View From Massie’s Corner: First, define the problem

Cattle farmers most certainly have a lot to be thankful for this spring. Compared to last winter, this winter was a breeze, and this spring is so far so good.

If a cow had the ability to dial up the weather she would want when it came time to deliver her calf, a spring like the one we are having now is what she would want. A slight freeze at night (which kills the early flies) and mild afternoon temperatures make ideal calving conditions.

Couple near-perfect weather with record prices and you will notice cattle farmers smiling a lot these days. In fact, cattle prices are even better than they were in the late 1970s. I doubt if many people now would want to work for what they were paid in 1979, but cattle farmers are not upset to do so because we, as an industry, have become more efficient.

City people like to joke about farmers. Often these jokes are about the belief that farmers do not work smartly. Here’s one of my favorites: A city person is riding a horse through an apple orchard and comes across a farmer holding up a hog so that the hog can eat apples off an apple tree. The city person tells the farmer that it seems like it takes a lot of time to feed a hog that way, and it would be better to just knock some apples off the tree so that hog could eat them on his own without having to be lifted up. The farmer replies: “Yes it does take a lot of time to feed a hog that way, but what does a hog care about time?”

It may be true that once upon a time farmers did not think much about time, but we do now. The invention of the round baler and the four-wheel-drive tractor and the ATV have made cattle farmers more efficient than we ever thought possible.

I realize that it would not be fair for me to tell a joke about farmers without also telling one about city people.

A couple from the city bought a small but rather expensive farm. It took most all of their money to pay for the farm and so instead of buying a John Deere tractor to work the land, they could only afford a mule.

When they put the mule in the barn they discovered that the mule’s ears rubbed against the stall’s ceiling, causing the mule to hold his head in an uncomfortable position. The city couple spent most of the night trying to solve this problem and by morning they had a solution.

They placed large hydraulic jacks under the four corners of the barn and jacked up the barn. The neighboring farmer looked over the fence and immediately realized that something looked differently, so he went over to introduce himself, and politely inquired why they were jacking up the barn.

The city couple replied that the mule’s ears rubbed against the stall’s ceiling and therefore they needed to raise the barn. The farmer told them that the former owners of the property did not often get around to cleaning out the stall, so there was probably two feet of manure in the stall — which, if pitchforked out, would make a comfortable home for the mule. The man and woman looked at each other, grinned, nodded — and then one of them replied that the problem wasn’t that the mule’s legs were too long, it was his ears.

Some of you may have heard me tell this joke in the past. I told it to make the point that how a problem is solved often is determined by how it is defined. I think the well-intentioned folks in charge of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup could learn a lot from this joke.

To the cattle farmers who have been able to solve problems by defining them correctly, withstanding bad weather and low prices, and have based their operations on the belief that if you are good to the land it will be good to you, I take my hat off and say, “This spring is for you.”