For the first week in June, it is rather cool today. When there is enough humidity in the air fog up my glasses, I will know that summer has finally arrived in Minnesota!
The effects of summer heat and humidity is something a farm kid learns to dread at a young age while doing field work, especially rock picking. Getting rocks out of a field is a dirty, hot, sticky, exhausting and a very boring job.
However, it is important to pick rocks out of the fields that are bigger than the size of an orange. During harvest hitting a rock with the combine will cause the combine’s sickles to break. My Uncle Myrwin always called these small rocks, “sickle-breakers.” Fixing a broken combine sickle is expensive and brings the entire harvest to a standstill. You can easily lose half a day or more driving to town and back, finding and purchasing the right part, then installing the part to repair the machine. When you have hundreds of acres of grain to harvest before a Minnesota winter hits, you cannot afford to lose any time.
So, every year just after school let out for summer vacation, when all of the town kids took swimming lessons, visited libraries for story time and played, us country kids would find ourselves day after day from sun up to sun down in a hot grain field looking for grey rocks.
In reality rock picking season only lasted for several weeks from the time the plants were big enough to be visible in rows until the soybeans began to bloom or the corn became too tall to fit under the tractor’s axles. In my mind’s eye this character building torture lasted for almost the entire summer. There is nothing more endless looking to a young child sitting on a flatbed wagon than facing a couple hundred acre field full of rocks.
In addition to boredom, one thing you could always count on during rock picking season was intense heat and humidity. The crops loved it, but it sure wilted this kid.
On a family farm everyone has to pitch in and rock picking was no exception to this rule. We usually had two, but on occasion, when the plants were getting too big and we had fields left to do in a hurry, we used three rock-picking crews.
First, there was what I would like to call the slow crew with the little red H Farmall tractor pulling the wooden flatbed rock wagon. This crew prided themselves on accuracy. Many a time they were spotted in a virtual standstill seemingly sifting gravel on top of hills, to make sure no “sickle-breakers” got away. It was the firm belief of their leader that small rocks would grow into big ones by the next year so there was just no point in not picking them all.
This crew usually consisted of the very young, the old and the slow moving. A very prominent state-sanctioned slow moving vehicle sign was clearly displayed at all times on their tractor as a constant reminder of output expectations and of them being a field or road hazard.
It is important to note that this crew was made up of our most dedicated hardworking and thorough folks who were accustomed to long hot hours in a field. No slackers here. They were the family traditionalists and came prepared to get the job done. They strictly adhered to the farmer’s official dress code of a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants. They wore this uniform no matter how hot or humid the weather.
Should some misguided young wimp decide to challenge tradition and swap long pants for short, on a hundred degree day sitting in the blazing sun in a windless field of heat seeking black dirt while believing that the evaporation of their sweat is only serving to increase the humidity and misery index further, payback for violating the dress code was swift and merciless in the form of wooden slivers embedded in the back of soft tender thighs.
The sliver reprisal by the wagon was a two-for, as they hurt worse coming out, than going in. One of the traditionalists would get out their ever-ready tweezers that came with the jack knife kept in the middle pocket of their overalls and sadly shake their head while removing the sliver muttering, “Some people’s kids.”
The injured rebel, who had thought they had a cause, instantaneously learned that the wearing of the official farmer’s uniform of a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants was a generational homeopathic preventative for in the field unsanitary surgical procedures and major sunburns.
The second rock picking crew was built for speed…not accuracy. It consisted of three members. One to drive and two to jump off and on the big red International tractor. The rocks they picked were deposited in a homemade skid that was mounted behind the driver just above the tractor’s wagon hitch. This team’s quality control was inversely affected by the speed of the tractor and teenage attitude. The speed of the tractor usually increased the closer the rock picking season came to high school football training or date night.
Rock picking procedures established by this crew could be described as the original cross-fit exercise program–simultaneous weight lifting, throwing and running. It was part of their official bylaws that any”sickle-breaker” that was not in plain view would be disregarded. As they must concentrate on getting the best tan on their shirtless chests while finding, lifting, carrying and tossing the largest rocks in the field to build muscle, and improve the chances of the school football team winning the conference and them getting a girlfriend.
To increase aerobatic capacity rocks were picked on the run. The tractor must never slow down or stop. Should a member violate this rule, they had to eat dirt.
This rock picking crew could be seen racing up and down the fields at high speeds bare chests glistening in the sun, shirt tails flapping in the breeze as they occasionally picked rocks when not dodging lit firecrackers or dirt clogs.
It is important to note that an occasional female could be promoted to be on this team. However, no matter how concerned the fellows were for the girl wilting in the heat, only the boys could go shirtless in the field. Regardless of how hot it got, any suggestion to the contrary would have killed off all of the old people in our entire community and most of the Mennonite neighbors, and in all likelihood would have gotten a robust Lutheran farm gal a one-way ticket to a place hotter than that field. Yes, shirts for girls was the rule and like a horse in the old days that included being fully harnessed.
If you didn’t see this rock picking crew you could always hear them. Their work ethic necessitated the constant revving of the tractor’s diesel engine, a radio blasting rock and roll music, and shouts of general mockery to advertise their superior expertise and provide a motivational shaming to improve the progress of all the lesser rock picking crews.
The old folks prayed for that crew a lot.
Finally, there was a third tractor that was used for rock picking. It was a very old John Deere with a front end loader. My grandfather purchased this tractor on the black market, just after World War II. It is still on the farm today. This tractor was used sparingly for rock picking due to respect for its history and age. It had many other farm duties such as; digging ditches, cleaning out the cow manure pile, burying the farm’s garbage piles and in the winter clearing out the long snow covered driveway.
When used for rock picking this rusty old green tractor sported a driver and usually two pickers. The pickers rode in front of the tractor in the loader. This was most dangerous, as the loader’s controls worked in the opposite direction from what logic would dictate.
The safety protocol most commonly deployed to protect this crew was quickness. Quick thinking and moving. When you did dump out your fellow pickers, for whatever reason, while the tractor was moving they had to quickly to roll away from the tractor tires. Then, pop out behind the tractor, run, catch up and jump on again. If you dumped out anyone more than once, you were no longer allowed to drive and could expect to get hit with multiple hard dirt clogs. No rock-pickers were ever squished. Safety first was always our motto.
Rock pickers get hungry, no matter what crew they were on. Dinners were our big meal and were usually brought to the fields and served picnic style. The food would arrive at noon and was always hot. Whether fried chicken, potatoes and gravy or a casserole (or a hotdish as we call casseroles here in Minnesota) nothing ever smelled or tasted so good. As on most farms, salads were served for the cattle, hogs and chickens. Unless they contained whipped cream and jello, then they were people food.
Sometimes suppers were also delivered into the fields. They could be leftovers or just sandwiches, chips and pop. No matter which meal was delivered it was always accompanied by plenty of home-baked, breads cookies, bars, cakes, pies and pastries to provide energy and help replace the many calories we had burned off working hard in the fields all day.
The family members that stayed behind in the kitchen also knew what heat and humidity really was….there was no air conditioning in any home back in those days and baking still had to be done. Only small electric fans and open windows were available to help cool down those cooks in those hot, hot kitchens.
I can still picture those loud little oscillating fans blowing the dead insect covered fly strips dangling from the kitchen ceiling light back and forth in the breeze. My grandmother expertly ducking out its way to prevent the yellow ribbon of bug death from sticking to her hair or dropping flies into her cooking. Oh, the horror of having a bug cemetery wrapped around your head!
Those hot cooks and kitchens never let the field workers down. We were always fed and fed well.
Danish Puff Pastry would have been too fragile and sticky to be included on a field meal menu. It was made for special occasions as a treat or to impress guests. It is a wonderful light summer pastry that can kept simple when topped with just icing and nuts or dressed up with fruit pie filling or preserves and icing. Either way this pastry is a real gem.
Danish Puff Pastry
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 cup flour
2 Tablespoons of cold water
In a small bowl mix ingredients together like a pie crust.First cut the butter into the flour, when that is combined, add the water and mix into a dough.
Put crust dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and pat into a 6 X 12 inch rectangle.
Puff Pastry Top:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
1 teaspoon almond flavoring
1 cup flour
In a medium-sized sauce pan bring water and butter to a boil. Remover from the heat; add the almond flavoring. Then, quickly beat in flour. When the batter is smooth, add the eggs, one at a time. Beat well after each egg, until that egg is completely combined into the dough before adding the next egg.
Spread the batter over the crust to the edges.
Bake for about one hour. The batter will shrink over the crust and be golden brown. Cool completely.
Top with icing and nuts, or with some fruit pie filling or preserves then drizzle with icing.
Powdered Sugar Icing
1 cup of powdered sugar
1 teaspoon of almond or vanilla extract
milk or cream
Put powdered sugar into small mixing bowl. Slowly stir in milk or cream one tablespoon at a time until the icing reaches the consistency you desire. Icing is usually the consistency of syrup.
Add flavoring. Stir until combined and drizzle over cooled puff pastry.