Every once in awhile I rediscover a piece of writing I did in an earlier life. This one appeared in The Country Today back in July, 2003, when I was working there as a regional editor. It’s an oldy, but a goody. Hope you enjoy.
Everything I need to know, I learned driving tractor
You know the book, “All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten?” It argues the basics you learn in kindergarten lead you through life. I’ve often thought that book must have been written by someone who grew up in town, particularly illustrated by the line that says: “Take a nap every afternoon.”
I agree that kindergarten is important. But I would like to argue – that as a former farm kid – all I really needed to know, I learned driving a tractor.
1. Follow your nose. This was my all-time favorite direction given to me from my father, stated matter-of-factly whenever he set me up on a tractor to “teach” me a new task, whether it was raking hay for the first time, driving baler my first day or discing ahead of the corn planter on a windy spring morning.
After giving me the obligatory two-minute overview of the levers I needed to use and the general direction I should be headed, he would follow with, “Follow your nose, kid.” That was it. No other words of wisdom, no useful bits of advice about how to disc end rows correctly, no direction as to how to rake the hayfield corners perfectly.
As a kid, I really hated that expression, especially when halfway through the task, Dad would jump off his tractor, come racing across the field, frantically waving his hands back and forth, stop me, and chew me out because I had done it wrong.
However, looking back, I understand he was giving me room to figure it out myself, giving me confidence and trust, letting me hone the ability to think on my feet. Those aren’t life lessons I learned in kindergarten – I learned them on a tractor.
2. Plan ahead. After I mastered the “following my nose” technique, I got this sage advice from Dad: “Look far enough ahead so that by the time you get to that corner or to the end of the field, you know exactly what you’re going to do before you get there.”
I learned the hard way that there’s nothing worse – especially when the clouds are rolling in, the sprinkles are starting, and your father is giving you the sign to throw the throttle up a notch – that there really is no bigger tractor-driving sin than to stop mid-field and contemplate, “How exactly do I bale the corner without wiping out the fence?”
Anticipation: probably the most useful skill every farm kid learns to master. By always looking ahead to the next corner, the next task, or the next challenge, time can be saved and mistakes avoided.
Life lesson number two: learn to look ahead and anticipate what’s coming – whether it’s an obstacle or an opportunity – so that by the time you get there, you’ve thought out your options and end up making the right choice.
3. Don’t look back too often. One of my rookie mistakes when driving tractor was to constantly look behind me, making sure the baler was taking all the hay, or the disc was on its mark.
Not only did my neck start to hurt, but I would also start to veer off course. Worse yet, I violated rule No. 2: I was so busy worrying about what I was doing at that very minute, that I hadn’t anticipated how to handle the next tricky spot.
One thing you learn quickly when driving a tractor is that there’s a fine line between looking back often enough to make sure you’re doing a good job, and looking back too much that you lose track of where you’re going.
Life lesson number three: look to the future more than the past, but look back often enough that you don’t repeat your mistakes. Not only will you be more successful in life, your neck won’t hurt as much.
Growing up, I often thought the kids who grew up in town were the lucky ones – they could go swimming on the days I was helping my family bring in the hay crop, or they could go shopping when I was racing to beat the clouds that would end corn-planting too early.
Today I realize how lucky I was to be a farm kid, because now I’m looking for ways to teach those same tractor-driving life lessons to my daughter, who lives in town and spends her free time riding her scooter around our block or going swimming with her friends.
I guess I’ll have to find new ways to teach her the lessons I learned while I was driving a tractor.
On second thought, maybe I can talk her grandpa into teaching one more generation to “follow her nose.” Let’s head to the farm.