I can still see old Peddler Swanson … working his way through a seemingly endless field of green barking orders and pulling weeds at the same time. The mist of a hot, humid morning hanging over our heads as we weeders struggle to reach the rows’ end and the cool drink of water that awaits us.
Peddler was our boss. At least he was for a couple of weeks each summer back in the mid-1950s when I, and several other boys, earned spending money “walking beans”.
Walking beans was a polite way of describing the manual labor of pulling weeds and corn out of soybean fields during the heat of July in Iowa.
Peddler was a tough old cookie, probably in his early 50s but really old to us. He stood a bit over 5 feet and tipped the scales at no more than 130 pounds, yet had the strength of voice, and vocabulary, of the toughest Marine sergeant ever to walk this Earth.
He was just a blue blur hopping from row to row checking the efforts of his workers; his thin, willowy fingers snatching weeds like an eagle’s talons. His work uniform consisting of a stripped blue railroad cap cocked back over his light bulb-shaped head, a light blue work shirt and stripped bib overalls.
Peddler wasn’t much on excuses. He would accept just about any boy who volunteered for his weeding crew, but once signed on that kid had better live up to Peddler’s every expectation.
For you city slickers, this all took place before the advent of modern herbicides. As the use of agricultural chemicals grew weeds began to shrink and the role of the bean walker slowly disappeared in all but the few Iowa fields planted by organic farmers.
As time marched on, the weeds finally proved they weren’t about to shrivel away without a fight. Today, herbicide resistant weeds are invading farm fields and, as they do, prompting the revival of bean walking.
Some of these fast-growing weeds can reach seven feet in height and cut soybean or corn yields up to two-thirds. These super weeds are already present in several southern Iowa counties.
Problem is, the family farm of the 1950s no longer exists. Today, farmers work hundreds or thousands of acres and face a thin profit margin. No longer can a farmer’s family, and some town kids, efficiently handle the challenge of hand-weeding.
I can’t help but think back to Peddler and how he would have dealt with super weeds.
I must confess the thought of weeds towering two feet over his striped cap sends shivers up my spine. Yet if anyone could handle such super weeds it would have been Peddler. Somehow he would have mustered up the strength and fortitude to pull those nasty plants from the fertile Iowa soil. Not only that, he would have figured out a way to energize his work crew to do the same.
Unfortunately, Peddler was born 60 years too soon.
(Ed Rood is former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.)