Subscribe for 33¢ / day

COLUMBUS – Jeff Gaska spent a sunny Friday afternoon engaged in what he called “a noble task.”

By noon, the morning dew had dried sufficiently for him to start harvesting some of the 450 acres of crops that he’d planted last spring, a lot later than he’d have liked to plant because the spring weather was so rainy.

That included 8 acres of soybeans in Dodge County’s town of Lowell -- four months, to the day, after he planted the field on June 11.

Farming is a “noble task,” the Columbus area farmer said, not just because the crops he planted and picked will feed people and help fuel their automobiles.

Gaska said anyone who would be “engaged in farming” should be prepared to make a huge monetary investment -- starting with about $10,000 an acre for Wisconsin farmland, not to mention the six-figure price of some farm machinery -- knowing that no amount of education and knowledge will fully alleviate all the “unknowns” that are a part of agriculture.

“I know how to grow crops,” he said. I know what it takes to get them harvested. I know how to repair my equipment. But things can still vary so much -- the weather, and, yes, the market.”

Gaska made this observation from the driver’s seat of his John Deere combine, whose nickname, “Cookie Monster,” is affixed above the door to the cab.

Like 2012, he said, the 2013 growing season was unpredictable and at times precarious -- but in different ways, for different reasons.

The 2012 drought meant that many farmers didn’t get much of a crop, because there was a long rainless period in June and July that included the time when corn is supposed to sprout ears and soybeans are supposed to sprout pods.

In 2013, there was way too much rain at the beginning of what should have been spring planting time in early and mid May, followed by a drought in the late summer.

The soybean field that Gaska combined Friday afternoon was supposed to be a cornfield. But, as the too-wet-to-plant days persisted through May, he decided to plant the field in soybeans instead -- about a month later than he’d have liked to plant.

At some parts of the field, the yield exceeded the 48 bushels per acre that has been his average for soybeans since he started his own farming operation in 1994. At other areas, the yield ran closer to 35 bushels per acre.

He knows all this not just by experience and instinct, but also from the computer screen inside the combine’s cab, which recalculates the yield every second or so while the combine’s blades are rolling.

The late-season drought hurt the productivity of the bean pods near the top of plants, he said, resulting in the pods having maybe just one bean inside, whereas other pods on the same plant might have three or more.

While Gaska was gathering in as much of his soybean crop as he could before the evening dew would make the fields too damp to combine, his father-in-law, Ken Guenther of Dodge County, was planting winter wheat in recently-cleared soybean fields. Normally, Gaska said, he’d like to have the wheat planted by the end of September.

In the corn fields that surround his bean plot, there are stalks that are still mostly green and not yet dry enough for harvest. Gaska said he’d like to start combining his corn in two weeks or so.

Ask Gaska -- a 1986 Columbus High School graduate -- how long he’s been farming, and he has both a short answer and a long answer.

The short answer: He acquired his own operation about 19 years ago.

The long answer: He began helping with chores on his family farm almost as soon as he could walk.

“At 5 or 6, I started helping,” he said. “By 10 or 12, I got into the tractors.”

He said it’s very hard to get into farming now without the kind of mentoring that he had as a child growing up on a farm.

Success in farming requires, to some extent, a realization that a lot of the process of growing crops is not in a farmer’s control, Gaska said.

“The weather decides what you get for a yield,” he said, “and the market decides what you get paid.”