Call of the farm

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Nearing 70, Glen Birk is working his last harvest before handing over operations to his son.

Glen Birk rarely watches the weather report.

Too unreliable, he says. He only holds stock in what he sees with the practical eyes of a man who's been farming for the better part of five decades.

On this day, when he tilts his head to the heavens, he sees relief. He sees renewal. He sees rejuvenation.

He sees rain.

The daylong showers Monday were desperately needed after two months of drought-like conditions that had left crops across Southeast Missouri scorched and rain-starved.

"We needed this real bad," Birk said Monday morning, dewy drops falling from his cap onto the thirsty ground of his farm west of Jackson.

The rain causes changes in the work schedule -- not that anybody minds. Today, Birk, his 37-year-old son, Dale, and their farm hand, Jeremy Spooler, had planned to shift irrigation equipment to different fields. But the showers have made that work unnecessary.

Instead, Dale and Jeremy will work in the farm shop attaching a tool box to a new farm truck. That frees up Birk to make the 20-mile drive to farmland he owns in Delta.

There he has to turn off some irrigation pumps that until today were the only difference between parched crops and vivacious corn.

"I'm a little like Willie Nelson," Birk says as he hops into his white Chevy pickup. "On the road again."

He's not exaggerating. Part of his job is getting to and from several fields he owns in Southeast Missouri. He farms 1,600 acres, about half of which he owns in Delta, north of Burfordville and a mile west of his farm headquarters.

The headquarters farm is home to 256 acres of corn, soybean and cattle on County Road 341. The rest is on land he rents, all of which is less than 10 miles from his home, where he grows corn, soybeans and wheat.

"If I'm not in my combine, I'm usually in my truck," Birk says.

The slow summer

When he pulls out of his drive and past the sign -- Glen Birk Farm -- and heads toward Delta, he explains that July and August are slow months for crop farmers.

After planting and before harvest, there's not a lot to do to the farmland outside of routine upkeep, such as trying to keep it irrigated and free of insects. In the meantime, they have plenty to do -- maintaining equipment and tending to the 200 beef cattle he owns.

As the windshield wipers keep tempo, Birk reflects on the weeks of drought and today's splendid reprieve. He may not have watched the weather reports. But he sure watched the sky.

While it's hard to say how badly his corn and soybean crops have been damaged -- many are irrigated -- he said there is no question the drought conditions will have an effect.

Prior to Monday's 3.16 inches of rain courtesy of Hurricane Dennis, Southeast Missouri crops were seriously dry. Gov. Matt Blunt earlier this month declared a drought alert in 22 counties in southeast, south-central and northeast Missouri.

Some of the crops will certainly be damaged. Those that aren't irrigated because they are situated in pockets where water won't reach will be hurt the most.

"You'll see which ones -- the stalks haven't grown as much as they should, and there will be discoloration," he says.

His final harvest

In addition to keeping his thoughts on the farm, Birk admits he's getting sentimental as he approaches 70 years of age next month. With that milestone, he's decided to turn the crop-farming aspect of the operation over to his son, Dale, after the crops come in.

That means, after more than 50 seasons of farming, Birk is facing his final harvest.

"I'm wearing out," he says, taking a firmer grip on the wheel. "It's time to make a change. It's time to give Dale the responsibilities. It's hard to make the decision when it's time to quit. But physically, I can't do the work I used to do."

Alice Birk, his wife of 50 years, agrees it's time.

"I shouldn't say he's overdue," she said. "But he's due for slowing down. He's not able to keep up that pace anymore."

Birk won't quit entirely. While he will rent the land to Dale, he plans to stay hands-on when he's needed. He also wants to keep tending the cattle, which he finds especially gratifying.

The farm's roots are too deep and go too far back for Birk to ever walk away entirely.

"People have told me for years I ought to retire," he said. "But I don't want to retire to the point I have nothing to do."

Like so many farmers, Birk was the son of a farmer, raised during the Depression southwest of Jackson. He well remembers horse- and mule-drawn plows. Harvesting was done with a team of horses. Later, when Birk was in his teens, his dad bought a mechanized corn picker, which harvested one row at a time and was pulled by a tractor.

"It was crude by today's standards, but it was much better than doing it by hand," he says.

Expected to help

He had dreams of being a veterinarian or an engineer. But he couldn't deny the call of the farm.

Alice Birk remembers that he spoke of it often.

"He felt like he didn't have any opportunity to go to college," she said. "He was expected to help on his dad's farm. That's just the way it was."

So it only made sense to Birk at age 22 in 1957 -- two years after he married Alice at a small country church -- that he start his own farming operation. At first he rented the farm he owns now in Jackson, which was 147 acres then but has since been expanded to 256.

Birk didn't get off to a good start.

"It rained and rained," he said. "We couldn't plant 'til June 12, which is extremely late. The first year was bad, but the next year was even worse."

But 1960 brought excellent yields. Since then, his livelihood has hinged on fiercely fickle Mother Nature.

He hears farmers telling young people interested in farming to do something else. But he remembers he was told the same thing.

"Experienced farmers back then said we wouldn't make it," he said. "And some started and didn't make it. But you make it. It looked impossible when I was starting and it looks impossible now. Times are hard. I don't know a time when it hasn't been that way."

Later, the sons started coming -- Terry, Ralph, Kelvin and Dale. As he had done, all of his boys worked on the farm. But he and Alice insisted the boys have the opportunity to go to college.

All still gravitated toward agriculture in some way. Terry is the director of the Farm Service Agency; Kelvin is a CPA and lawyer, but he also farms; Dale has been a full-time farmer for 15 years; Ralph is an engineer for Midwest Sterilization but still helps out on the farm from time to time.

Back in the truck on the way to Delta, Birk gets a call from his son, Kelvin, who wants his dad's advice on cattle breeding.

After a quick stop at his son's farm, Birk says running a farm is like running a business: It requires sound management, hard work, dedication and perseverance.

"If you're not willing to give it everything you've got, don't try," he said.

After a 30-minute chat, Birk pulls into the rows and rows of Delta corn. He hops out and turns off the irrigation pump.

Hands on hips, he pauses as he looks at the land. His land.

"No, it's never been easy," he said. "There are a lot of long, hard days. But I've also gotten a lot of satisfaction out of it. I've put a lot of work into it. That's something."

He gets back into his truck to head for home. The rain, almost in deference, begins to taper off.

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