Letter from Langdon: Gird Up for the Farm Olympics
Reaching back into the annals of sports-farming, Richard Oswald recounts the thrill of victory, the agony of buffalo burrs.
By Fernand LÃ‰GER, 1954
Image: National Gallery of Australia
Farming can be a dangerous sport that is sometimes nearly Olympic in its scope.
Like all farmers and ranchers across this country who vie for the championship in their own small homestead arenas, I’ve been a contestant in the big event more times than I can remember
Generally the only spectators are family and a few close friends. Neighbors occasionally glimpse the competition as they pass by on the way to their own contests. Unfortunately, some of the best performances are given in complete isolation.
I once participated in a particularly athletic game of Field Cultivator Body Toss. Linda, my wife, was the only witness to what could have been a new record, if only it had been officially sanctioned.
A field cultivator is a tail, heavy farm implement used for smoothing tilled fields. Field cultivators can be large or small, but these days most are large. One day nearly 25 years ago, I used my pick-up to move our Olympic-sized field cultivator to another field rather than drive the farm tractor back to the home place to retrieve it. When I arrived with the implement latched firmly to the pick-up, I found that the hitch pin seemed bound up in the bumper. As my wife watched, I lay across the hitch on my stomach and used a hammer to beat the pin up and out of the receiver.
Photo: Gallant Sales
Now it never occurred to me at the time, but the balance of the machine was such that when the rear end went down, the front end, where I rested, would go up like a big iron teeter-totter. Of course, the only thing that maintained the overall equilibrium was the stabilizing influence of the truck hitch.
I remember hearing the hitch pin ring like a starting bell as it flew wild and free from the hole. At the same time the tongue of the field cultivator vaulted into the air with sufficient force to fling me what seemed like 20 feet, straight up.
I did a perfect jackknife, landing on my back in a patch of buffalo burrs. (I guess you could call that a sports related injury.)
Later on, after Linda stopped laughing, she said that I earned a perfect ten.
Less laughable, but somewhat more strenuous is the Mad Sow Race.
Few people realize it, but most sows build a nest before giving birth. Sows confined in metal cages have no choice but to farrow their pigs on concrete or plastic floors. But in the old days we gave our sows straw for their nests.
Sometimes a sow will decide that the best spot for a nest is not where the farmer puts the bedding, but on the back 40 where she can enjoy a certain level of seclusion during the delivery.
I had beautiful hogs in those days. My favorite cross was the Hampshire/York. Most of them were pink with white bristles. They combined the mothering ability of the York with the toughness of the Hampshire. Unfortunately, when Mother Nature whispered to them that maternity time was near, the Hampshire in them overruled.
I remember that it was about the first of July when a particularly large sow began to belly down. Just before birthing, the mother gets her milk, that’s what belly down is, and it’s a good indicator that it’s time to bed the stall with plenty of straw. Unfortunately, what she really wanted was the back 40. She put her nose to the lower corner of the gate, lifting and pushing at the same time. I tried to block the gate with my body. That’s when she broke through and went right between my legs.
Suddenly I was entered in another event; Backwards Bareback Sow Riding. It was a short competition. She lost me at the second gate.
Mother hog made it into the back 40 corn field in record time.
Worthy opponent: Yorkshire sow
The weather was warm, and I knew what she had in mind, so I didn’t chase her right away. Calm mothers are much better than anxious mothers. Besides, what would I do if I caught her?
Eventually she came home for water and feed. It was plain to see that she had given birth. So I set out in search of her family. Eventually I found 10 plump pink pigs in a nest of corn stalks, reeds, and bull rushes, right near the river bank.
This will sound strange to non-farmers, but my father once taught me that the easiest way to move a litter of pigs is in a gunny sack. You just drop the piglets, one by one into the sack. The mother can’t see them, so hog-wise, everything is kosher. Then, when you get the pigs where they need to be, you quietly dump out the sack.
I went home to get the gunny sack.
When I returned to the nest, Momma was still gone. I started bagging up the pigs. About the time I was finished, one of the pigs, then all of the pigs began to squeal just as super-mom returned.
“Let the games begin” pretty well sums it up.
A modern hog is all muscle and bone. A mad 500 pound sow is muscle, bone, and teeth. She wasn’t kidding around. I grabbed up the gunny sack and ran for the house, pigs squealing, with one quarter of a ton of fiery porcine maternity hot on my heels.
You wouldn’t believe how fast a 500 pound hog can run.
She was gaining on me, and it didn’t matter that she couldn’t see her babies, because every last one was screaming its head off inside the sack.
When I felt the tip of her snout on my hip pocket, I dropped the sack. That single act accomplished three things. First, I could run faster without 20 pounds of pigs in one hand. Secondly, it took her mind off of me when she stopped to nudge her offspring gently from inside the bag.
And it forestalled stitches in my left buttock. (I think this may be where the saying, “Left holding the bag” came from.)
I may well have saved my own life by not holding onto the bag, but unfortunately I was disqualified from the event for failing to complete the prescribed course.
Eventually the wayward mom came home with a swarm of ten plump piglets. With a little coaxing we got them back into the farrowing pen that she had left so unceremoniously a few weeks before.
Now you may think that the Farm Games end here, but that is not the case at all.
Keep an eye out for Olympic Hog Sorting in Beijing this summer. That’s my best event.