Derek Johnson Muses

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Harvest Lessons: Set Goals High

Celebrate Rarely, Grind Regularly -Colin Cowherd

Two weeks ago, the second harvest of silage samples was approaching, and I was facing a dilemma. The first harvest took me three days, plus two and a half extra travel days. Coming off my work days at the gallery, I’d barely had any time to prepare another show I’d agreed to do at the Civic Center in Seward. The thought of losing three more days that week and not getting back until Wednesday weighed on my mind. I planned to leave and stay at Tom’s Sunday night, but as I was doing and redoing routes on Google Maps, I realized that, the total drive time from Omro to Slater was seven hours and the total harvest time I need for the three plots was seven hours. I would be an extremely long day, but I could pull it off if I just went to Omro and started at six. The cost of a hotel room would be less than the gas I’d spend on a second trip.

I did just that, and it was one of toughest days of my working life. I got back to Slater after 10, and on the drive back to my parents’ apartment, I felt that I was at my physical limit. Although the extra time was irreplaceable, I had serious doubts about doing the same thing for the third harvest. When my father called and told me I’d have to do the third harvest on Thursday of the next week, I had my reservations about doing all three fields on the same day. Sure, it would be priceless if I finished early and could spend Labor Day Weekend relaxing at our lake house, but if I had a major problem, I could really get myself in trouble.

Last Thursday, I rolled into our analyst’s shop at 8 P.M. sharp, with all thirty-six samples from all three locations. I was really proud of myself, more so than I ever have been. I can’t really explain how I finished two hours earlier, except to say that I nailed the routine. With only a couple of tweaks, I did pretty much everything the same as I had the first time. But I did gain time in a couple of areas, some planned, some not.

-I left my motel earlier, while it was just starting to get light.

-I didn’t stop for coffee before starting. I acquired cold water and ice the night before and made Starbucks Via with it. (Side note: the Verona is good, but not as good over ice as it should be.)

-Last time, fog prevented me from getting to the Omro plot in a timely manner. (This time, I started harvesting Omro a whole half-hour earlier.

-Last time at Spring Green, I dropped my plot key that had sample ID’s written on it. This forced a ten minute search, then another seven or eight minutes for me to return to the truck to acquire a back-up. This time I found the dropped plot key and picked it back up.

-At Fennimore, I had previously parked further up the hill because I couldn’t find a way to back down and still get out. This time, I found a way to get further down. This saved at least fifteen minutes, maybe more due to less exhaustion from carrying samples up hill.

-The killer last time was going out of my way in Dubuque to download a podcast at Culvers, which took about forty-five extra minutes. This time, I was content with what I had on my iPod.

Through this experience, I learned a truism that St. John’s consultant for our building project shared with us. It’s fine to take survey and guess your limits, but don’t be afraid to set goals over those limits. Finishing that project a whole two hours early showed me the benefit of putting work first and not worrying about the small stuff. Now I’m writing this at our lake house, and I’m actually kind of proud of myself.

Triumph of the Harvest

Harvest Day, Long Day

My Parking Marker at Omro

I rose that day shortly before five and dawdled for over an hour. Typical me; whenever I have a big project in front of me, I tend to do two million little choirs before I can get to it. I left my motel room a little before six, the sun peaking beyond the silo on the horizon. Should have been to the field by five-third and taken advantage of Wisconsin’s long summer days.

Today I would harvest silage samples from our plot in Omro, Wisconsin. I would need to harvest six plants from each of the eleven hybrids from our plot here, and, presuming I finished by nine, I would try to harvest samples from our plot over in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The other night, I had estimated that between the time of both harvests, drive time, and stopping time, I was looking at a twelve to thirteen hour day, minimum. Which was why I was concerned about starting early.

Sunrise on the Plot

I made it to the plot a few minutes after six, after a coffee and drink break at the the Omro (more wasted time, come on Derek). Thankfully, our samples are close to the road in this plot (in others, I have had to carry samples for forty-five minutes, leaving scratch marks on my arms). I get in, harvest quickly, and have my truck loaded before eight. I even have time for a short video.

After obtaining ice from Omro’s gas station/Subway/hardware store, I open up my GPS and get directions to Spring Green, figuring whatever route Mavis gave, it will be better than going back down County Roads to Waupun. The route calls for me to take the ten mile route east out of Omro, which I started on. But when I got to the east end of town, I decided that I would second guess myself less if I take the road I know as opposed to the one that’s potentially twenty miles out of my way. I head back to the county roads.

The familiar road down to Waupun didn’t feel as tiresome, only because I was numb to its curves and slow goings. I didn’t check my map when I was driving; I knew it would be a little less than an hour. I spent five miles on that trek stuck behind a flatbed truck loaded with hay bales. Scraps kept flying off, which didn’t bother me, but probably bothered the convertible (driven by a couple of hip grayheads) who pulled up behind me.

As I had found out the previous day, US 151 from Waupun to Madison was blissfully quick, compared to driving from Arlington, to Watertown, then up to Waupun. (An hour and forty minutes compared to four or five.) The route I approximated as the best (checking again the next day, I found others that were less urban) lead me through Sun Prairie’s pleasant suburban walls into Westconsin’s rolling hills.
That is the remarkable difference between the halves of Wisconsin on either side of Madison. The east half is generally flat, like Nebraska or Iowa. Westconsin is a majestic mess of hills and valleys, limestone popping out all over.

Typical Westconsin

So I weave through the mess on Wisconsin Highway 19, a slim two-laner. In Wanaukee there’s a Culver’s, and as several billboards have wet my appetite, I’m tempted to eat there. But since it’s not quite 11 A.M., I decide to pass even though I may not find a town large enough for a fast food place. I met up with US 18 ten miles from Spring Green, and I end up crushing a Subway sub in 1,600-pop Mazomanie.

Around 11:30 and halfway through a podcast on Bach, I make it to Spring Green. Like Omro, our hybrids are a short walking distance from a place on the road where there is a clear marking place, the driveway of a house. It’s overcast, which I’m grateful for, but as I’m in the middle of tying the bundles together, I begin to feel raindrops. I worry I’ll be soaked through and have to drag my feet through mud, but I got all the samples out and in the back of my truck in time and pull out of field while it’s still not raining. It starts raining as soon as hit curvy Wisconsin Highway 23 down to Dodgeville.

My Parking Marker at Spring Green

When I opened the back of my truck, I found half of the ice melted. I’d bought the same amount of ice that I had two days ago, and it was melting at a faster rate, proving there’s nothing like Casey’s ice. I piled in the new samples and headed into town to get some extra ice. Ice acquired, I stopped by Acardia Books again to get an iced mocha. I’m filthy and shouldn’t be going into coffee shop with old issues of The New Yorker on the wall while I’m reeking of muddy soil, but the thing is, I don’t care.

It is roughly sixty-seven miles from Spring Green to Dubuque, aka the end of the massive Westconsin hills and windy roads.  US Highway 30 is one of the great blessings of these travels: two lanes of light traffic for over two hours of the drive from Dubuque. I’m not as fortunate on the other side of the Mississippi: it rains, which slows me somewhat, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been. The sky is still light.

When I reach Dyersville, Iowa, I make a point of getting off the highways and find a place to download the full episode of the Herd on ESPN Radio. McDonald’s WiFi is crap, but I make due at the public library. I fume the whole seven minute drive into Dyersville to find the library; how extra options make us so pushy. But I get my podcast, and once I’m west of Dubuque, the drive feels down hill.

I reach our researcher’s place by 7:30, and my Dad comes to help me unload the samples. I am relieved to have this down while it’s still light. We finish quickly, and then I head back to my parents’ apartment for dinner, remembering last year when our plots where in Owatonna, Minnesota and Reinbeck, Iowa.

The Omro of it All

Building by the Fox River

The road to Omro from Waupun (and US HWY 151) is fifty solid minutes on Wisconsin County Roads. I suppose I shouldn’t complain and should be grateful to the people who are willing to work with us, but last Tuesday as I made my way up County Road M, past the swivel in the road at County Road TC, I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s worth the extra twenty miles to take the major roads through Fon Du Lac and Oshkosh.”

This past trip marked my fourth trip to Omro overall. The first was last year, when I passed the town without much notice on a Thursday morning, exhausted after crossing Lake Michigan the previous night. Each of the other three trips, I ended up hanging around the town for an extended period of time that was longer than I intended. I didn’t have to go anywhere.

The Ben Franklin-style pharmacy

Omro is a pleasant city of just over 3,000, enough to seem substantial, but still really small. There’s a Piggly Wiggly and a BP/McDonald’s travel sitting on the east end of town, a small token of independence. The old fashioned, Ben Franklin-style pharmacy was in a state of remodel when I came in looking for twine. They didn’t have any, but I did find some at combo gas station/Subway/hardware store down the street.. There is a modest courthouse and town museum. It’s the smallest town I’d ever seen to have two thrift stores (until someone corrected me of this on Facebook), and there’s a bar next to the baseball fields which you could easily mistake for a machine shed. The largest restaurant location in Omro, a green roofed bar standing alone with dark tinted windows, currently sits empty. It is pledging to reopen in September “under new management.”

Omro’s Courthouse

I tried to off the restaurants in town and liked both. First, it was the Colonial Cheese House, and the last time, I sampled Jake’s Pizza, whose ad was on a tray in my room at the roadside motel. I was skeptical, but after obtaining the twine I needed, Jake’s was the first restaurant I walked by on the street. (Other than an authentic Mexican place, the likes of which I can find in Nebraska. There were two employees behind the counter, both on the phone most of the time I was there. I ordered a fish dinner and sat down to wait, expecting to write a full post by the time my food came. When the girl brought me my food, I’d written a measly two paragraphs. The way she handed the container to me, I knew it would be great, and it was. A small business ten miles from a major city has to work that much harder to keep its business.

The most distinctive part of Omro is the Fox River, which runs roughly through the middle of town. The city has several parks next to it, and there are a few homes with docks. In many ways, the river is to Omro is like Yellowstone is to Wyoming: a very unique feature, but it doesn’t seem to upgrade the town that much.

Bench on the Fox

It is in my work as a field monitor over the summer that I have to rely on the Omros, the Tomahs, the Reinbeck, Iowas, and the Doniphan, Nebraskas to get the things I need, like that ball of twine or the ice to keep the samples cold. I don’t romanticize these small towns, but I’m grateful for their presence. I admire the Jake’s Pizza and the gas station that takes in two other businesses, because they have to do more with less too stay in business. And every little memento I take from those towns, like that ball of twine and the legion baseball T-shirt of the Omro Dairy (“Thundering Herd) I bought at one of the two thrift stores, is logged into my brain and will be remembered every time I see that ball of twine or wear that T-shirt.

House on the Way out of Town

Road Notes: Wisconsin Test Plot Tour

The trip before me..

Friday morning, I get up early and leave Dubuque by seven, determined not to waste time today. I get coffee at one of those drive-through huts by the mall and receive the third punch on a card that needs ten. I cross the Mississippi on the Wisconsin bridge and head for Fennimore, a semi-straight shot north. Fennimore has a Casey’s gas station plopped down right across from the town square; only other small town that I know has that is David City, Nebraska. I use the bathroom and buy vitamin water.There is a cornfield at the GPS coordinates I’ve been given, but there are no stakes to indicate the division of hybrids. I take some photos, check with my dad, and head out.

The next plot is in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to the east and a bit north. On the way there, I stop at the Frank Lloyd Wright Center to use the bathroom, darting past the retired tourist. It is overcast, but not raining. After checking my GPS and getting back on the road, my truck fails to get up past 45 MPH. I panic at first, but after I turn off to go the field, I see that I put the truck in second gear instead of overdrive. The plot is three miles from the Wisconsin River and is properly marked. I dally around Spring Green and almost go into a book store before I realize I have too many book already.

The Wisconsin River

Wheat field next to Spring Green plot

On the way up to my next plot in Tomah, I stop in downtown Mauston to get lunch at a local cafe, but when I see they don’t accept credit card, I walk out. (Michaelangelo’s didn’t take my card yesterday either.) I head up to the interstate and eat lunch at Subway in a travel plaza that has Brewer, Packer, and Badgers logos painted on the walls. Wisconsin love its sports and shows it. The plaza crowd: parents with kids, twenty-something guys heading to the wilds, a group of people dressed up for something (maybe a funeral), kids in some group, and a fifty-something guy alone wearing an Aaron Rodgers shirt.

I-94/I-90 to Tomah is laden with rock formation that I’d love to photograph. I get off on the north side of town and head to the field that I passed six miles from yesterday. I have to drive past a No Trespassing sign on a crude access road to get to the field, but no one comes by.

Back in Tomah, I check my online communications in the Culver’s parking lot and find an Amish guy selling baking goods and jam on the side of the road. I buy some monster cookies and a rhubarb crumb pie from him, and we chat for a minute about farming. I get back on I-94 and fly toward Madison.

Border of our Tomah plot

Wisconsin Dells looks like its packed up for the summer with kids and families. I get off at the exit right before I-90/I-94 merge with I-39 as the traffic begins to back up. I get gas at BP, where they are advertising free Brewers tickets, although you have to have seven purchases of eight gallons to get the tickets. I get two of the seven from my truck. I debate taking an alternate route, but don’t. Turns out to be the right decision as the traffic on I-90/I-94 has cleared.

It takes a while to get to the fourth field, by Arlington, because I have to take a bunch of county roads. It’s next to a farmhouse, so I don’t stay for long. It’s four o’clock, but I decide to head to one more field, this one by Watertown, before calling it a day.

I try to find a quicker way to Watertown that will involve using county roads. This leads to driving in the wrong direction for four miles, and I’m spent by the end of it. So I give in and drive through Watertown, and find the field, which is behind a dairy barn. I introduce myself to the owners and make my observations.

I decide to head up to Beaver Dam, which has hotels and is within ten miles of my next field. It’s just a half hour drive back through Watertown, who hasn’t yet finished a by-pass highway that will allow travelers like me to skip their quaint downtown. I spend the night and the Super 8 in Beaver Dam and eat dinner at the classy upscale sports bar in front of it (which serves breakfast for some reason). They don’t seat me when I come in the door, so I don’t tip as well I normally do, even though the Friday night walleye is really good.

Saturday morning, there’s an anxious woman behind the desk who asks if she can check me out while I’m eating breakfast. (There were at most four other parties staying at the hotel besides me.) After breakfast, I go to Wallgreens to get some meds and work on some blog articles, delaying my leave until nine. I stop by a river front market in downtown Beaver Dam and buy some honey, but it’s mostly a disappointment. I head back out of town and up Fox Lake where my plot is. The plot is on the side of County Road A. I have to walk a little bit from the turnoff where I park my truck.

Fox Lake test plot marker

Head into Fox Lake and put the GPS coordinates of the next field into my map, which turn out to be the wrong coordinates. The right coordinates are in an e-mail attachment that I can’t open on my iPod, and I need to have a WiFi connection to access. I find the little town library (which looks like a run down gas station, which chipped white paint and cement blocks) but it doesn’t open for another hour.

The public library in Waupun (15 miles up the road) has this zanny blue carpet with stars on it. The place is dead, and I have a seat on a couch in the teen section. After ten minutes of fiddling, I decide its not worth any more trouble to try and get on and leave. On the way out of town, I pull into a McDonald’s parking lot and find out that I can use my iPod to access the e-mail attachment I need.

Pass a number of dairy farms, noting how close the farms in Wisconsin are to each other, and how much more traffic there is. I stop at a park by the Fox River in Omro to use the restroom. The plot is five miles north of Omro, and I take my time there since it’s the last one. Upon finishing up there, I head back to Omro and get my lunch at the Colonial Cheese House, which is more like a specialty cheese store that happens to have a grill. I get a meal along with a huge pack of cheese curds, half of which I will certainly through away. I go back to the park and listen to Issues, Etc. while I enjoy lunch.

My Lunch View of the Fox River in Omro

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