Jesus, Take the Wheel of My Giant Farm Machine

Through prosperity and drought, boom years and bust, the farmers of Snow Hill, Maryland, place faith in one of the harvest seasons’ unlikeliest kickoff traditions.

Jesus, Take the Wheel of My Giant Farm Machine

“You have to have faith to be a farmer,” David Shockley says as we careen toward town in his three-season-old, candy red, ten-foot-tall Case combine.

We’re swaying above the road at ten miles an hour, on country roads where pickup trucks easily swing by doing 70 or 80, as we head to Snow Hill, Maryland’s equivalent of a patron saint’s day: The Blessing of the Combines.

One day in early August, before the season’s harvest sends them into a constant whirring motion in Worcester County’s fields, combines — those gargantuan machines that harvest grain (eponymously named because they simplify three harvesting processes of reaping, threshing, and winnowing into one) parade into town, taking over the main street in a unified red and green line, waiting for a pastor’s blessing to begin the harvest.

David Shockley (top) prepares his combine for the parade, affixing an American flag to the railing.
David Shockley (top) prepares his combine for the parade, affixing an American flag to the railing.

When the hulking machines cross the bridge and make their way into town, Snow Hill’s residents and religious community will pray over the farmers and the combines themselves — honoring Maryland’s spiritual and agricultural base — before the solemn religious proceedings dissolve into a big party.

I’m riding in today’s parade with Shockley, 67, and some much younger cousins (a couple of generations removed), Haylee and Noah Welch, eleven and seven. We inch forward as folks camped out in their pickup trucks, lining the streets, holler and wave.

Noah Welch waves to onlookers on the way to Snow Hill.
Noah Welch waves to onlookers on the way to Snow Hill.

“Wave at those people, kids,” Shockley instructs Haylee and Noah, who silently press their noses to the combine’s glass window. “It’s a good thing.” He takes a hand off the wheel and flaps it toward the crowd of admirers, beaming.

Shockley, a third-generation farmer, tends 900 acres of land, which produce corn and soy, most of which feeds the nearby poultry industry.

Snow Hill is a farming (and now, tourism) town. Not that long ago, there may have been a time when everyone in Worcester County knew how agriculture worked. But now, Shockley says, the festival, which claims to be the only one of its kind in the country — established in 1998 during a major drought that shook the County’s agricultural base — serves to remind people where their food comes from.

About half of the people who come to town to see the monstrous machines root around Main Street tell me they’ve never encountered a combine. Some of them come from nearby Ocean City, which, although geographically close to the state’s agricultural sector, is tied more to beach-season tourism than farming. Other visitors are vacationers with an interest in obscure machines and antiques, or Baltimore County residents who have driven in to peruse rural curios.

The blessing of the combines – a prayer for farmers, their families and their equipment.
The blessing of the combines – a prayer for farmers, their families and their equipment.

Shockley delights in meeting people who are new to the field and explaining how his machine works. These days, combines are more techie paradise than sweat, blood and tears — Shockley’s bug-shaped harvester is programmed to drive itself and sense when it’s come to the end of a row of grain. The total cost of a combine like this — once it’s programmed and outfitted with heads to harvest grain and soy — is close to $300,000.

Earlier in the day, when we met at his home, which is in the middle of a farm, Shockley happily surveyed the green, six-foot-tall corn stalks surrounding him. “It’s probably as good as it gets this year,” he said. “We’re tickled to death so far. We’ve had the rainfall, the crops are beautiful, it’s like a magazine out here.”

David Shockley surveys his combine outside of his home, located on Indian Town Farms.
David Shockley surveys his combine outside of his home, located on Indian Town Farms.

Religious farmers have always prayed for good weather, but this year the rains have been kind to Worcester County. There have been other years, though, when farming felt like a powerless, fraught endeavor, when Shockley watched crops burn up in his fields, with zero irrigation, no moisture to give them a lift.

In 1998 and 1999, Maryland faced its worst drought seasons in 70 years. The Clinton administration declared the region a federal disaster area, and farmers across the state lost 35 to 90 percent of their crops. Gus Payne, then the owner of the town’s Western Auto outlet, and his daughter, Becky, decided it was the right time to do something to honor Snow Hill’s embattled farmers.

Corn is a staple crop at David Shockley’s Indian Town Farms.
Corn is a staple crop at David Shockley’s Indian Town Farms.

“They said, ‘Being it’s you, we’ll do it, but who really wants to come look at a combine?’” Becky Payne says, recalling the reactions when she asked farmers to participate in the first blessing in 1998.

Improbably, the event only grew, and continued after Gus’ passing in 2013. “When those combines come across that bridge, and watching people’s expressions, it’s overwhelming,” Becky Payne says.

In Snow Hill’s annual blessing, combines now serve as religious symbols — totems that unite the community under a common purpose of standing behind agriculture. But they’ve also become political symbols, and the blessing itself is a political demonstration. Maryland’s agriculture secretary and other politicians are here today — shaking hands and asking what farmers want from Annapolis for a better harvest.

When I ask Shockley if there’s anything he would pray over this year, he mentions Maryland’s new Phosphorus Management Tool, an effort to cut down on the agricultural waste that’s been dumped into the Chesapeake Bay for years.

Chesapeake Bay-area farmers are some of the U.S.’ largest producers of poultry. Those chickens produce a lot of manure, which Shockley and his colleagues have traditionally used to fertilize their crops.

But manure runoff from fields often ends up in the bay — contributing to phosphorus pollution, which destroys marine life. Because Maryland has agreed to reduce phosphorus pollution in the bay by 48 percent by 2025, Shockley and other farmers are now under pressure to reduce their use of chicken manure.

David Shockley inside his equipment shed. “You have to have faith to be a farmer,” he says.
David Shockley inside his equipment shed. “You have to have faith to be a farmer,” he says.

Shockley worries that the new regulations will add costs to his farming operation (chicken manure is less expensive than other fertilizers), or worse, that the state’s demands will drive the big poultry producers, like Tyson and Perdue, away from the Bay and down to states that have not yet implemented such onerous regulations, like Alabama and Mississippi.

“On the shore, poultry is our number one industry. Without poultry, agriculture down here would be nothing. We just wouldn’t have the markets — we just couldn’t survive without it,” Shockley says.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which advocated for the tighter phosphorus rules, asserts that the new regulations shouldn’t be overly burdensome for the agriculture industry — and should, in the long-term — increase profits from Maryland’s agricultural sector.

For Shockley, however, agriculture is a minority voice waging war with a hostile administration. In the face of the state’s demands, another higher power seems appropriate to bless the Maryland farmers’ efforts. As they have done for decades now, when the state fails, Snow Hill’s farming community invokes the word of Jesus.

Local Pastor Ken Elligson, who blessed the combines.
Local Pastor Ken Elligson, who blessed the combines.

The blessing itself is short this year. Local Pastor Ken Elligson, dressed casually in shorts, an orange polo shirt, and a sticker that says, “I met a farmer today!” — takes to the stage and thanks God for the farmers’ hard work. He prays for the farmers, their families, and their equipment, fixing his eyes, behind thinly framed spectacles, toward the combines.

The audience in the street directs a communal gaze downward — and the solemn mood only breaks after Becky Payne releases white doves as part of a memorial for her father Gus.

But there’s another issue at hand here: Worcester County’s farmers are getting older, and the younger ones are fewer and further in between. Though Shockley’s wife Sandra wants him to cut back, he’d like to keep farming for at least three more years. When he turns 70, he’ll pause and see how he feels.

When Shockley was a kid, there were lots of farmers in the area. Most of the other boys in school helped their dads out in the field. Agriculture was taught in class, and summers were spent working the fields. Shockley bought his first farm when he was twenty and never looked back, but meanwhile, Snow Hill’s farmer population dwindled.

“What’s happening when older farmers retire, is — it’s just another farmer taking over and he’s becoming a bigger farmer,” Shockley says. “When I was a kid there was just numerous farmers around here and now there’s a small amount of farmers. They’re just tilling a lot more land.”

He’s right: In 1987, Worcester County had 631 farms. In 2007, that number had dwindled to 384, according to maryland.gov’s Open Data Portal.

This development has manifested for several reasons. The combine we are sitting in is one of them — contemporary agriculture technologies are much more powerful than their predecessors. Shockley’s Case Combine allows its owner to cultivate far more land with far less labor, so Maryland doesn’t need as many farmers.

Young farmers are also deterred by the long hours and uncertain nature of the work, Shockley says. And because the cost of the initial investment is higher now, new farmers can’t get into the business unless they have significant backing from family or investors.

The Anderson family pose beside their combine. Kevin Anderson owns Wimberly Farms in Princess Anne, 30 miles from Snow Hill.
The Anderson family pose beside their combine. Kevin Anderson owns Wimberly Farms in Princess Anne, 30 miles from Snow Hill.

Kevin Anderson owns Wimberly Farms in Princess Anne, about 30 miles from Downtown Snow Hill. He says that farmers have to succeed — or fail — in a bigger way now than they did when he got going.

“When I started farming 25 years ago it cost me $150 an acre to plant an acre of corn. Today it costs $500 to $600,” Anderson says. “So when I had dry weather and a bad crop in the ’80s it cost me $100 an acre. Today bad weather can cost you $400 an acre.”

Despite the risks, Anderson has faith — and he and his family echo Shockley’s proclamation that you need to have faith to be a farmer.

Tall and lanky for her twelve years, with long, strawberry red hair, Caroline Anderson, Kevin’s daughter, is the youngest farmer to drive a combine into Snow Hill for the Blessing — and she’s also the only female driver.

In Maryland, there’s no age restriction on driving farming equipment, and since Caroline’s been helping her dad in the fields all summer — sometimes driving the combine for twelve hours by herself — arriving home for dinner after ten p.m. — she and her family decided she was ready to drive the machine to the blessing this year.

Caroline, a sixth-generation farmer, drove most of the thirty miles to Snow Hill (because the equipment moves so slowly, the drive took her about an hour).

Caroline Anderson behind the wheel of her family's combine.
Caroline Anderson behind the wheel of her family’s combine.

The combine is a nerve-wracking beast to control at the best of times — its weight and height make navigation more cumbersome. Today the farmers have removed the heads from their machines (specialized heads are used to harvest different types of crops) — and without the weight of the header, every tap and turn Caroline makes on the steering wheel changes the combine’s direction, making driving in a straight line a big effort.

But today, when Caroline makes the turn over Snow Hill’s bridge which leads to the main street, she does it flawlessly, and all by herself. The crowd goes wild, cheering and clapping for her.

“I knew she could do it,” her father beams. “She does it all the time by herself in the fields.”

Caroline thinks she’ll take over the family business eventually. She likes driving farming equipment and being active, and she can’t imagine spending time in an office.

While she chats energetically, her older sister Dana, fourteen, sits on the adjacent sidewalk curb, head down, thumbs pumping, darting around her smartphone. Dana, like many who grow up in Worcester County, wants to get out when she turns eighteen.

She’s planning to go to college and then move to New York, where she’ll pursue a career in screenwriting. Her dream is to write for “Saturday Night Live” — a far cry from her parents’ grain farm in rural Maryland.

Charlie Dorman, Snow Hill’s mayor since 2012, wants to see the town’s young people stick around. Like other rural areas in the U.S., Snow Hill has seen its population fall as residents look elsewhere for economic opportunity. In the year 2000, Snow Hill’s population was close to 2,500. It fell to 2,134 by 2013, according to state statistics, and Mayor Dorman says it’s now below 2,000

Mayor Charlie Dorman, who hopes that a younger generation can continue the agricultural history of Snow Hill.
Mayor Charlie Dorman, who hopes that a younger generation can continue the agricultural history of Snow Hill.

Dorman’s wants to encourage small businesses to invest in the town — and he thinks that Snow Hill should enjoy some of the casino profits that nearby Berlin and Ocean City take in each year.

Indeed, a great deal of the Blessing of the Combines is geared toward young people — an indirect ploy to get them thinking about supporting agriculture. Toddlers crawl in giant combine wheels or grip ladder walks in chubby, tight-fisted hands as they launch themselves toward glassy, convex cabs.

Shockley’s family isn’t like Anderson’s. His children are grown and live far away. And although he wants them to continue his family’s tradition of working the land, he doesn’t think they will. Philip, his 33-year-old-son, became critically ill with bacterial meningitis in 2013, while he was working as a systems administrator in Texas.

Close to death during the peak of the illness, Philip is now much better — but he still struggles with speech and fine motor skills — things that were no problem before the disease process, Shockley said.

Shockley’s son’s illness has done what decades of farming, fighting battles against the weather and the state, watching the sun eat his livelihood during burning summers that lack remorse, could not. It’s made him question his faith.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” Shockley asks, gazing out at his fields.

Shockley, like much of Snow Hill’s population, goes to church every Sunday. “I’ve never heard a preacher be able to really talk about a topic like that. And if you ask them about it they can’t really explain it either,” he says.

It’s a question that lingers, burning, in the back of his mind.

Come this September, the harvest starts again. With one employee assisting him, Shockley hopes to get his work done by Thanksgiving — pulling thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-hour days when necessary. He speaks as if he doesn’t have a choice — farming is in his blood, he says.

These days, Shockley finds himself more tired after a long haul in the field. He wishes that his children would come back to Snow Hill, that Phillip’s congealed speech skills would return, that he had been able to spend more time with his kids when they were young. But this fall he’ll be back in the fields again and again — taking corn and soy and the whirring of the combine as he always has — on faith.