fall wheat grow bolder and stronger. The rapeseed and canola, also planted in the fall, shed winter from their broad, leafy foliage and started to thrust out their blooms, later to become massive carpets of brilliant yellow blossoms.
During the weeks of spring work, Dad toiled away with Grandpa and Mom’s help while the three of us kids attended school, which was probably a blessing for my parents, so we weren’t underfoot or complaining. But on the weekends, they asked us to help out sometimes. I don’t remember specifics of every request—it may have just been to clean my room—but I do remember the horrendous task of picking up rocks. Every spring, without fail, we had to rid the planted fields of rogue rocks.
I bet a few of you just let out a little chuckle because you picked up rocks on your family farm during spring work, too. But some of you might be scratching your head, wondering why in the world we’d have to pick up rocks out of a field. I’ll tell you. Simply put, rock picking served as preventive maintenance.
Dad always tried to avoid planting short crops, like peas or lentils, in rocky areas, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped due to his crop rotation. Short crops meant setting the combine headers low to the ground during harvest. Removing rocks helped avoid damage to the farm’s pricey equipment. Catching even one rock and sending it through the machinery inevitably broke something. Why not try to avoid the situation by scouting out the rocks and extracting them ahead of time?
On those “special” days, I swear Dad and Mother Nature schemed with each other to make rock picking days the cloudiest, windiest, coldest days since the previous year’s rock picking stint. My sister and brother remember it differently, however. They both assured me rock picking days offered the warmth of a bright, happy, springtime sun. I beg to differ.
Of course, the soil wasn’t too wet or muddy and allowed us and a wheel tractor access without leaving ditches or damage to the seeded crop. But Mother Nature sometimes thought it was funny to sprinkle a smattering of rain just for a good old-fashioned lesson in persevering through adverse conditions. Sometimes we had to bundle up, but on rare occasions, we only had to wear a light jacket. I remember, however, that Mom always made us—or at least me—wear a hat because the wind blew every year without fail. One year I “forgot” my hat, and she tied a scarf on me, cinching it just tight enough to educate me that a hat is always necessary when one is outside during spring work.
The family affair usually commenced in April, sometimes with Grandpa, but in later years with Dad and Mom. Whoever drove the wheel tractor usually let us kids ride in the bucket until it got full of rocks. My sister, brother, and l plucked the rocks, usually the size of a baseball or larger, sitting on the smooth, freshly seeded soil. However, sometimes larger, boulder-type monstrosities appeared. As a slight child, those larger rocks seemed as big as me. I’d suddenly pretend I was the Bionic Woman and the rock an evil nemesis to conquer. Usually, my sister or brother would nab the larger ones—for show, of course, because we were raised with a competitive spirit. But at times I’d face a large rock and grapple, fight, and struggle it into the bucket of the wheel tractor, feeling victorious and strong.
Looking back on those spring days of my youth, I know how lucky I was to be a farm kid. I witnessed and understood the amazing process of producing food for the world. And even though the process included some not-so-fun jobs, like picking rocks, what could be better than spending time outside with my family? I may have slightly exaggerated how undesirable rock picking was, but I know I would get 100% consensus that none of us kids looked forward to it. Yet, that important job held a place on the spring work to-do list every single year and still does. There’s a never-ending supply of rocks.
The simple act of rock picking made all the difference when harvest rolled around. That task, however, also made a difference in me. Maybe removing the most massive rock I could manage in any given year saved the farm thousands of dollars in equipment damage. When I think of it that way, the memories of rock picking leave me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I learned a few pinched fingers served as badges of honor representing work ethic and family values. And let’s not forget the important lesson of wearing a hat—or sporty scarf—on a windy, spring day.
To see the actual article, visit Home & Harvest Magazine for the online version.