Where’s the Dirt?

Bucolic scenes of farm life rarely, if ever, show the farmer’s nemesis: dust and dirt.

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In this photo taken in the 1940s, where’s the dirt? It is on our uncle’s face, having driven a Caterpillar all day. He is shown here giving his nephews a ride.

Do you remember the famous television commercial where an elderly woman confronted a fast food outlet with the strident question, “Where’s the beef?” That commercial was so popular that her question became part of the American lexicon. The great thing about it is the last word in the question can be (and has been) changed to thousands of different things, depending on who was repeating the challenge. The basic concept remained the same: Something important was lacking.

Note the third word in the title of this article. It is my assertion that 99.9 percent of all photos of farming operations lack any indication of the one element every farmer confronts daily on a personal basis: airborne dirt. This statement excludes pictures of the ground itself and the myriad photos of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. I’m referring to that which surrounds most farming operations and which invariably ends up on farmers and their clothes. Farming is a dirty occupation today and was a hundred times dirtier in the past.

In doing research for this article, I have viewed farm publications from every decade, starting with the 1920s, when tractors came into play in a big way. Animal farming was dirty in a different way. Activities supporting field work were almost as dirty as the field work itself. When tractors came along, the operator who started the day clean often ended the day almost as dirty as it was possible to be. It had to do with airborne dirt in the form of all-pervasive dust. Surprisingly, pictures rarely convey those dusty conditions.

A sepia photo of a person on a machine in a bare field

Let it be stated that there was a reason for that. Every photograph was designed to convey some image and anything that blurred that image was avoided. Airborne dirt (dust and anything else that could be carried by the wind) would detract from or camouflage details. So, pristine tractors, farm equipment, farm operations, farmers and farm employees are shown. Farming was portrayed as an idyllic activity.
It is amazing that reality is so much different from those images. Since tilling the soil is the essence of farming, that soil in all its ramifications permeates everything in a person’s life. Men traditionally spent most of their time outside, cultivating crops and taking care of livestock. Women, on the other hand, spent all of their time feeding the family and trying to keep things clean. It was a never-ending battle. If a degree of success was evident at the end of the day, it was a sure thing that the anti-dirt fight would be revisited the next day.

Fighting an inevitable battle

For the person who has never experienced farm life, an explanation is necessary. Farm people are just as concerned about cleanliness as are city folks. For decades, the problem has been what they face on a regular basis. It is impossible to avoid dirt and dirty conditions when doing farm work. Part of that is because farming is done outside where conditions cannot be controlled.

Another feature of farming is work. Actual physical effort is required to accomplish a task. This is not to dismiss intellectual effort that often tires a person about the same. It is just that actual body movement exposes one to many things that are not squeaky clean. For example, this author sweats heavily when doing hard physical work. After a short period of time shoveling grain from a truck into a grain bin, my shirt is sopping wet. Every bit of chaff and dirt surrounding the effort ends up being part of my attire. That doesn’t happen in an office cubicle.

A black and white photo of a crawler in a bare field.

The famous World War I song “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” hints at the likely reluctance of young men from rural backgrounds to return to the dirt and labor of early 20th century American farms. For the first time, many of them learned of city life with paved roads, occupations that didn’t require physical exertion and a lifestyle that didn’t include dust blowing down the streets. The agricultural situation got somewhat better as time went by, but until the late 20th century, much of farming still consisted of dirt and drudgery. Interestingly, modern farming is almost light years different than earlier decades but one thing remains: Dealing with dust and dirt.

Fantastic new equipment almost isolates the operator from personally dealing with dirt. A person could wear a white shirt and tie to work every morning when operating some of today’s equipment and go home unsoiled. There are occasional break-downs and adjustments that need to be made, but for all practical purposes, if a farm has state-of-the-art equipment, farmers conducting field work only occasionally confront dust and dirt.

Remembering a uniquely dirty day

Back to the question of “Where’s the Dirt?” in farm photographs. Having spent a half century doing farm work during the era when almost every farm activity was dirty to one degree or another, I have to confess that I too failed to get photographs of what it was like back then. Although from an early age I took thousands of pictures (and you had to be dedicated to buy film, purchase expensive flash bulbs, and pay for processing that by today’s standards seems exorbitant – in the 1960s, $4.80 for eight black-and-white prints!) my farm pictures do not show dust and dirt.

A person baling hy in a dusty field.

There are two reasons for that. First, since I was using a fairly crude point-and-shoot camera, as a farm employee I couldn’t take it with me to work. Only occasionally did I have my camera with me and when I did, I was strapped for time. Second, and most importantly, airborne dust and dirt were so much a part of our daily existence that it didn’t register as noteworthy. My pictures are like almost all the others: dust- and dirt-free.

My early agricultural experiences involved crawler or tracklayer tractors. By their very nature, crawlers generated more dirt and dust than wheel tractors did by a major degree. Even when traveling straight forward, the tracks stirred up considerable dust and dirt. When turning, a routine function caused by nearly constant course corrections, there’d be plenty of dust and dirt, but sometimes the tracks produced what seemed like a fountain of dirt.

A white truck with dust billowing behind it as it drives across a bare field.

I remember one noteworthy occasion when driving a D4 Caterpillar pulling two 10-foot tandem discs on a field recently plowed with a moldboard plow. It was an extremely hot day with no wind. On the first pass around the field, one had to be extremely careful not to hit the fence. The dust was so thick it was impossible to see. I had to stop about every 100 yards to allow the dust to clear a little. Breathing through my mouth, I could taste the dust on my teeth. The dust settled on my glasses and slid down to the bottom of the lens. On my many stops, I removed my glasses and shook them so I could see.
Hour after hour the struggle went on. At quitting time, I had muddy rings around my nostrils and mouth. Naturally my clothes were saturated and perspiration caused most of my body to be covered with dirt. Even after a shower I felt gritty. In the morning, I had to physically pull my eyelids apart with my fingers as they were nearly sealed shut from the previous day’s dust. The next day, there was a slight breeze. Things were a little better but still very dirty, particularly going with the wind.

A careful distinction

Three men in a rural setting.

One last thing needs mentioning. As strange as it may seem, there is “clean dirt” and “dirty dirt.” Almost exclusively, the dirt farmers deal with is “clean dirt.” Although there is no established definition, “clean dirt” is described as that which settles on an object and can be brushed off. A synonym for “dirty dirt” might be “filth.” “Dirty dirt” leaves a mess. With the possible exception of dealing with animals, farmers’ lives may not be idyllic but most would confess that the dirt they deal with is just one part of the wonderful life they have chosen. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

  • Updated on Aug 20, 2021
  • Originally Published on Jul 19, 2021
Tagged with: dirt, dust, farm life, rural living
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