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The Last Windrow: A million dollar rain

We all heard a distant rumble coming from the west. These were the days before radar and satellite weather forecasts, and one could not see any storm approaching. As the sound became louder, the family left the table and all walked outside the house to see if what we were hearing was actually happening. Yes, there indeed was a low, dark cloud bank in the west and it was heading directly over this part of the landscape. PineandLakes.com Illustration

They call it "a million dollar rain." We had one around here last week.

Weather calls the tune when it comes to farming or gardening. All the technology, all the college courses, all the passed-down knowledge means zip if the weather doesn't cooperate. True, farmers can now provide water to their crops via irrigation, but not all practice that art. Most still rely on Mother Nature to water the crop.

The year 1959 stands out in my mind. It was the year my dad purchased a new car. Great spring rains had spread across Plymouth County, Iowa, and the corn, oat and alfalfa crops all looked to be in the "bumper" category that year. I think the car was purchased out of a hopeful optimism that the crop would be a good one that year.

The corn stand came up even and green that early summer. The oats field stood thigh high and the first cutting of alfalfa grew so thick that it wouldn't fall to earth after the mower went through.

A farmer remembers years like that. On a scale of 1 to 10, our crop and our neighbors' crops all rated a 10+.

Then the rain stopped. After late May, nary a drop fell from the sky. Clouds would form over the western horizon and fade out as they moved east. The temperature continued to rise every day into the mid-90s. Soil that had been saturated with moisture earlier, now showed wide, dry cracks.

Crops began to struggle.

The heavy soil in that part of Iowa held onto moisture as best it could, but soon anything growing above the earth started to show strain. Corn leaves started to "spike" and turn a ghostly white color, the oats stopped growing skyward and started to mature early and the alfalfa fields showed little growth after the first cutting. What seemed to be the promise of a full corn crib and a full oat bin started to be questioned.

Then, one day things changed.

Our family usually gathered for dinner at my mother's "home place" on many Sundays of the summer. All nine kids and their kids usually attended these feasts. You could find the men gathered outside on the porch of the house, and that year the discussion revolved around the crops and how bad they all looked on this late July day. Optimism was hard to find at that dinner.

We were in the middle of the massive fried chicken dinner when my Uncle Jim said he heard something that sounded like thunder. Thunder had been absent from that summer, so we thought maybe Uncle Jim's ears were not in working order.

But then, we all heard a distant rumble coming from the west. These were the days before radar and satellite weather forecasts, and one could not see any storm approaching.

As the sound became louder, the family left the table and all walked outside the house to see if what we were hearing was actually happening. Yes, there indeed was a low, dark cloud bank in the west and it was heading directly over this part of the landscape.

With a look of disbelief on most of those upturned faces, rain drops started to pelt down. Turkeys turn their heads up into the rain I'm told, and we must have resembled a flock of turkeys. Just a few drops at first, but rapidly thickening until the air was full of water.

Some of the crowd ran for the house, but those farmers just stood there, getting soaked to the skin through their bib overalls and breathing the rain-freshened air.

"It's a million dollar rain!" Uncle Jim joyously proclaimed.

Yes, it was.

We just had such a rain here last week. It brought me back to that farmyard with water careening down the hill into the creek that flowed below and remembering those overall-clad farmers standing there, wet to the skin.

If you farm or garden, you know the feeling of "a million dollar rain."

See you next time. Okay?

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