Opening Day—the Ultimate Buzzkill

October 1, 2010 11:32 AM

Ah, the first day of planting. Or harvest. Or vacation. Or marriage. The moment when cold, hard reality quenches the fires of expectation and the hidden flaws in our carefully laid plans become blindingly apparent.

In industry, these situations are referred to as startups, and special teams of experts are sent to the site to spare the locals the harsh anxiety of
putting a plan into action. The difference between these guys and farmers is that they are paid enormous salaries. For us, it is an annual ritual in frustration. On our own dime.
We are hamstrung by nine-month memories, while our jobs revolve around a 12-month calendar. So when we step into the combine in August, it looks familiar, but just as when we meet a forgotten college classmate in an airport, we can’t quite come up with the connection.
You would think that experience would confer the wisdom to mitigate this shortcoming. Ha! What numerous years on the job does is stack your memory files with vaguely similar experiences in the same fields, but all slightly different. I mean, you’ve spent a thousand hours  driving a planter, but which of those hours in which of seven planters?
Short memories. Ditto for harvesting. A friend of mine, after considerable agony, changed combine brands, and for years afterward still reached down with his left hand to engage an unloading auger that was now controlled by a switch under his right thumb. This does not make opening day any easier.
The well-worn joke about machines breaking down during the winter may as well be true. As with women and childbirth, some combination of self-preserving brain chemistry and divine grace erases the memory of last season’s finish from our weary brain, such that the limp home to the shop after finding the last row dissipates like a bad dream. Never mind that we finished the last 20 acres with two rows not functioning or all of the fuel filters clogged.
When opening day arrives, we are as surprised as second-time mothers by the hassles of a newborn, or, in our case, a fondly remembered machine. It must have been working (barely) when we parked it in the shed last year, so what could have possibly gone wrong since then?
Simple: It is we who have changed. We have been busy rewriting our memories to make our performance last time look slightly more competent. So much so that when the opening day arrives, we assume we can match the effortless efficiency we seem to recall when last we attempted this task.
Just “Do it.” The upheavals in this happy cycle have up to now been physical changes, such as new hardware. But lately, an insidious new factor has roiled the muddy waters of the first day: technology upgrades.
How benign they seem. Often they are even free—the magic word for farmers. But without warning (or at least any warning we bother to read), familiar controls begin to look like Klingon weapon consoles.
Since most software now contains umpty “new and improved” powerful management options and you actually use only two, hiding those choices has become the ultimate computer game for machinery software coders.
We sit poised at the edge of a field, tapping and cursing, hoping for a flash of recognition as screen after screen of undoubtedly useful alternatives overwhelms our eight-bit brain. Where, we ask, is the symbol for “Do it”?
Complicating the man-machine interface even further is the man-soil interface. Once we have reached a sullen draw with the microprocessors embedded in everything we touch, we still have to come to grips with the management of dirt itself.
Opening day is almost always too early. My rule of thumb: Wait until you can’t stand it—then start two days later. But as we all know, our next-door neighbor will undoubtably reach his tolerance point two days before us. In the face of this adjacent activity, there is no rational outcome that can be expected.
One gift that only time can grant is the sure knowledge that opening day is ever thus. And we have lived through it before. Danged if we can remember how, though.
John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of “U.S. Farm Report.” Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit  or
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