Illustrations by Brian Orr
Maybe it’s because they spend too many hours alone in the tractor cab. Or maybe they’re naturally pessimistic after being repeatedly clobbered by floods, drought, hailstorms, insects and crop diseases. But you’ll have to look some to find a farmer who uses adjectives like “good,” “terrific” or “excellent” to describe any aspect of his or her world.
Masters of the understatement, farmers tend to answer questions with the fewest possible adjectives and an economy of words. Here are a few tips I’ve managed to pick up during the years I’ve spent around folks who devote their lives to the land.
- “Just a few acres.” On the off chance that you’re a tax assessor, most farmers would rather chew a leg off than tell you how many acres of land they farm, or how many head of cattle they raise. Even asking them is a breach of rural etiquette … kind of like asking your neighbor how much money he has in the bank. If a farmer says he grows “a few acres” of corn or soybeans, he may mean anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand. A rancher who says he raises “a few head” of cattle could well be running hundreds of cows and calves on a spread the size of an island nation in the Caribbean.
- “Could’a been better” is how a farmer will describe the best crop she’s harvested in 30 years. A farmer who just produced his first 200-bushel corn crop, or who delivered his first 3-bale cotton crop to the gin, will tell you his harvest “could have been better, if we’d just had one more rain.” Then he’ll try to divert your attention by adding, “I heard the neighbor down the road did even better.”
- “Just down the road” is a rural unit of measurement. In the Midwest, it may mean a mile or two. But to a Wyoming or Montana rancher whose mailbox is a mile away and whose nearest neighbor is at least 4 miles distant, “just down the road” could easily mean an hour’s drive.
- “Some improved” means crop prices are the best they’ve been in a decade. A farmer who sold this year’s corn crop for $1.50 more per bushel than a year ago might, in a moment of unrestrained jubilation, admit market prices are “some improved.”
- “Dinged up a little” can describe a broken leg, cracked ribs or a concussion. A farmer who just dropped a drawbar on his foot, gashed his head on the underside of the combine, or got kicked by a horse may admit that he got “dinged up a little.” But he will see a doctor only when his wife forcibly pushes him out to the pickup truck and drives him to town.
- “Not too bad” is how a farmer brags without appearing to be bragging. When his son or daughter shows the grand champion 4-H steer at the county fair, when he receives top price for his yearlings, or when he closes a lucrative deal to supply alfalfa hay to a nearby dairy, “not too bad” means life could hardly get any better.
- “Hardly broke in” can refer to a farmer’s 16-year-old pickup truck with 212,000 miles on the odometer, or to his favorite pair of patched and grease-stained coveralls with one elbow torn completely out. Those boots with the duct-taped toe? They’re only “just broken in.”
- “Maybe a quarter-inch.” This is the most rainfall any farmer will ever admit receiving during the growing season – even if it rained non-stop for two days and the dog is now standing atop the cow shed to escape the rising water.
- “Set back some” is how a farmer will describe his crop after a hailstorm has flattened 90 percent of the plants in the field. This phrase actually signifies that the farmer still has hope his crop will recover.
- “Too darned much” is the amount of money a farmer will admit to paying for a new tractor, or the cost of taking his wife out to dinner for their anniversary. If he just paid $200,000 for a new combine, he’s probably right. If he complains about paying $13.95 plus tax for two chicken fried steaks at the local café, he may be overly frugal.
- “Just a minute or two” is how long a farmer figures it will take him to finish lubing the tractor after his wife calls him in for supper. The actual amount of time elapsed may vary from 15 to 45 minutes, at which point the gravy will be congealed.
- “One of these days” is when a farmer will finally retire, agree to have the kitchen remodeled, or take his wife on that Caribbean cruise he promised 20 years ago. In most cases, this is a hypothetical date that may actually occur when the cow jumps over the moon.
- “This food is downright edible” is the highest praise a farmer can give his hardworking, kitchen-savvy wife, no matter what’s served at dinnertime.
But, farmers are also known to occasionally resort to hyperbole and to sprinkle rural colloquialisms into their conversations. Here are a few phrases that may sound like exaggeration to an outsider, but make perfect sense to another farmer.
- “Thick as ticks on a dog’s back” is frequently used to describe the number of weeds in a neighbor’s field, or the number of deer seen feeding in a farmer’s best alfalfa field (or, in the case of a Maine farmer, the number of moose in his broccoli crop)
- “Heavy traffic today” means at least two unidentified vehicles have driven past in the last hour, not counting the propane delivery truck and the rural mail carrier.
- “Sky high” is how much anything in town costs, including tractor parts, groceries, seed and feed supplies, and new athletic shoes for the children. Farmers uniformly believe that anyone who works in town makes more money than they do.
- “Pretty as a shiny red pickup with a good spare tire.” This is how a farmer in West Texas might describe a new calf, a glowing sunset, a lush crop field with perfectly straight rows, or a spanking new farm shop with a concrete floor.
With this handy-dandy translation guide, in any situation and no matter the understatement, you’ll be able to understand the farmer with whom you’re speaking. You might even find yourself picking up the lingo, and in no time at all, you’ll be talking just like a farmer.
Jerry Schleicher is a country writer and cowboy poet who lives in Parkville, Missouri.