Dick Woodfin’s first memory is of his father pouring wheat seed from a bag into a metal pail and then slinging it by hand as he trudged over the plowed ground. He was about 14 months old.
He says modern technology, including satellites and computers that monitor seeding rate for specific areas in wheat fields, is a long way from how his father planted. "But we’re not through yet" he says. "We keep progressing."
He has witnessed some of the world’s most revolutionary changes in agricultural production and has embraced and promoted technology he believed would help farmers work more efficiently and improve their lives.
Woodfin, of Grand Junction, Colo., will turn 101 in December. He served as a county agent through some of the most trying times this country’s farmers have ever seen, beginning his career in 1930 in Crowley County, Colo., just in time for the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
He recently attended the National Association of County Agricultural Agents in Albuquerque, N.M., a meeting he’s missed rarely in the last 50 years. He was a popular visitor, often surrounded by county agents, young and old, who reveled in his stories and marveled at his wisdom.
As he sat for this interview, Baxter Black, cowboy poet, entertainer and keynote speaker for the opening session of the annual meeting, sought him out, stooped by his wheelchair and expressed appreciation for Woodfin’s participation in the meeting.
"You honor this group with your presence," Black said.
"I don’t know about that," Woodfin responded as he gently touched Black on the shoulder.
Even at the century mark, Woodfin lights up a room with his presence. He’s affable, witty, warm, respectful and willing to share his memories with anyone who’ll listen. The memories go back to when farmers struggled against overwhelming odds just to scratch a meager living from the soil.
Woodfin was born in Missouri in 1900. His family moved, in a covered wagon, to Oklahoma to file for a homestead when he was just four-years old. He remembers sitting on a riding plow and recalls feeling good about his family’s occupation. He remembers growing up on a farm as a time of peace and contentment.
He was eager to learn but had to overcome steep obstacles to get an education. Because his family moved often as farm prospects waxed and waned, he attended school irregularly and often had to start over.
"I skipped sixth and seventh grade," he says, "and started the eighth grade four different times."
Once he got so discouraged when a teacher pointed out that he was ineligible to be in the eighth grade because he couldn’t spell "eligible" he dropped out and went to work on a dairy.
"I milked 10 or 12 cows a day and made $25 a month," he says. "I decided I needed to go back to school."
On his next attempt a better teacher helped him catch up and he passed his eighth grade exam when he turned 18 and then decided he needed military discipline. He saved enough money to take the train to Denver to enlist in the Marines.
"They turned me down because I was five pounds underweight," he says.
"So I tried to join the Navy. They turned me down because I had flat feet. I was out of money, so I went back home. It was funny in a way. I could walk all day behind a plow but couldn’t walk on a ship with a wooden deck because of flat feet."
He heard about an opportunity to learn agriculture at Fort Collins, Colo. "It cost $300 for tuition" he recalls. "So I got a job on the railroad for $6 a day, less $1 a day for room and board. In July, I worked in Kansas sacking wheat for $7 a day. I finally made $300 and went back to Cheyenne Wells, Colo., where my family was living.
I helped my father with his dray business for a few weeks and then went off to the Fort Collins Colorado School of Agriculture.
"I thought I was in paradise. I got to play football on the scrub team. I was too old to play on the regular squad."
His junior year he was captain of his ROTC company and "finally got the military training I wanted."
In 1924 he went on to the Colorado State University and finished his degree in 1928. He taught vocational agriculture at Big Springs, Neb., for a year. He also coached the debate team and the girls and boys basketball teams.
The next year he went to work for the Colorado Extension Service, but the job was short-lived. The contract ran out and he was out of work in the heart of the Great Depression.
"I couldn’t even get work with the railroad. A lot of people were looking for jobs. I sold some farm insurance, but not much. I went 10 months without a steady job."
But he met his wife at that post and they were married for 69 years. She passed away just a year ago.
He finally got a new Extension Service assignment in Burlington, Colo., Kit Carson County.
"I spent 14 years there as county agent," he says.
He recalls working with the Kit Carson County Farm Bureau, which he helped form, to buy a small generator to provide electric lighting for night meetings.
"We held a lot of committee meetings for crops, poultry, beef and other commodities, and we had to meet at night in barns, school houses and homes," he says. "With the generator, we didn’t have to rely on lanterns."
He also got a projector and movies to show at meetings. "That generator helped create an appetite for rural electrification," he says. "The Farm Bureau vowed to put electricity on every farm in the county."
He also helped provide water to rural families in Mesa, where he worked in the 1940s. He recalls running up against some city officials who preferred to keep most of the water for the municipality and not allow pipelines into rural areas.
With a strong organization, some shrewd politicking, and a commitment to his constituents, Woodfin helped reverse the trend and got water to the farms.
"I had folks explain the situation to the city merchants," he said. "I recommended that we visit in pairs. While one talked the other listened and thought about what to say next. That way we didn’t get surprised."
Woodfin recalls in the darkest days of the Dust Bowl farmers having to kill livestock because they could not raise enough forage to feed them. He also refused to let a federal government agent come into the county to kill the animals. He felt that local farmers could better select the stock to be destroyed and would resent outsiders taking over that chore, onerous as it was.
He recalls years of drought and "awful infestations of grasshoppers and locusts in the 1930s. It was a hard time for agriculture."
He says farmers began to recover in the early 1940s as the economy began to improve. "And we finally began to get rain."
Farm management was always an issue with Woodfin’s clientele. "In Kit Carson County, I had farmers ask me to help them develop a production system where they could make $2,400 per year from their farms. I began collecting records, four to five years of production costs and incomes. I sent these to our economist to tabulate. We’re still doing the same kind of analysis today, but we’re using computers instead of doing it by hand."
He says farmers still face the same problems of balancing costs against return and finding ways to make a farm profitable.
"We’re losing farm population, and I sometimes wonder what consumers will do for food if we no longer have enough farmers to produce it."
Woodfin has seen tremendous improvements in farm productivity in his career. "In Kit Carson County, average grain yield was 2.5 tons per acre (in the 1930s). Our demonstration plots made six or seven tons. Proper fertilization was the key."
He says use of commercial fertilizers and improved varieties are two of the most significant changes he has seen in his career.
"And machinery is so much more efficient."
Woodfin has been retired since 1962 and has used his time to travel. He and his wife bought a travel trailer the year he retired and took it to the World’s Fair in Seattle.
"We visited every state in the United States and most of the Canadian provinces. We went to Europe three times. We saw the moon shot in Florida.
He still has a recreational vehicle and his daughter Jeanne Moody often travels with him.
He broke a hip last winter, which has slowed him some, but he still gets around with a wheel chair or a walker. Until that injury, he mowed his lawn and gardened.
His daughter says growing up as a county agent’s child was an ideal existence. "I was well into 4-H," she says, "And I used a lot of my 4-H training in my career as a director of housekeeping for a motel."
She recalls traveling with her dad. "I was a tomboy. If it had to do with agriculture, I wanted to tag along."
Woodfin devoted his life to improving the lot of rural families. He even served one term in the Colorado state legislature. And though retired, he still contributes. Every time he shares his stories with an audience or with just one listener, he offers perspective on where agriculture is and where it has come from in 100 years. His life exemplifies how one person can make a difference.
And he honors the farmers who continue to struggle to make a living from the soil.