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Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Man Outstanding in his Field…

Farmer MattThat would be Matt Frohning… except when he’s in the cab of his big John Deere tractor circling a cornfield cutting corn for silage. Here I am at the Frohning Farm by the home cornfield. Earlier in the day Matt had agreed to let me ride along while he cut a few swaths around the field.

Recently I heard of a Massachusetts family who, according to the wife, had become hopelessly lost in a rural corn maze. In a panic she called 911  and emergency services showed up with police rescue dogs and guided the family of three (the third was a three week old infant!) all of twenty-five feet to safety. I’m not afraid to ride with Matt, however: if there’s one thing Matt Frohning knows for sure it’s his way around a cornfield.Corn chopper

This field is the second Matt will finish today.“I just moved down from Gramma’s,” he laughs. “You’re right on time. I just finished the first round.” I’m excited to climb aboard….”Let’s chop some corn!” I think. Matt, however, hops down and disappears somewhere in the general direction of the farm buildings, leaving the big tractor, jaws bulging with corn stalks, idling in front of a full hopper of freshly cut silage.

While I wait to mount up, I take a few photos, check out the family garden, admire the plump globes in the pumpkin patch. Matt returns. Apparently Phil, who drives the silage truck, has been given a new route from field to silage bunker. (No MapQuest, it appears, in that tired, old farm truck.) The truck finally lumbers into view. Matt climbs up into the John Deere and the truck eases alongside. The hopper lifts and tips, spilling the silage into the truck bed. Now we’re going to chop that corn, I hope! But no…Matt hops down and guides Phil along the new route and disappears again. For the next fifteen minutes fifty dairy cows and I have a stare down which is easily won by a dainty brown cow with Jo Anne Pearson eyes (a classmate from my high school days; we called her “Cow Eyes.” And for good reason!)Little Brown eyes

I wait. The corn waits. The cows stare. The tractor chugs away. (Was that a wink from the little brown-eyed cow? Is she flirting…?) Where’s Matt, I wonder…. Let’s get at that corn! Finally he strides into view. Matt’s thick beard parts in a cheerful grin. “A few minor technicalities,” he explains. I learn the ancient truck has mechanical problems…something about overheating…later Matt will have to pull its radiator, check it out…. In the meantime another truck has been called into service and is on its way for the next load. “Let’s get rollin’,” Matt says as he clambers aboard. “No need to stand there waiting!”I pull myself up the steps to the cab and settle inside beside Matt. Into the corn

A yank or two on the control levers and the rhythmic thrum of the tractor turns into a roar. We rock forward and the tall cornstalks bow before us, fall beneath the cutter’s tines, and feed into the chopper. Matt skillfully rounds a corner, doesn’t miss a single stalk. The tractor rocks and rolls, churning ahead through the standing corn. And my camera is rocking and rolling in video, too—a first for The Ripple. I look down and watch the cornstalks fold and gather below and disappear into the machinery. I have the feeling I’m riding the back of a living beast, ravenous for corn, its appetite insatiable as it chomps and grinds its way through the towering stalks.

Above the roar of the machinery I shout questions about the tractor and equipment. Matt shouts back answers. His setup cuts four rows a pass. I counter with a questions about the monster twelve row cutters that Werkhovens employ. “It’s a difference in horsepowFilling the hopperer,” Matt explains. “I’m running 300; those big rigs are 1,000.” I ask about the cutter itself and learn the tines fold and direct the stalks to the chopper in the center of the machine. What look to me like two whirling tubs or two stacks of tambourines grab the stalks and auger them into the cutter to be chopped. I glance over my shoulder and watch a green stream of silage spurt from a tube into the hopper.

When the hopper bulges, Matt stops the tractor, waits for the last bite to disappear into the chopper, and shuts down the cutter. The roar subsides to a hum, and while Matt waits for Phil and the silage truck, I ask more questions. This is the second of five fields Matt will cut for the family farm, approximately 78 acres—one tenth of what the Werkhovens cut for their herd. The field we’re cutting, I learn, is about six acres. One circuit yields about twenty-one ton of silage, and Matt is pleased with this year’s crop which he is sure will surpass last year’s. Matt does a little figuring and estimates the field will yield around 240 tons for the Frohning Farm bunkers. I know once the silage is dumped in the bunkers, it must be packed to squeeze all the oxygen out of the “mash.” If this weren’t done, the silage wouldn’t cure properly. “Are you packing it now? I ask. Matt shakes his head. “Too wet yet; the bottom layers would turn to mush.” Matt tells me it’s fairly common to lay down a layer of sugar beet pulp first to absorb the excess moisture from the wet silage. The pulp comes from the midwest somewhere, but because of the late season, perhaps, Matt has been unable to find a supplier.Dumping the hopper

The silage truck eases alongside, the big hopper lifts, tilts, and dumps five or six ton of green confetti into the truck. When the truck pulls away, Matt shifts a couple levers, engages the cutter, and off again we roar into the corn.

At the next lull in activity when the big tractor shifts into the quieter mode, I have more questions to ask. I know Matt farms for hire, and we’re riding in what I’m sure involved considerable capital outlay for him. Matt is quite willing to talk about his financial commitment, and without putting too much of his finances up for scrutiny, The Ripple will report some of what he shared. Two years ago Matt took out a loan for the big John Deere including the cost of the corn cutter attachment. Added to the loan, too, was a processor implement which crushes the corn if the crop is particularly dry.   (Matt has yet to put this attachment to the test. Little wonder in this Valley of rain, fog and damp.) Let’s just say Matt has invested in farming to the tune of slightly less than 100k. “When do you plan to have the rig paid for?” I ask. Matt grins. “Six years, I hope. Last spring I had a minor technicality that set me back a little.” He had taken the rig in for its annual maintenance and as is too often the case with such checkups, something major turned up. In Matt’s case the “minor technicality” involved some gearbox work to the tune of nearly 6k. In the meantime his monthly payments would rent him a fairly nice apartment in Seattle.

This is Matt’s bread and butter season. Today he’s cutting the family corn but he tells me, “I could be cutting in Duvall right now.” Twenty-nine hours of work wait for him in Snohomish. “That should earn me six thousand, less the five hundred for fuel,” figures Matt. I shake my head and think, “That barely covers his ‘minor technicality.’” When Werkhovens start harvest October 17th, Matt will be out in one of their fields. “How many months of the year do you operate?” I ask. Matt thinks for a moment, checks off the months on his fingers and stops at six. “The nice thing about the off months,” he laughs, “is I don’t have to worry about fuel or mechanical problems. Downside is I still have my payments to make.”

In the hour and a half I spend with Matt I learn about the process of chopping silage; I learn about the Frohning farm, the acreage it needs to feed their dairy herd; and I learn something about the equipment and economics needed to operate a small family farm. To be sure, I’m the wiser for all this. But as I leave the field, I think the most important thing I learned is about the character of a young man, a young man with a passion for farming, a young man with a vision for the future. I watched those large, work-hardened hands skillfully guide that big machine down the rows. I listened and heard in his deep voice the enthusiasm for farming, the pure enjoyment in his work and a sense of pride that what he does, he does well.

While Matt was comparing his equipment to the bigger rigs soon to be in Werkhovens’ fields, out of nowhere he produces a farm equipment catalogue. Matt thumbs through it much like the kid, full of Christmas, used to thumb through the Sears Roebuck winter catalogue. I hear the excitement in his voice as he points out one rig after another—all bigger cousins to the one we’re sitting in now. Matt turns to me, a grin spreads that thick beard, and he says almost bashfully : “Sometimes when I’m waiting, I like to look through this.” Men and their machines…men and their dreams….

Life is full of “technical difficulties,”major ones and minor. A farmer’s lot are these and more. It is the attitude with which one confronts his “minor technical difficulties,” shrugs them off and prevails against them that is the measure of a man. And the same holds true for the farmer who measures up, a farmer like the one I rode with this afternoon.Matt tests the corn

Correction: Walter Werkhoven contacted The Ripple to share the following information. The machine his brothers employed to chop their corn was a  2011 472 horsepower model that cut a six row swath per pass. According to Walt, this faster machine filled a ten ton silage truck in less than three minutes.  

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  1. So now you're a vlogger? Nice. But what does Matt do with the silage? Sell it? Or use it?

  2. Ms. Bridget, remember my stare down with those fifty dairy cows??? I hope the little brown-eyed cow gets her fair share of the crop. TMJ