A Publication of WTVP

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Rob Sharkey |
Farm tractor in field

It may be a farmer’s off-season, but there’s no shortage of work to be done

It’s that time of year when we we’re all tired of winter. The longing for warmer weather and longer days is a constant thought in our minds. Seeing the year’s first robin land in a tree of fresh buds means one thing: Spring is almost here.

For farmers, winter has been one long pre-game show. There have been months of machinery preparation, including acts as simple as greasing equipment, changing oil and hand-checking thousands of bearings. We have to educate ourselves on the latest technology updates to help us decide what seed and herbicides to purchase. We have to plan what to plant and when to sell our crops. Every decision about next year’s crop is packed into our winter “break.”

rock implement

My favorite theory is that the devil himself pushes the rocks up

So, when the temperature finally warms and the ground dries, you won’t find a happier (or more nervous) person than a farmer.

It takes me back to my childhood. As a kid, I loved watching the slumbering tractors come back to life. Hearing the engines roar, seeing the black smoke (back when tractors blew smoke), these were the things a farm kid lived for.

Spring also meant more work, not that we minded. My first real farming job was picking up rocks. At first, I would ride on the fender of the tractor as one of my older siblings drove back and forth through the field. When we saw a rock, we jumped down, picked it up, and threw it in the wagon we were pulling — a simple but necessary job. New rocks pop up every year.

I’m not entirely sure how the science works. Some say the freezing and thawing of the ground heave rocks to the surface. Others say that tillage, or the act of driving the equipment over the ground, is the culprit. My favorite theory is that the devil himself pushes the rocks up in order to continue the use of curse words in agriculture.

My farm is on a ridge, so the rain that falls on the east side ends up in the Illinois River. The rain that falls on the west side goes to the Mississippi. Although it does make for some great views, it also leads to the farm being very rocky.

Rocks can take a costly toll on today’s farm equipment. A couple of years back, a rock the size of a baseball made it to the threshing rotor of my combine. I hit the “oh crap” button to emergency stop everything, only to hear the rock pound its way to the back of the machine. All in all, it was an $11,000 repair bill and two days of no harvest.

Rocks can be expensive in other ways. One late night I was planting corn, and even though today’s equipment has fantastic lighting, there are still blind spots. The very last thing a corn planter does is fill the furrow (the slot it just opened and planted) with dirt. It does this with two angled wheels. That night, unbeknownst  to me, a small rock had wedged itself in between those wheels. So not only did it not close the furrow, those wheels pushed the seeds on top of the ground. It definitely cost me yield.

Now, there are some tools that can eliminate the need to pick up the rocks by hand. West of Iowa, it is not uncommon for farmers to use land rollers, which are like giant versions of a lawn roller. Some of them are up to 120 feet wide. They simply push the rocks down to ground level.

Rocks exact a cost: repair bills and reduced yield

I had a chance to use an 80-foot land roller one spring. It was a promotional deal. I really liked it and had virtually no problems with rocks that fall. But the rocks were ultimately still there … and the roller cost $100,000.

There are several versions of rock pickers that are pulled behind a tractor. These are pretty slick because the tractor driver doesn’t have to leave his seat. However, these can go for up to $30,000. I’ve even seen some farmers mount a hydraulic claw to the front of their tractor.

Bottom line, farmers don’t like rocks.

I will say, though, as I drive through Peoria seeing these houses with beautiful landscaping that includes these same rocks, a thought comes to mind: Sharkey’s U-Pick Rock Farm.


Rob Sharkey

aka “The Shark Farmer,” tills the land at his fifth-generation farm in the Bradford area, where he lives with wife Emily. He hosts “A Shot of Ag” on WTVP PBS, among other media endeavors