Attention all Garrison Keillor fans. Attention all farmers, too.
“Dear County Agent Guy: Calf Pulling, Husband Training, and Other Curious Dispatches From a Midwestern Dairy Farmer,” a collection of columns by Jerry Nelson, has just hit the shelves.
In the introduction, Nelson explains his slow transition from Norwegian bachelor farmer — appropriating Keillor’s famous descriptor from “A Prairie Home Companion” — to bona fide writer.
In the summer of 1996, his farm in South Dakota had seen an unreasonable amount of rain. So much rain, in fact, that he noticed cattails growing where corn should have been. He couldn’t do a thing about the rain, and “because there is so much that’s beyond a farmer’s control, many have become expert complainers,” he writes.
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So Nelson wrote a bogus letter of complaint to a friend at his local county extension office that opened with “Dear County Agent Guy.”
“I asked Mel if he knew of a cheap, effective herbicide that would eliminate the cattails growing in my cornfield. And while he was at it, maybe he could tell me how to get rid of all those pesky waterfowl and Jet Skis that were out in my corn.”
The county agent thought the letter was pretty funny and encouraged Nelson to submit it to their local newspaper, the Volga Tribune in Volga, S.D., for publication. Nelson did just that and has written a weekly column ever since.
He eventually contributed scripts to Keillor himself for his weekly radio show.
The book reads like anecdotes from Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon, minus the quirky cast of Lutherans, and the columns are more vignettes than stories.
Rural and urban readers alike will find something to be amused by. His descriptions of farm life are vivid and serve as a snapshot of a world that fewer and fewer people know firsthand.
For instance, he writes about the chore of throwing out silage. Silage is the compacted fodder stored in a silo that livestock eat all winter; he describes it as tasting like “pickled bad breath.”
In the chapter titled “Silo Time,” Nelson writes, “Anyone who has ever ascended a silo chute knows that the wind is nearly always blowing up it. A silo chute is, in reality, a vertical wind tunnel. The turbulent air causes particles of silage to swirl around the climber; itch-inducing silage finds every possible crack and crevice.”
He goes on to explain that most of his work in the silo was done in the dead of winter. “As the silage froze inward, the diameter of the silo narrowed. I felt like a prisoner who was digging an ever shrinking dungeon.”
Nelson’s writing is friendly and clear. His topics range from growing up on a farm, to raising his own sons on that same farm, to tending the field of his decades-long marriage.
He sentimentalizes farming to some extent — “my sole ambition in life was to become a farmer like my dad and his father and his father before him. No one knows how far back my family’s farming roots might reach, but it’s entirely possible that my ancestors used mastodons to pull their plows” — but who cares if it seems sentimental?
The author has not farmed since 2002 and is well aware that he’s writing a retrospective on not only his own life, but also those of farming families across the nation.
Of course he’ll romanticize that style of living. That is, after all, the nostalgic take that readers want when they pick up a collection of rural dispatches.
Contact Anne at email@example.com.
“Dear County Agent Guy: Calf Pulling, Husband Training, and Other Curious Dispatches From a Midwestern Dairy Farmer,” by Jerry Nelson (Workman Publishing; 210 pages; $14.95)