October Corn Fields

No matter how fast you drive, or how early you leave home, driving 1850 miles takes a long time. Two and a half days for us. This year our route is a combination of the northern route along I-80 and the southern route along I-70. Anyone who drives the interstates with some frequency is aware of the presence of God. It’s easy to be an agnostic, or an outright unbeliever, if you never venture out among the triple trailers, rental box trucks and NASCAR-wannabes of the interstate highway system. It takes divine intervention to keep most of the travelers safe and alive to reach their destinations. We roll along, as we have every year in our memories, cruising at about 80, on our way to Montgomery County. The van is packed with two dogs and all our worldly possessions. Packed in our minds is the hope that we will be making the return trip loaded down with trophies and ribbons.

This part of the country had a wet summer. The corn stalks stand crowded and brown in the fields. These are working stalks in working fields. They will not be sculpted into a corn maze to entertain bored urban kids who think corn comes from a bin at Safeway or Kings. It takes corn in Nebraska nearly 100 days to be ready to harvest. Depending, of course, on the variety, Feeder corn ripens slower than sweet corn, but no matter what variety is planted in April, growing corn is an all summer proposition. The farmer lives and dies by the whims of nature. This year enough rain, plenty of hot summer days and some scientists finding new uses for the yellow gold in his fields means more money in his pocket and bills more easily paid. He may not have to work so hard this winter plowing driveways in town or the Wal-Mart parking lot. His family may not need to stand in line for commodities the government hands out: milk, bulk cheese and canned goods. He may be able to see his brother in Florida this winter and give his wife, who works as hard as he does, a real break. But next year, or the year after, there may be no rain or the chosen hybrid may not be able to withstand the local pests and he will sit at the kitchen table late into the night worrying about losing the world left to him by his father. Farmers are excellent stewards of the earth. Can we in dogs say as much?

Growing things takes patience and a toughness to withstand the inevitable failures. Not so much a burning passion as a deeply rooted caring and love for the process. Genuine curiosity and desire to keep improving. Showing and breeding dogs is very much the same. There is a lot of talk in the fancy about the need for older breeders to mentor those new to their breed. But you can’t teach patience. With the emphasis on winning in the show ring, the focus is more on immediate success instead of long-term goals. Cultivating breed knowledge, grooming skill and risk taking in breeding litters should be the foundations for a lifetime of service to one’s chosen breed. But these things take a great deal of time. Today it is easier than ever before to research pedigrees and make contacts with like-minded people on line. While this should be an opportunity for individual growth many times the Internet is used to further a fancier’s short term pursuits. This can be seen in the websites found in many breeds. The goals seem to be selling puppies and winning, winning, winning. These sites contain no substance, just superficial bragging. If the verbage was read aloud, and no pictures could be seen, the listener would be hard pressed to know which breed was being touted. Substitute Rottweiler photos for Golden Retriever photos for Kerry Blue photos and the wording could stay the same. Is there love for the breed or merely passion for competition. Some of these breeders will not be around in twenty years, or they will have moved on to another breed where success is more easily attainable.

At the Topeka shows this year I spoke to a couple who at one time had bred and shown our breed. They were unable to achieve their desired level of success, so they simply switched breeds. They picked a rarer terrier with fewer individuals being shown. Success was more attainable. They bought a nice specimen of their new breed and had some nice wins, including an owner handled Best in Show. On this weekend, his dog was almost ignored and obviously past his prime. By the end of the weekend he confided he was once again changing breeds to one rarer still and in an entirely different group. This man believes his success will be assured because there are fewer handlers in this breed than in the terriers. His parting comments, shouted with great enthusiasm, were how much easier it would be to get group placements and rank his dog since there were so few showing.

Watching him walk his little dog out with his wife following him, I realized that he lacked the patience needed to be successful with any breed of dog. While he will always own show dogs, he will never be respected by his peers. He will contribute nothing to any breed he chooses and will never be a mentor to someone newer than himself. Like the crops flashing by our van windows, producing quality dogs takes more time than is apparent. When you visit your first dog show how easy winning looks. Those leaving the ring with the purple and gold ribbons seem to be people like everybody. But have a conversation with the most successful people in any breed and you will hear them speak just as much of wrong directions and failures they have experienced as about runaway winners. Sometimes these breeders seem to disappear for a few years only to re-emerge with a dog greater than what they previously brought to the ring. Patience and persistence. Two things not everybody has. Starting with a cute 12 week old pup and waiting for her to grow up, continually evaluating her against the standard, seeking out mentors in the breed who can offer honest advice about the puppy’s progress takes too much effort for most and has no immediate payoff. When the puppy reaches the minimum age to be shown, neither owner or dog is ready, but the puppy is shown anyway. Winning replaces learning. If the neophyte has some quick wins he rushes on. No need to spend evenings studying canine movement when the puppy won a five point major. No need to take that expensive handling class when you just won Best of Breed over specials. Who can argue with success? This is winning, but is it backed by knowledge and skill to make the new exhibitor someone to be feared in the ring? Or is this just another case of beginner’s luck? Imagine a farmer throwing seeds out into his field without regard for soil conditions or the market for the crop he may produce. Will this method guarantee his longevity and ability to feed his family year after year? The odds are wholely against him.

In two more days we will be at the first venue of this year’s Montgomery weekend. We will visit with old friends and some newer ones. I will be curious to see how many are still in our breed and how many have bred litters. As more and more master breeders die, or retire, how many of the new breeders have the tenacity to fill their shoes? How many will measure their success by the prizes they take home? How many will be remembered five years from this one? It is my hope when I am 80, and making my way past the corn fields of Nebraska in October, that I will be eagerly awaiting the latest entries from those so new this year.

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