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WOSTER: Pheasants in the Soil Bank

I don't know if that Soil Bank deal helped farmers the way it was supposed to 60 years ago, but it sure put a lot of pheasants on a piece of program-idled land just north of our old mailbox.

The program began during the Eisenhower administration. To put it simply, farmers received payments in return for not growing crops on a specific piece of land for, I think, 10 years. I looked online and found this: "Proposed by President Eisenhower as part of the 1956 Agriculture Act, the original idea was for the government to buy back sub-marginal land that was homesteaded in the late 1800s. This would both extend pastures, forests and watersheds and also reduce the need for the government to support overproduction.''

I didn't pay attention at the time, but I suppose cynics cracked the old jokes about writing to the president to ask what would be the best crops not to plant for maximum profit and things like that. All I knew was that people who got into the program weren't working land they used to plant, and that seemed strange until the pheasants showed up in some of those fields.

I probably first heard of the program when I rode with my dad to the Co-op in Reliance and half-listened to the grown-ups talk politics and other important issues. I was about 12 then and just beginning to be taken seriously as a pheasant hunter by my dad and my uncle and allowed to carry a single-shot .410 shotgun to the field with the grown-up hunters.

It took my big brother a while longer to accept that I might be a worthwhile member of a hunting party. Back then he always saw me as the little brother who was slow to pick up valuable skills like carrying a gun and kicking through the thick, dusty cover along a fence row until two or three roosters exploded into the sky. He came around when he realized that if I was out there walking and kicking, he might get a chance to stand at the end of the field and block, which involved much less effort and much more good shooting that did beating through tangles of weed and watching birds fly away out of range.

I could recognize Soil Bank lands by the wonderful stands of weeds they seemed to produce. The one up by our mailbox raised a bumper crop. Pheasants took to it as if it were a five-star hotel. When I walked along with the other beaters, I could hear the stalks and leaves on the weeds rustle as pheasants hustled through the cover ahead of our footsteps. It reminded me a bit of stepping into a dark granary and hearing the field mice scampering through the shadows toward cover.

If those pheasants in the Soil Bank land had only known, they probably could have sheltered in place and lived through the day. Unless one of us stepped directly on one of them, we'd have never known they were there. We'd have walked right past the whole bunch and been none the wiser. But, no, they couldn't leave well enough alone. One or another of those roosters always had to get nervous and take to the air. As soon as that happened, every bird for 160 acres around would bolt from cover. The sky would be thick with birds and the air loud with the throaty reports of shotguns.

Anyone with any hunting interest surely has heard people talk about the days when South Dakota had so many pheasant they blotted out the sun when they broke from cover in a cackling cloud. Usually, stuff like that is an exaggeration, a bit of embellishment by grown-up kids who remember the good old days far more fondly than those old days sometimes deserved.

But, I have to tell you. In some of those Soil Bank days, I did see pheasants rise from dense cover in numbers sufficient to create a brightly colored, fast-moving, noisy cloud. Maybe it didn't block out the sun, but it came close. Believe it or not, I saw it with my own eyes.