Monday, October 13, 1997
Bone-dry soil no match
for farmer's faith

The Cincinnati Enquirer

You think your lawn's toast? Fred Zaenkert's front yard is a desert.

''It's bone dry,'' said the Butler County dairy farmer. He scuffed the worn toe of his work shoe over the dusty remains of a corn field.

The dry powder that raised meager ears of corn this past summer swirled around his feet. The soil's condition seemed ideal for growing cactus.

But Fred won't complain.

''All you can do is ask for the Lord's blessing.''

His rain gauge has cobwebs in it.

But he's not shaking his fist at the spiders.

''What good would that do?''

In the 33 years he's farmed his 270-acre spread with his wife, Julie, and their 10 children, he's never seen the ground this dry.

But he refuses to gripe.

''You just pray a lot,'' Fred says and bows his head.

''Whatever the weather, we are blessed to make our living off the good earth.''

Spend any time with this 57-year-old farmer and you come away with lessons in humility and unshakable faith.

In his sweet, gentle way, he puts everything in its proper perspective.

''You can't get upset and be negative. That gets you downhearted, and then you go nowhere.''

In a few words, he makes you realize how easy it is to get caught up in your own little world.

''Guys in the suburbs worry about rain messing up their golf game,'' he said, squinting into a cloudless sky. ''I wish I had that worry.''

Rain - or the lack of it - can make or break Fred Zaenkert.

This year, a withering dry spell has tried to break him. But he refuses to bend.

The drought that began in midsummer has settled in his corner of Southwest Ohio and just won't go away. Last month was tied for the eighth-driest September on record.

Since Aug. 15, Fred's farm has been sprinkled by just six-tenths of an inch of rain.

''That's not enough to wet down the dust on our gravel driveway.''

No wonder his rain gauge has cobwebs.

Farmers in surrounding counties reaped record harvests. ''We wound up getting 20 bushels of corn to an acre.'' Last year, he harvested 120 bushels for every acre he planted.

He chalks it up to ''a very unusual year. Spring was rainy and cold. I didn't take my sweat shirt off in the field until June, and I didn't get a tan until July.

''We got enough rain in May and June to last the entire summer - if we could have just spread it out. And then, the rain stopped.''

Showers came close to his hilltop farm.

''I stood here,'' he said in his front-yard corn field, ''and saw it rain in the east. I heard it. I even smelled it. But it has not come our way.''

A lesser man would feel discouraged. He might want to give his parched land a good, swift kick.

But temper tantrums are not in Fred Zaenkert's nature.

''He's a Godly man,'' said Julie, his wife of 37 years. ''That's why I married him.

''We pray every morning before we get out of bed and every night before we get in bed.''

A rain prayer - written by their daughter, Donna - hangs under the kitchen clock.

Supply rich nutrients in gentle showers

Send abundant rain with Your powers.

Put special lightning in the air

Nourish our soil with Your care

''We try to make sure we pray for rain every day,'' Julie said.

Still, it hasn't come.

The skies stay clear. The temperatures are unseasonably warm. And the ground grows drier and drier.

But Fred's faith is not shaken.

''That just goes with the uncertainties of being a farmer,'' he said.

''All you can hope for is to wake up with the morning and say another prayer.

''Rain or no rain, you have to be thankful for being able to start a new day.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.