Production Blog

Uncomfortable Encounters

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Social distancing isn't easy, but trying to do the right thing for elderly parents and others makes for interesting times. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Last week I made my first on-farm visit since the pandemic divided and distanced us.

And, it was, well ... awkward.

I hadn't seen Scott Wallis since last year. In 2019, the Princeton, Indiana, farmer helped me with a season-long project we call "View From the Cab." When you work together for that long and haven't seen each other for a long time, bear hugs are appropriate -- except when they aren't.

I stepped from the truck and for the briefest of moments we almost forgot the times and COVID-19 concerns. Then, we remembered.

Next, came some sort of odd farmer/friendly reporter dance and dorky wave action. Thank goodness kicking rocks and moving shop dust with your toe while sticking hands in pockets is still acceptable behavior -- even if it is 6 feet apart.

I've worked from home for 37 years. Those who don't write for a living are always surprised when I mention that writing is a fairly solitary occupation. I've counterbalanced that alone time by taking to the road. Kicking clods with farmers is the best of what I do and the hallmark of how I do it.

More than four decades of being a road warrior should have prepared me for almost anything. I've had my fair share of adventures. I once pulled a car accident victim from his vehicle -- only to have the local authorities, who I summoned to the scene, be extraordinarily suspicious about my role in the incident. It took hours of explaining and a call to my boss to explain why I was in the cornfield and close enough to hear the accident to come running.

I've been face-to-face with a shotgun. It happened, before cellphones, at a farmhouse where I stopped to alert the residents about cows being loose and on the highway.

I've been bitten by dogs, spit on by llamas, stung by bees and waist-deep in badger holes. I've gotten a snoot full of anhydrous, was crop dusted while photographing a field and, in a separate photography incident, wound up with insecticide poisoning.

There was the Brazilian taxi driver who threatened to not deliver me to my destination if I didn't pay more and in U.S. dollars. Changing a flat tire in the darkness of the Australian bush with only the lights from a cell phone and the rustle of the unfamiliar was exciting.

There have been encounters with tarantulas, rattlesnakes and a wiseacre Mississippi farmer who warned me about violent, make-believe turtles. There was the cotton picker driver who refused to allow me to take his photo because "he was in violation of his parole."

I once had a farmer pull an ancient airplane out of his barn, knock the chickens and straw from it and insist the best photos of his conservation terraces were from above. This was long before drones and he didn't inform me until we were upside down that he had been a stunt pilot, but his license had lapsed.

So, a few months of being sidelined by a pandemic should be no big deal -- perhaps even a relief (trust me, there are many more stories). Still, lately, I've found myself inexplicably irritated ... but by what? Based on prior experiences, masks, distancing and trying to sanitize hands should be minor inconveniences.

What I've learned about myself in these months of confinement and separation is I miss interacting with people. I like their quirky ways and miss the random nature of what happens along the path of everyday life.

Today's actions seem so contrived and based on fear. Just try sneezing in the farm store and it doesn't matter if you are wearing a mask -- even the sparrows tweeting in the rafters scatter.

This first post-COVID trip started with a stop at my favorite donut spot in a small rural town. I had to call in the order for my cinnamon twist. A door was unlocked and an arm snaked outside to take my money. A masked baker delivered the sealed bag of goodies.

Next stop was a Beck's Hybrids field day -- or rather, a meeting with one of their agronomy staff. What a relief to do something outdoors and beyond a Zoom call. I got a distanced, personal tour of the herbicide plots and the only thing that suffered in comparison to a typical field day experience was that I missed hearing farmer questions. Oh, and there was no communal pork chop or fried chicken dinner.

Going out in public did mean finding and testing my go-to-the-field wardrobe though. All I can say is I have a control study regarding spending four months working in yoga pants and the results show a surprising increase in test weight. And, yes ... in this case, test weight matters.

Let's don't even talk about those of us who have their true colors showing through their roots.

My hotel nights involved masked clerks behind plexiglass. They were pleasant and helpful, but I checked in virtually without a credit card and the only pseudo contact was a shrouded plastic card key slid through the slot. The rooms were probably as clean as they've ever been. I had to break a seal on the door to enter one night.

For me, eating at the first sit-down restaurant since all this started began with getting my temperature taken. The masked waitress delivered a pitcher of water but couldn't pour it. No temperature was taken when they presented the bill.

I understand and support every effort to stay safe. I have parents and elderly friends and we have worked hard to do the right things to keep them healthy.

However, I will say that I detest the fear that has come from this pandemic. It is exhausting. I yearn for the day we can get back to spontaneity. No fist or elbow bump can replace a good solid handshake.

And I'm just going on record that as soon as possible, I will re-embrace the hug.

Pamela Smith can be reached at

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN


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