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WOSTER: You've got to know when to grow 'em

Back when Kenny Rogers recorded a song called "The Gambler,'' I sometimes thought it should be about a dry-land farmer instead of a poker player.

The song's refrain goes "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run. You never count your money when you're sitting at the table. There'll be time enough for counting when the dealin's done.''

I thought about that song in a roundabout way during the Thanksgiving weekend. My brothers and sisters shared a series of brief email greetings, started by our little sister, Mary Alice. Thanksgiving wishes were followed by several comments on our shared good fortune in having been raised in a good family on a good place. Indeed we have been fortunate, and our early start in a farming family in a community of generally good-hearted people played a big part in our good fortune.

That set me to thinking about the business of farming. I suppose it's fair to call it a business these days, what with the high-tech machinery, giant farm corporations and improved seed and methods of working the land. But in many ways it remains what it was when I was a kid, and that's a way of life, a bond of people and soil and crops and livestock that's unlike any other bond I've experienced.

Thinking about that pushed me to recall how hard my folks worked day after day in their shared way of life. Sure, I did a lot of physical work, the farm labor that every country kid did as the price of being in the family. My brothers and sisters did the same. We didn't know any other way. You gathered eggs and weeded the garden and stacked hay and shoveled wheat and oats and branded calves. But while we did those things, our parents were making the decisions that resulted in our assigned chores and fieldwork.

I've always known that's why I couldn't have been a farmer. I would have been stressed to the breaking point if I'd had to make the decisions on when to plant and what to plant and when to plow under winter wheat and try to make a crop with something else and when to go to market with the fat cattle and whether to hold the harvest or sell into a down market. I was pretty well a grown man before I understood how many of those decisions our parents faced each day as they gave us a good life together and a running start on our own lives after the farm.

Last Sunday evening after we returned from a weekend with family, I picked up a tattered paperback I recently began to read. My sister Mary Alice, the retired college literature teacher, sent it my way. She thought I'd like it. The book is "The Bones of Plenty'' by Jamestown, N.D., native Lois Phillips Hudson. It was published in 1962, the year I graduated from high school. It's about farming and the Depression, and it happened that the place I began reading the other evening had this passage about farming:

"Nobody could farm that country without being a gambler. One good year, with enough moisture, plus high prices in the fall — that was all it took to make up for six or seven years of failure. There were smart gamblers and stupid gamblers, but every North Dakota farmer was a gambler, and even the smartest one reached a point, every season, where all he could do was stand and watch what happened to his crop like a man watching the spinning of a gambling wheel.''

Without knowing it, that's what I was witnessing as a kid when I watched my folks manage the farm. Every season was a gamble. They didn't follow the song's advice. They never folded and walked away. They always played. And I suspect they were like the North Dakota farmer, of whom the book says, "If he had to do it all over again, he would choose to gamble again.''

That was my folks, and I'm eternally grateful they were that way.