Rural Iowa’s Roots Run Deeper
By Doug Clough
Beyond my backyard sits a soybean field, terraces stretching upward and more beans to the west. Next year it will be a cornfield, gaining my approval to a greater extent. I am a child of former Governor Robert Ray’s “A Place to Grow,” and my feelings for our Tall Corn State have rotated with the crops.
I grew up in our capital city, which may as well have been The Big Apple when it comes to understanding agriculture. An English education graduate of the University of Iowa, I landed in Ida Grove almost a quarter century ago. I taught high school students to write with purpose for nearly 10 years and then was drawn to a marine industry management position. For the past two years I’ve also written feature articles for an agricultural weekly, although marrying a farmer’s daughter is as close as I’ve come to working the land.
As a teenager I pedaled across Iowa with my father, kindling my first strong emotion for our state, a romance if you will. We rested under rural shade trees, drank from red-handled hydrants, and dodged storms in lofty wooden barns. No longer simply a resident, I was growing to be a proud native of a distinctive place defined by rolling hills, humidity, and farmsteads.
In the early 1900s there were well over 100 farm families in Ida County. Traveling our western highways today, I observe the number of miles between Terry Redlin painted farmsteads increasing. A local livestock trucker tells me his customer has gone from independent farmer to corporation during his 75 years in business. Technology and machinery give us more livestock and harvest with fewer farmers.
Barns are becoming museums and their haylofts basketball courts. Singular green expanses are dotted by fewer red buildings. An image as radiant as the multicommodity barn fading is impossible to bear without some measure of sadness.
My melancholy, however, began to temper this past spring. During an interview with an 83-year-old Plymouth County farmer on a century farm, the thrill of innovation was evident as he described the memory of his first tractor. “I hated seeing the horses go, but those tractors sure did a lot of work for us!”
This retired farmer, whose chicken and hog houses no longer stand, embraces progress that has changed his own backyard view. Could I be guilty of defining Iowa solely by its landscape? I thought of the stories I’ve covered about area farmers that have nothing to do with a painter’s palette.
An Ida Grove feed store owner’s daughter taught me how sheep are raised. The high school junior is a showman at county and state competitions. In addition to tossing hay bales and cleaning water buckets as part of her daily chores, this young practitioner uses Punnett squares — part of the complex theoretical framework of genetics — to figure which parents have the best chance to sire exemplary lambs.
A third-generation cattleman and grain farmer from Cherokee shared with me all he’s learned from his grandfather, father, and uncle on what it means to profitably farm. A graduate of Iowa State University, this young man exhibits confidence in his formal education and his experience that has taught him to proactively manage his pasture’s interrelated systems rather than react to isolated issues.
I reported a story of an Arthur livestock and grain farmer whose farm was decimated by a tornado. His emphasis during our interview was on his neighbors who hauled beans from his crumpled bins and cleaned debris from his ravaged landscape. A fellow cattleman, perhaps a competitor by today’s standards, kept the farm family’s cattle in his yard until fences could be mended.
Many volunteers tirelessly maintain this way of life, a life more about character than buildings. Earlier this year a Nemaha farmer opened a career expo at the middle school in Odebolt, where area grain and livestock producers taught breakout sessions on opportunities in agriculture. In nearby Early a 4-H leader facilitated more than a dozen community service projects with area youth over the past year.
On a sultry late-summer evening I look out over the bean field to the west and know my relationship with Iowa has transformed with the landscape. I’ve ventured from our highways as a mere observer, coming closer to the land itself, closer to the Iowans who define themselves by it. Beyond romance, an intimacy is emerging, and like the maturing plants, I will continue to grow.