Talking to Grapes

My father talked to the corn. He never admitted doing it but I know it was a habit of his because I observed him do it on many different occasions. I asked him about it one day and he looked at me like I was the crazy one. I didn’t understand his eccentric quirk until I was a grown man and had a similar experience, although for me it was among the grapes.

The first time I heard my father talk to corn I was just eight years old. It was a warm afternoon in late July and I was tagging along with him as he inspected his crops. He owned over four hundred acres of rolling cropland just outside of Marquette, a small town in southeastern Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River. The farm had been in our family for four generations and the occupation dominated my lineage for as long as anyone in my family could recall. I am from a long line of men who have joyfully worked the land. My father was the only son of an only son, and I am his only child. I always assumed that one day I would take over the farm, and then eventually pass it on to my son.

We stopped at one of our largest fields, got out of the truck and started walking down the long rows of corn that had grown tall enough to touch his hip and to tickle my chin. Small plumes of dust mushroomed from our boots and clung to the cornstalks as we walked along in silence. Every so often he would stop, grab an ear of young corn, rip it from the stalk and peel back the outer wrapping of verdant leaves to inspect the tender, yellow kernels inside. He was looking mainly for a hint of what the field might yield come harvest time. Once finished, he tossed the ravaged ear to the ground and continued down the row.

Watching him do this task, I marveled at the size of my father’s hands. I peeked at my own hands and wondered if they would ever be as big and strong as his. Indeed, today they are. Large hands are a trait of my family. Like my ancestors before me, I have large, fleshy palms and short digits that are as thick as fire plugs. While most men are able to use their thumb and index finger as a pincher, that simple task has always been impossible for the men in my family. To lift a small object, we must lick a fingertip, press it firmly on the object and scoop it into the palm of the other hand. This always leaves a hint of a recent chore on the tongue, be it oil or grease, or plant or soil.

As my father walked the field that day I noticed his brow was as furrowed as the field we were in and that a look of worry blanketed his dusty, sun-weathered face. Suddenly, he said, “I’m not sure I can do that.”

I looked at him but saw that he wasn’t looking at me. He had his attention fixed on the corn. Befuddled, I said, “Do what?”

He stared at me with a puzzled look that said, “What are you talking about?” Even at my young age I knew that whatever he said wasn’t meant for my ears so I simply shrugged my shoulders and kept walking. We didn’t speak to each other until we returned to the pick-up truck. At that time everything was back to normal and we chatted happily as we drove back to our farm.

A month later it happened again during a similar situation. We were walking through a different field to inspect the corn. By this time the corn was far over my head and I kept up with my father only by listening to him rustle through the leaves in the row beside me. Halfway down the row, I heard him say, “Help me here.”

I stopped, squeezed my way between the prickly stalks and stood behind him to give him a hand with whatever he needed, unsure of what that could possibly be. He turned around and looked at me with the same puzzled look as before. After staring at each other for what seemed an eternity he finally said, “What do you need?”

I quickly understood that his plea for help wasn’t directed toward me so I mumbled, “How much longer?”

“We’re nearly through,” he said, and then he turned and continued on.

I was embarrassed for him and worried that he was losing his mind. I ducked back into my row and continued walking without saying another word. When we got home that evening I asked by mother about his strange behavior, although I waited to do so until my father was in the bathroom scrubbing the dirt and grime from his hands. I wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t hear me.

“Mom, do you know that Dad talks to the corn,” I said sheepishly, afraid that I was giving her some awful news.

“What?” she said as she grabbed two hot pads off the countertop and pulled a steaming dish from the oven.

“It’s Dad. He talks to the corn,” I said, nearly whispering. “I heard him do it earlier this summer and I heard him do it again today.” I shot a glance toward the bathroom to make sure he was still in there. “Why does he do that?”

She looked at me and laughed. With a gentle smile she said, “Don’t worry about it honey. It’s just his way.”

I knew not to press the subject any further, besides my father was coming out of the bathroom and quickly joined us for dinner.

I heard my father talk to the corn many times after that day. They were always short, simple phrases and I learned to ignore his awkward habit, trusting that my mother was right and that there wasn’t anything wrong with his mental state. From that day on, if he and I were in the field together and he wanted my attention, he would have to ask me twice.

 

* * *

For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a farmer and continue our family tradition. My father, however, had different plans. I grew up during the farm crisis of the 1980s and my family was struggling not to be among the many others across the country who were losing their farms.

“You’re going to college,” he reminded me time and time again while I was in high school. “I’m afraid there is little future for you here on the farm.”

I would push back and tell him I had no desire to go to college and that I wanted to farm with him. He would turn a deaf ear to me, marking the end of our discussion. By the time I was a senior, I was fed up with schooling. I had enough of books and studying and listening to teachers drone on and on and on. However, by this time his resolve had only intensified and he stubbornly refused to listen to my pleas. After graduation, we found common ground. I agreed to enroll at a university in a nearby town to study plant science. I figured it was the closest degree to farming that I could get. Plus, I assumed I’d take what I learned at college and apply it at home to make our farming operation more successful. I was content because I could still live at home and continue to work the land, and my parents were happy because I was getting a higher education and paving the way for a brighter future.

During my sophomore year I took a class in horticulture that changed my life. My professor had a passion for the subject that was unparalleled. It rubbed off on me and I found myself taking every class he offered. As an independent research project, he was cultivating a new variety of grapes that could withstand the harsh Minnesota winters. He was looking for a research assistant and asked me if I was interested. I felt honored. Growing grapes in Minnesota seemed odd to me, to say the least, but I volunteered nonetheless and worked alongside him in his endeavor.

“To own a vineyard,” he said, “is to be a gentleman farmer.”

A gentleman farmer, I liked the sound of that. It had an air that appealed to me. One that made me think there was indeed a future for me in agriculture.

By my senior year he was searching for land for a test plot but was having difficulty finding even a small acreage that someone would donate to the project. The university, he said, was not willing to pay a land lease for his experiment. As a result, he landed on the doorstep of nearly every farmhouse in a ten-mile radius of the university begging for borrowed land. When I learned of his predicament, I offered to help. That evening I asked my father if we could use a small portion of one of our fields. It was a ten-acre field near our home that my father always said was good for nothing. It was a wavy parcel on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. It started out flat, dipped down like the trough of a huge wave, crested, and then dropped sharply toward the river. My father complained every time he plowed and harvested that field, both because of the difficulty of operating the machinery on the steep slopes and also because the field often produced about half the yield per acre than our other land. After a short discussion he agreed to give us a plot on the parcel closest to the river. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice for him because that area wasn’t suitable for growing corn anyway, but it was perfect for growing grapes.

My professor’s experiment was a grand success and he earned a high degree of notoriety for both himself and the university. For me, his hybrid was the foundation of my new career and I became the first person in the Upper Mississippi River Valley to start a vineyard. When we planted those first vines everyone scoffed and called me crazy for wasting even a small amount of land on grapes. However, as my vineyard grew the naysayers eventually faded away and I became respected in our town, around the region and even across the country. It was not uncommon in the early years to have horticulturalists from different states tour my operation, as well as other gentlemen farmers who were considering starting their own vineyard. By the time my father retired, I had acquired all of his wavy slopes along the river. He sold the rest of his land to other farmers and developers, providing a sizable sum for my mother and him. I owe my success to his generosity. I never would have ventured down this road if I had to borrow money to buy the expensive farm land needed to make it happen.

Owning a vineyard is not without its challenges. There was a high learning curve associated with starting it, which led to many stressful days and fitful nights. Not only did I have to learn about the unique subtleties of growing and harvesting grapes, I also had to learn how to press them and turn their byproduct into wine. Once I mastered that, I had to learn about bottling and marketing, all of which required a substantial financial investment. Playing off one of the Mississippi River’s monikers, I called my operation The Great River Vineyard and Winery, and had a label designed for my new company. It shows red wine flowing forth from a plump bunch of grapes and turning into a river that winds through wooded bluff land. My designer won an award for the label, which made me proud.

Over the years, several other wineries have popped up all along the river valley, and theirs, like ours, are always buzzing with activity during the summer and early fall. It has become a popular activity for people to travel the Great River Road and sample the offerings of the many different wineries. To accommodate the growing crowds, I added an addition to my barn. It has a large open area with a bar on one side and a small retail area on the other, featuring our wines and other assorted items. My wife graciously manages the retail area. Tables and chairs are scattered throughout main area for the wine tastings that we host on the weekends. Our guests can sample each of the ten wines we produce. The hall opens up to a large patio filled with wrought iron café tables and chairs. The overhead pergola is entwined with vines, offering shade from the summer sun. Patrons join us on the weekends for the tastings, to hear traveling musicians, and to picnic on our grounds.

It’s a much different lifestyle than what my father had, but it suits me well. I enjoy meeting all the people who come to our property to taste our products and relax in the pleasant, rural atmosphere. My father still marvels at the fact that the most useless acres of his land have amounted to so much. If he happens to visit us on a weekend when we are teeming with customers he always laughs and shakes his head in astonishment.

The days I like best are the weekdays when no one is around and everything is quiet and I can hear myself think. It is on these days that I’m able to be out among the grapes, walking through them, feeling their rubbery skin and smelling their fragrant aroma. As I amble along, I am connected to my past. During these tranquil hours I am reminded that I am tending the same land on which I was raised, the same land that supported the many generations of my family before me. The field beneath me and the river in front of me, the wind on my face and the warm sun on my neck are all the same elements that have been here all my life. It’s a therapeutic place for me to contemplate life and work out my problems.

Building the addition on my barn would prove to be one of my most stressful and challenging endeavors as a vineyard owner. I built it in the fall of the year following my most successful harvest to date. However, the next summer a violent storm roiled up in the west and tore through the river valley, bringing with it golf ball-size hail and straight-line winds. The next day as I surveyed the damage it was evident that a good portion of my crop was destroyed. I was certain that it would result in economic disaster for my fledgling operation.

One day that fall, my young son joined me as I inspected the grapes before harvest. I could see his tow-blond hair bounce up and down as he darted around me throughout the vineyard. He was having fun squishing the ripened fruit that had already fallen to the ground. Giggles involuntarily bubbled up and spilled forth from him when he saw a large bunch of grapes, jumped up and let his foot fall squarely on the fruit, sending juice squirting in all directions. I should have enjoyed watching his frivolity but I was having a particularly stressful day. I was deep in thought as I wrestled with my worries, praying to God for guidance to keep me from what I was sure was impending financial doom.

 

My son circled back around and was suddenly standing in front of me. “What?” he said, his eyes filled with wonder.

Perplexed, I looked back at him and asked him the same question. “What?”

“You said you needed my help.”

“No, I didn’t.”

He stared at me, his face showing his own confusion. I could tell the situation baffled him and he looked away and went back to his gaiety of stomping grapes. I thought little of it and returned to my battle my burdens.

Several weeks later the same scenario played out. It was my last day in the vineyard before we harvested the grapes. I knew that nearly 60 percent of my crop was destroyed as a result of the storm. The final calculation weighed heavily on me and I fretted long and hard about the debt I would incur to get through the winter. Finally, I said, “Ok, I’ll trust you.” I was deep in conversation, yet unaware that the words rolled off my lips. I also wasn’t aware that my six-year-old son was standing there beside me.

“Trust me for what?” he asked.

We stared at each other for several moments. I didn’t answer him, so he rolled his eyes and scampered away. I paused, scratched my head and reflected upon the incident. I thought of the occurrence that happened the week prior, and then I thought about my father and the similar situation I experienced with him when I was barely older than my son. I laughed in spite of myself. I knew my son feared that I was losing my mind. I wondered if he would tell his mother about it that night. I envisioned him sidling up to her, tugging on her shirt sleeve and whispering, “Mom, why does Dad talk to the grapes?” I speculated how she would react to the news, but I assumed she already knew of my habit.

 

The sun peeked out from behind a large bank of clouds and warmed my face. My son’s laughter echoed in the distance and a deep sense of peace washed over me. It was then I finally understood that my father wasn’t talking to the corn.