The drought has dried more than the pastures here in southern Indiana. Cows simply can't turn hay to milk with the same efficiency and enthusiasm they bring to bear on good green grass. As a result of the lack of rain, and the early onset of an all-hay diet, our dairy herd's production has slipped to its annual low. Consequently, the bimonthly milk check has withered as well.
Looking for adjunct sources of income, we've begun putting together a load of recyclable scrap metal. The other day, we also snapped to attention at finding this ad in the paper's farm-market classifieds:
WANT TO BUY BLACK WALNUTS BRING WALNUTS TO
$10 per 100
The fine print provided directions to a point about 20 miles south of our farm. From there, one could follow the signs.
The quoted price sounded too good to be true. The ad didn't say $10 per 100 pounds, but per 100, period. There was no phone number given to check on this, so we waited to consult the next-day's paper. Sure enough, the same ad beckoned again, with no corrections: $10 per 100 walnuts, one could presume.
Even though I suspected something was missing in the formula, it seemed worthwhile to respond, this being a banner year for walnuts. The persimmons are plentiful, too, and uncommonly sweet, but the walnuts rule. The green hulls, ranging in size from golf balls to baseballs, cover the ground so thickly in places it's a wonder the cows can walk about without coasting.
The most prolific tree grows at the fringe of the big back pasture, about a half mile from the house and road. Because of its shedding, the pasture looks green here, a curious oasis against the brown, sere backdrop of parched earth. Suddenly, the drought worked to our advantage. The creek, midway back to the tree, was all but dry, and the cow paths leading down to its bed and up again hadn't been muddy in months. With my son, Tim, I could drive the pickup right to the source of what looked to be easy money.
I've never before driven a vehicle other than my tractor to the back of the farm, and it was a novelty for both us and our animals. As we bounced up the hill in low gear (the creek had presented no more problem than a snow-slick road), the cows and draft horses turned to stare. They knew the truck, but up here it was a stranger in a strange land. It was our elder Belgian, Jim, who first collected his wits and recognized this as the vehicle that sometimes brings hay to the barn.
He followed us up the last leg, then hung his massive head into the truck bed as we stopped. Doc, the other half of the team, explored from the other side. They soon raised their heads in mutual and simultaneous disdain. No meals on wheels today; nothing but empty boxes. As Tim and I exited the cab, he took in the scene.
"Hey, Mom! This could be some truck ad on TV!" I looked back at the horses and truck, and it was true. With their massive shoulders book-ending the top of the cab, Doc and Jim made a striking statement. The image they projected, stolid against the truck, embodied the almost literal message: "Horsepower here."
Having no better entertainment than to watch us, the cows crowded in as well. We scooped handfuls of walnuts into small cardboard cartons and emptied these into larger ones in the pickup bed, again and again and again.
An hour later, the animals had drifted off, but we had an impressive load, enough to make the 20-minute drive to the huller-buyer worthwhile - perhaps even lucrative, given a liberal interpretation of that ad.
"You know, Tim, there might be a catch to this - something we're not getting," I cautioned. "We might not get as much money as we expect.
"But the ad said $10 per 100," he argued. Still, neither of us tried to estimate our profit. That smacked too much of counting your chickens before they're hatched, something we know not to do.
The next day was a school day, but I promised to deliver our harvest after morning milking, and it turned out to be a pleasant errand. The autumnal landscape spread in drought-muted beauty below the ridgetop along which Route 45 twists south; it is not a road to rush along, but one to savor, especially at this time of year.
I pulled over at a roadside orchard to buy fresh cider, Indian corn, and acorn squash. There were gourds for sale, too, and apples and pears, and rows of pumpkins. Whatever the drought pinched, it didn't seem to be autumn.
I found the turn, marked with an arrow-shaped sign pointing to "Walnut Buyer." After a few more miles along a narrow tarmac, up hill and down, I turned into a barnlot where a large sign announced: "Walnut Buyer Here - paying $10 per 100 pounds."
Pounds, by golly, not nuts. And according to the finer print, that was after hulling.
There had been an honest mistake in the ad, which couldn't be corrected over its weekend run in the paper. I chose to believe this explanation from the woman who met me, apologizing for the error. Her husband wasn't home to run the huller just then, but she had me write our name and address on an envelope. The money would be mailed to us. Again, I chose to believe her.
Had other people been disappointed at discovering the ad's error? I wondered aloud. Oh, yes, she'd confessed, one young boy had been in tears.
"He'd counted every walnut and expected a lot of money," she told me. "But no way could anyone pay $10 for 100 walnuts." Her statement was close to a plea, and nowhere near a challenge. I agreed: It had seemed too good to be true. I'd tried to prepare my own son for a reality check, I told her.
Tim was, indeed, a little bent out of shape when he learned he'd get maybe $10, not the $100 or $200 he'd imagined for his mountain of walnuts. But, hey, it was something. And it hadn't been so bad, slithering across the creek like a metallic eel, and climbing up the pasture hill in our cushioned seats. It'd been kind of nice working up there in the waning light of a fall afternoon among our horses and cows. The footing is better now, under that tree, for all of us.
So now, we're thinking up new ways to earn extra cash. Surely some ad agency could use a stunning visual of a truck flanked by real horsepower. Maybe there's a hot market for persimmons.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society