Are We Making Progress?

Yesterday, the Des Moines Register asked this question when it comes to water quality in the state. I understand why they are asking. Folks wonder about the impact they are having on the environment around them. It’s a question I ask myself here on our Madison County Farm.

I can look out my window right now and see two sets of terraces leading down to an acre farm pond, none of which was present 10 years ago. What was in their place was a troublesome grass waterway in a crop field and an active cutting ditch in a pasture.

The waterway was troublesome, not because it was present, but because it wasn’t doing its job as well as we wanted. Not only have we limited the erosion, we have kept the silt from moving downstream, and we’ve greatly reduced the volume and velocity of the water as it leaves our property and continues down the watershed.

Right now, I’m thinking of the coming decades of service those structures will continue to provide. I know in the coming decades that work is going to be added to and built upon. Hopefully, for a couple of those decades, I’ll be able to continue to play a role.

Are we making progress? I don’t know how the answer to that is no. That doesn’t minimize the work left to do, but it is an accurate reflection on where we have come from.

I recently heard a voice on water quality issues in Iowa pronounce that those terraces aren’t doing any good. That’s baffling to me as a farmer. I see the good they are doing every time we get a significant rain, and every spring there isn’t erosion to mend.

Below is a picture from an intense downpour a few weeks ago. Can you imagine what would have happened without the terraces pictured? Right there, in the bottom of the photograph, you can see the work they do.

On the right side of the photo, you’ll see a strip of grass along the little creek. It functions to filter out any sediment from the field to its bank. Even though the soil wasn’t tilled, some sediment did move. It moved until it hit the buffer.

The rainfall was sufficient that the little creek left its banks. The grass along it laid down flat and kept the soil in place. It also caught some of the debris the water carried.

Critics will argue that our farm is an exception. It isn’t. Hop in with me, and I’ll take you down the road.

There are 40 acres on here on the northside that are farmed. It is terraced with 2 farm ponds bow it. 80 acres on the south, terraced with a big pond in one of its main draws. To the east are 80 acres that are terraced, and a 40 on the southside with a farm pond and a sidehill in grass.

In the fields to the west of us are terraces, a several acre pond which serves as flood control and a giant filter catching anything that moves from several hundred acres above it. West of that more terraces, another pond, a CRP sidehill in permanent vegetation, an 80 with grassed waterways and cover cropped. North of that terraces, more terraces, more terraces, more terraces, a series of ponds, and then the flat creek bottoms of Badger Creek.

We just traveled six miles. None of that was here 40 years ago. In that time, the way folks farm have changed, their practices have changed. All of that continues to evolve, and the work they’ve done continues to be built on.

I’d like to tell you it’s perfect. It isn’t. But the work here is hardly an aberration.

I was in the field pictured above, after the downpour, to take account of what it is we might do next. I’m wondering the same thing as I sit here and look out my window. Are we making progress? Yes. The question is how do we continue to build on it?

Making The Best Burger

The Foundation Burger at Flight Bar and Grill in Huxley

Once upon a time, if a cow was overly protective at calving, Dad and I would tag-team getting the calf tagged. The process was similar to professional wrestling, save the bright colors were blue denim, and tights were jeans. My father would try to get the cow going in a circle, with the calf and myself in the center.

As I’ve aged, we’ve dispensed with the tag-team. This is well. Today, my father would show me up, playing to the crowd at the age of 77, with one hand to his ear, begging for applause.

Instead, I mark down the cow and date of birth and wait a few weeks to bring the herd into the corral. There, old greivances get softer with time. If not, the odds are good to get a calf sorted off before its mother knows what is going on.

Helping me on the last day of April was my nephew Raylan, who is about to turn 12. He’s a big kid, with long, blonde locks that billow out from under his hat. Because of the hair, I sometimes wonder if he can see anything, but see he does.

The two of us would guide the calf into a small pen. There, we would push the calf into a corner. I’d take my time guiding the calf to a spot he could be caught, while Raylan shuffled his feet, looking nimble and pretending he could see.

At just the right moment, we’d close the gap between the calf and us. I became the tail guy, keeping a knee behind the calf’s backside. Raylan would swoop in, placing one hand under the calf’s chin and the other behind his head. Once I had the tagger, Raylan would bring a hand up to the calf’s ear, making sure it was positioned right.

For the calf’s part, he would shuffle his feet, looking nimble and pretending he could see. With a simple click, the tag was in place, and it was all over before it ever began. The calf, obviously expecting more, was released in an anti-climatic letdown.

“Nice work,” I’d tell my nephew. “Let’s get another one.” My nephew felt part of something and was grinning ear to ear. It was fun, but after a half dozen, it too was over before it even began.

“What can we do next?” he asked. On the farm, I’ve been thinking about that.

The next day, I headed to Flight Bar and Grill to be present for the announcement of the best burger in the state. On the way up, I was thinking about all the things I wanted folks across the state to know when it came to the families raising their beef.

If those consumers could see my nephew’s smile…, I thought.

At Flight, I met the owners, Matt and Marianne Pacha. They, too, were grinning ear to ear. In the interviews they gave that day, there was an obvious and sincere sentiment that they were overwhelmed that they won.

If consumers and producers could see that…, I thought.

There were also their future customers. All the folks that would hop in a car and plan a trip around sharing the 2023 Best Burger in Iowa. The memories they would relive, and the new ones they’d create, and all of it around a patty of beef, bringing together sunlight, grass and corn, salt and pepper, and good people across the state.

If the people that raised it could see that…

I made my own trip back last week with Shannon. The burger was as good as I remembered. As we went to leave, I spotted one of the owners behind the bar.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing all the good reviews on social media,” I told him, “but what I really enjoy is seeing how many producers have made the trek in just these past few weeks and enjoyed how you present what they raised.”

As far as what Raylan and I should do next, I know a burger he needs to try.

Raylan, The Calf Catcher


“Oh, all the money in my life I did spend
Be it mine right or wrongfully
I let it slip gladly through the hands of my friends
To tie up the time most forcefully
But the bottles are done
And we’ve killed every one
And the table’s full and overflowed
And the corner sign
Says it’s closing time
So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road.”

-Bob Dylan

I had missed the visitation, so I arrived early the following morning and found him laid out as straight as I’d seen him in some time. The pain had vanished from his hip. His legs were no longer too weak. His shoulders square, and a remnant of the smile he so often wore was across his lips. He looked at peace.

The attendants for the funeral home were there, dressed in dark suits. Beyond them were only his son, Randy, and his daughter-in-law, Beth. They were looking through a trove of photographs on display, and Randy was referencing conversations they had with the long line of friends the night before. Meanwhile, at the casket, I was certain I had Dean Molln to myself one last time.

I thought of the quarter pop he bought us from the Coke machine when I was just a kid in the office of BB&P Feed and Grain. I thought of his belly laugh, reclined in the corner in an old swivel office chair, about to drop his Democratic wisdom on some poor unsuspecting Republican. Often he began with, “You know one time…” and from there it was on. A story about overhauling a semi behind a Missouri scalehouse with only a sheet of plywood to break the winter wind, or a story about a trip to East St. Louis, or what a wild town Creston once was, or how wild his sons once were, or a bet he won, or a bet he lost and gladly paid.

He was like a second grandfather to any kid who came through the doors, and I’m sure his family bore the expense of that. He was a friend to us all as we grew up. I thought of all our conversations as I went off to college, or came home to farm, or worked for my then inlaws, or went through a divorce, or leaving the elevator and working for myself. And I thought of how foolish I’d been not to visit him more in the end.

Always chasing it, you know? Trying to make a dollar or a difference, juxtaposed by the guy silently making noise.

The last time I paid him a visit, he was in a nursing home. I had a beard, and I was worried he wouldn’t recognize me, and I’d have to explain to him who I was. I was even more worried that he’d be unhappy there, removed from the grain elevator, the tasks, and the people he’d built his life around.

“Dan,” he greeted me. “Come on in. Make yourself a drink.” It was 11:30 am…on a Wednesday. He had a dorm fridge stocked with 7Up and Seagram’s. “I just saw Richard a couple of days ago. Looks like he’s doing good.”

“How are you doing Dean?”

“You know, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t want to come here. In fact I threw a damn fit, but hell, Dan, this is where I need to be. These nurses take good care of me. Shit I can’t even get my pants on by myself,” he laughed. “Old age must be catching up to me.”

“It chased you until you were in your nineties, Dean.” Even in his nineties, there was the same old Dean. Indomitable. We told old stories. We talked about new things. We shared a drink, just as he’d done with so many others.

The last time I saw him was a couple months later. The county fair was going on. His other daughter in law, Shelly, arranged for a scooter so he could ride it around the fair. In the parking lot of the nursing home, they were both to be instructed on its use. Shelly was listening, but Dean was busy figuring it out himself, which is how he discovered the two speed. Into the high side it went, and out went Dean onto the city street.

Shelly was calling after him on a dead run, which Dean acknowledged by raising his hand above his head and waving her goodbye. A second later, her toe caught the lip of asphalt at the end of the driveway, and the asphalt then caught the skin of her palms and knees. Several blocks down, Dean rolled into the fairgrounds with the scooter still on the high side and a smile plastered across his face. Several minutes later, Shelly also came in on the high side, on foot with a decided limp, wearing dried blood and a look of exasperation.

Sharing a drink, telling old stories, talking about pretty girls, it’s all a silly way to tell someone you love them. But beside him, at his casket, like so many of my kind before, I finally got it right.

I knew Dean before I knew farming, or most of my friends, or even myself. He offered what he offered so many kids that came through the door. Support.

I wouldn’t know the number of kids Dean bought a 4-H animal off of at the county fair, representing the elevator. A fair number of those kids wouldn’t even have known who Dean was. He’d just see they had three chickens, or a hog, didn’t know anyone else in town, and he’d bid. It’s the kind of work that builds a community.

Having the place to myself, I cried, said a prayer, and started to take my leave. As I did so, I noticed his hands crossed at his belt, and jutting up from them between his thumb and index finger was his driver’s license.

I found a seat towards the back, and I was sitting there when his granddaughter arrived. I tried to tell her what her grandfather meant to me, and I couldn’t do it without emotion.

She told me how he had an appointment to renew his expired driver’s license that day, and he was hell-bent on doing it. Shelly was going to take him in so he could hear the news they all knew was coming directly from the folks in charge. Dean would have fought it. The fact that he had done so successfully about a year ago would have given him confidence. Confidence worked with Dean as gas does with fire.

“Have you seen Mom and Dad yet?”

“No,” I said.

“They’re in the kitchen. A friend made Dean an urn out of the old barn boards from the family farm, thinking he wanted to be cremeated. He didn’t, but we thought we’d all pick out some of our favorite photos, put them in there, and bury it with the casket. Come on back, you should see it.”

Larry, his son, had a sportcoat hanging loose on his shoulders, and there in his large, worn hands was a picture of his Dad, just past being a boy, with a rifle and two buddies at an army camp below the hills of Korea.

I mentioned the photograph, and his finger fell on the one in the middle, more muscular and taller than the friends on either side. I watched as it made its way to the box of weathered barn boards. From one side of the world to the other.

Given Dean’s build, they assigned him a .50 caliber machine gun in training, and he was supposed to carry it over the hills in the photograph behind him. On the ship from the states, however, their radio man was having second thoughts. Word had got out that the radio made you a target, and the acid from the batteries strapped to your back compounded the misery. The radio had been given to the smallest guy in the unit, and with great urgency he was trying to trade anyone he possibly could.

Finally, Dean asked him, “Do you think you can carry this .50 cal?”

“You bet I can,” he replied.

“All right then, I’ll trade you.”

“Ain’t you scared?”

“I ain’t scared.”

When Dean decided on something he was doing to do it. I assume he was always that way. So I think about him in those hills, and how many times someone must have sighted in that big, broad-shouldered American, carrying a radio, like a bull in a goddamn china shop.

To his daughter, Joyce, and his great-grandson, Cole, I said the same thing. “It probably won’t make sense,” I told him, “but I’ve come to believe most of life is just learning about being resilient. Dean was the most resilient guy I ever met, and the best part is that I think you can see that in his family.”

Maybe Cole didn’t know that of himself yet, but I did.

The reading at his funeral was about Lazarus of Bethany:

So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

In the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Lazarus becomes the first Bishop of Kition, living another 30 years before dying and being buried a final time. Tradition states he never smiled in all that time, save once.

Who could imagine Dean Molln never smiling? So I unbound him, and I let him go.

Cows on Stalks

I’ve been working the last several days putting fence back around a 120 acre field.  A few parts of it were in CRP until a couple years ago.  Due to how those parts laid, we kept the cows off it during that time.

We bid the parcels in for ten years.  The intent was to focus on other fields, and other parts of this one, in building terraces, building fertility, clearing trees from fence rows, and installing tile.  Once the ten years were up, during which the acres were to sit idled in grass, we’d finish these parcels.

CRP is a tool that works for many landowners.  It worked for us in getting to where we wanted to be.  But the idea that conservation and farming are two different things is bothersome.  The reality is that they need to go hand in hand.

A year or two after we bid it in, my father was diagnosed with a lung condition.  I came to regret these acres.  I was worried he’d never see the completed project.

In 2020, the acres came out.  In the spring of 2021, we completed the terraces on it.  Dad put the final touches on them himself.  When they were done, we hosted a local Boy Scout chapter intent on earning merit badges.

After a year of soybeans, we seeded a few of the acres back down this spring.  This time we seeded them to alfalfa and let it go to work, protecting the most sensitive acres with year-long cover, and converting sunlight to the protein found in beef.

Tonight, we got cows back out onto those stalk acres.  Dad helped with that, too.  They’ll graze for a few weeks on the residue that makes up the afterthought of last fall’s harvest.  They’ll speed that residues break down into the soil, and in the process we will will channel it to build fertility on the acres most in need.  Here in the bleak winter, they’ll convert some of summer’s leftover sunshine, caught by a corn crop now in the bin, to the protein a family will put on their plate.

Tonight, it felt like a long process was finally done.  Tonight, talking to Dad, we talked about what lie next.

The Oxford Dictionary defines merit, in its verb form, as follows:  deserve or be worthy of.  Perhaps we, the land, and our animals all merit each other. 

The Anxiety You Bring Yourself

2013 Iowa Farm Bureau Ag Leaders

In 2013, I participated in the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Ag Leaders Institute. I credit a lot to that experience. This morning, as I write, I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I had participated in other leadership programs before. Most of them had left me trying to figure out how to fit in with the group. Ag Leaders began to teach me how to more better develop myself. This was due to the program, headed by Mary Foley Balvanz, and it was due to the people I found myself surrounded with.

At some point, Mary gave us a creative writing assignment. For some reason I didn’t phone it in, but rather tried to string a few sentences together in a way I had hardly done since college. Reading it before the group, I could feel my face getting flush, and thought about how stupid it must sound, and wondered why I ever thought it was a good idea to attempt it in the first place. I quietly took my seat and sat there until we took a break, at which time Chris Prizler came over before I could get up and said, “Man, that was amzaing.”

I’d go on to write a little about my experience that summer, during an Iowa Farm Bureau Market Study Tour of Ukraine. Eventually I began a blog, and later I’d mostly give it up as I became part of the Des Moines Writers Workshop, which helped me get feedback from other writers and challenged me to try to make myself a better one. Occasionally, I’ll still post, most of which has been to celebrate the life of a late friend or advocate on the topic of mental health.

In the workshop, I’d cross paths with the late Mike Beecher. I began to write so that I might hear a particular comment from Mike, “I think that took a great deal of courage.” I supposed he helped me realize those were the only topics worth writing about.

At some point, I also began to realize there was safety in writing for me. I could do it as I felt motivated. I could edit endlessly, always going back and recrafting until I was saying just the right thing, exactly how I wanted.

I used to think life was about learning to say the right thing. I realize now saying the right thing is but a small part of it. People say the right thing all the time, but they say it in a way that doesn’t let it be heard. They confuse the fact that they aren’t heard for some type of martyrdom, when in all reality they are a step short, refusing to self sacrifice the last bit that gets in the way.

Beginning a new year, I decided I wanted to leave the safety of writing behind. I had mostly fallen out of practice anyway. I want to focus on being better at speaking, talking about a thing that took some courage. I reached out to Mary, and I asked to speak on the topic of mental health in agriculture to her current Ag Leaders Class. She was receptive, and in August granted me a part of the day’s program to give it a go.

It was a topic I had talked a lot about before in one on one conversations with folks I knew. I had written about it, and I think the fact that I had written about it made the topic more approachable for people I knew to bring up. That and I guess the fact that folks often feel comfortable sharing where they are at with me.

This would be to a group of relative strangers. I’d be giving it cold, without an exchange on niceties, and our families, crop prices, and the weather. I knew what I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want a powerpoint presentation. I wanted to try to make it conversational so I scribbled a couple pages of handwritten notes, and in the days leading up to the event, I’d practice as I drove around in how I might deliver them.

I was terribly nervous, which was to be expected. People want an anxiety-free life. People also want to feel like the have lived a life well lived. I have never found them to be particularly suited to each other.

I started talking about my old Ag Leaders group. I knew that would make me comfortable. And then I transitioned qucikly in the following way:

It’s a funny thing getting to know new people. The things you share. The things you don’t. That group that year wouldn’t have known that I was recenlty divorced, or that I was trying to manage a new business, or that my father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, or that I was consumed about what that meant for him or the farm. I certainly wouldn’t have told them that I was talking to a therapist, or if you prefer, a coach. Yet here I am today, still talking to them every month and telling a group of strangers about it.”

I suppose it was a group of 25 people or so, and while I typically maintain good eye contact while I speak, I had taken a brief break from it to deliver the lines above. When I looked back up, I felt I had every set of eyes in the room squarely on me. Then I did feel nervous.

I’m no stranger to the idea that establishing an emotional connection with you audience helps them connect to what you are trying to say. I just didn’t anticipate the connection I felt at that moment, and what followed for me was the most I had struggled in delivering remarks to a group in a long time.

Amid the nerves, I tried to continue on.

Mental health is health. Talking to someone on a regular basis is someting I do. For a long time, there hasn’t been the feeling of something chronic. You look at life, and try to figure out how to be more present and accounted for to yourself in your relationship with others. For me mental health is professional development. It is about becoming better at self management, more resilient, and more effective in how you communicate.

There’s a stigma surrouding it and it cuts both ways. People worry if they talk to someone, folks will think they have “problems,” whatever that means. But the reality is when I speak to folks about why they don’t seek help, they usually say they don’t think their “problems” are big enough. I don’t know what your problems pile up to, but I do know you and the people you care about are worth it, 100%

I told them I was talking to them about it because I figured I was a lot like them. The more you do, the more people give you. “I bet a lot of you don’t say “no” very often.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but things can really stack up. The ability to withstand one storm is often tested by an even larger one, or ones in quick succession.

It’s further complicated in agriculture. Your friends see their family on holidays. We work with them every day. Along with it comes huge generational pressure. The pressure to keep it going, admist markets and weather that we aren’t in control of. Not to mention that the distinction between life and work is difficult to find most times.

“A story I often go back to is that at the end of the day, we are all dealt a hand of cards. Many we don’t have much control over. Where we are born at, for example. If it rains this year, for another. You’re going to find folks that you feel have been dealt great hands, but won’t make the effort to learn how to play their cards. You’re going to find folks that have been dealt extremely tough hands, and play the hell out of them. You’re going to find yourself hoping for better cards. We can’t deal those to ourselves, but in playing our own hands better, perhaps we can deal them to others.”

It writes much better than I spoke it. I havent struggled that much in a long, long time. The group was kind enough to ask questions, and with a face flushed I answered them. It felt remarkably similar to a spot I had found myself nearly 10 years before.

When they were done, I made my way back to a friendly face at the back of the room. I heard Mary say, “He writes this wonderful blog “True Stories and Tall Tales.” He used to write it regularly. I wish he would again.”

“This would make a good blog post,” I thought, and I wondered if I had ever told her how impactful she’d been in all of it. “Maybe that would make a nice blog post too.”

Sometimes I hear someone say what they think leadership looks like. Most of what I hear is bullshit. Folks will tell you leadership is the offspring of courage and confidence. I think we mostly say it because we want to believe it. This in spite of the fact that personal experience will tell you most folks with confidence would be better off if they had a little less courage.

When I see leadership around me it’s usually a product of courage and anxiety. Either someone dipping a toe into something new, or someone having done so once sharing what they learned. Mary Foley Balvanz taught me that. She and the Ag Leaders Class of 2013 gave me a little courage. The anxiety I brought myself.


Flying hime from Reno a week ago involved a three hour flight to Dallas/Ft Worth.  Upon boarding the plane, and finding my seat just one row from the back, a noise came behind me from the last row and the people I had overlooked.  It was the shrill yell of a small child, seated against the window as I was.

Its nothing, I thought.  They just need to settle in.  Besides, it wasn’t like I was the only one that could hear it.  I figured nearly the whole damn plane could.

On takeoff the roar of the engine muffled the yells a bit.  The turbulence after, muffled it further.  The plane felt like it was dropping hundreds of feet at a time.  The first few I rode out without reacting, eventually I pushed my hand ahead and clutched the side of the seat in front of me.

At any moment I expected that shrill scream to give way to cries of terror.  It did not.  It just kept marching on, enthralled with its own sound.  It continued to do so over the next three hours, the first ten of which were spent afraid that I might die.  The next two hours and fifty minutes left me regretting that I had not.

I resigned to watch a documentary close captioned on my phone, and as the shrieks continued, I followed more and more intently the tiny words on my screen.  At one point a stewardess intervene and attempted what his mother hadn’t and offered him a popsicle to quiet down.  It did not work.

An hour in and his older sister started flipping the latch of her seat belt.  It only took a minute of that coupled with the shrieking to cause a woman a few rows up to loose her shit.

“Would whoever is clicking that seat belt please quit it?” exclaimed the woman, in a voice about to break.

The clicking stopped.  Her younger brother went on.  The beverage cart had gotten close enough that in between shrieks I could hear what the folks ahead of me were ordering.  If there was ever a time when a beer was worth ten dollars, I thought, this is it.

I ordered a diet coke anyway.  On my screen i kept progressing through the lives of the boxers, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran.

Maybe he has a disability I reasoned.  Maybe they are just too young, still I couldn’t help but wonder how for two hours his mother didn’t try.

When we finally made the gate a mother with two young children of her own, neither of which had made a peep, moved back a row to sit directly across from the mother and two kids behind me.

“Hi,” she said, “What are your guys’ names?”

It was their mother that finally spoke.  “You can have them if you want them.  I’m done with them.  I tried to get my tubes tied after the first one, but they wouldn’t let me.”

At that I turned, finding two kids older than I imagined, with seemingly nothing wrong but their mother, whose eyes lay deep in a moist haze and the filthy white skin of her face.

“Do you want them?” she asked, turning her dead gaze to me speaking in a way that made it difficult to tell if she were joking.

All I wanted was the shrieks of her son to make her ears bleed and stop the words I heard from coming out.  For the first time in three hours he was silent.

I let them exit the plane ahead of me, so I might finally create some space between myself and them.  Getting my bag, a young black stewardess spoke to me.  “Thank you,” she said.  “I’m so sorry.”  Before I could say anything, she turned to her coworker, “Did you hear that?” with a look of pure astonishment and shock.  She mouthed the word ‘unbelievable’ as I walked away.

Just two weeks before, I was sitting with my mother in an ER room watching my father battle a sepsis infection.  His heart had been racing and now they were struggling to keep his blood pressure up.  He was awake for the first time in awhile.

A nurse came in and seemed secretly alarmed my father’s blood pressure had dropped even further.  She tried to nonchalantly move his blood pressure band over to the other arm.  I waited for it to reappear on the monitor.  It read the same.  She removed it and read it by hand.

“Any different?” I asked her.

“No,” she said.  Then for the third time in 20 minutes she asked, “Richard, can you tell me where you are right now?”

“In bed,” he cooly replied.

It broke the tension and the nurse’s shoulders convulsed in laughter. “You got me there.  Where is this bed at?”

“Same place it was five minutes ago, Mercy Hospital, downtown Des Moines.”

“Who’s the President?” she asked.

“We don’t have one,” he said.

“Sounds like he’s fine,” said my mother.  The nurse laughed again.

“We need to get your blood pressure up,” she told him.

When she left, from the seat of a hard plastic chair I told my father, “I’m sorry you are going through all this.”

“It’s all right.  I’ve lived a good life.  I’m old.  Things wear out.”

Some things sooner than others I think.

The day after I returned, we got my father back home. The infection behind him.

Working Cattle

On a Sunday in mid-June I discovered pinkeye was doing a number in 60 head of calves in the commercial cow herd. It was mid-morning of what was to be a hot day, and the window to work them had closed. I set my sights, then, on the next one.

My sisters, between work and baseball camps, couldn’t make the next day work. I couldn’t ask my friends in good conscience. They had work, and the short notice couldn’t be excused by the fact that I am family.

“I could do it,” said my father.

In the morning I was certain I could get them a quarter mile to the corral fine on my own. Beyond that some help would be nice with the sorting and the catching.

“I don’t know, Dad,” I replied.

My father has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a gradual hardening of the lung. This spring he went on oxygen. We’d all complain, but he was diagnosed in 2012. They wanted to put him on oxygen, then. He was stubborn.

He got into a drug trial in an effort to help others. Prior to the trial, the only treatment was an antacid, a multivitamin, and trading for someone else’s lungs. That is if someone wasn’t using them at the point you got poor enough to need them, and had stabilized enough for a surgeon and a transplant specialist to say, “What the hell.”

In the trial, Dad would later find out he got the drug. It was meant to slow the progression of the disease. It was approved after it had done so for most participants. For Dad it did something for him it did for no one else. He got better.

Eight years later I was with him at a doctor’s appointment. She asked him if he remembered when he first came in. He told her he did. “I was just trying to buy you another year,” she told him. “We passed that a long time ago.”

Last year she congratulated him on being her longest lived patient. My father wondered if that congratulation came with an improved hospital parking spot. This was the same guy wanting to work calves now.

He always wants to help. Sometimes I’d like him to have plans other than that.”

“Like what?

“I don’t know. To go places and do things. All the things I’ve got to do because of him.”

“Have you told him that?”

“I have.”

“What did he say?”

I tell him I want him to spend time doing what he enjoys. He says he is doing what he enjoys.”

“Do you think you can accept that, then?”

“It’s hard.”


“Because I know I’m not worth all of that.”

Back at the ranch, we started getting the cows in at 6:30 the next morning. It was cool and they moved easy without wanting to bunch in the heat. Into the corral and then the sort pen with my father after them like his faithful border collie, Rusty.

My father was on the gate as always, and a portable tank of oxygen was in his truck. They sorted well, and Dad took a break. I moved the calves up closer to the catch chute and began sorting the haves from the have nots.

At some point I notice a collapsible Coleman camping chair being positioned between the pickup and the chute. The portable oxygen was deployed as well. One by one we made our way through the calves.

Occasionally we took a few extra minutes.

Ten days later, trying to bat cleanup on any infections still lingering, my father piloted a Kawasaki Mule bringing them up, while I flanked them in a Chevy truck. This time we were trying to fit it in at the end of the day, thinking the heat Ihad abided enough.

The air was in the low 80’s, but the cows were still too hot. The front ones wanted to stop and bunch, while the bulls covering them wanted to stop and fight. It was all too much for my six year old nephew, Easton, tagging along with Grandpa in the mule with his Mom.

“I’m scared, Mom.”

“About what, Easton?”

The bulls were fighting right outside the Mule, and he and the rest of its occupants were not protected by the doors and windows of a full cab.

“I love Grandpa, and I don’t want anything to happen to him.”

Meanwhile, Grandpa let out a war whoop that would have made old Rusty proud.

A Dutch Farmer in Ukraine

In 2013 we visited this farmer in Ukraine.  Sometimes what I write gets summed up in fewer words than what were spoken.  Sometimes it’s several different conversations merged into one.  In my blog, this particular farmer, Kees Huizinga, is the one who makes the comment on Ukrainian villagers and what they read.

Kees is immediately likeable. He talks with a passion and energy that is infectious. If there was any momentary barrier in language, it didn’t matter. Who he is translated perfectly.

His respect for the Ukrainians shone through.  He talked about what a pleasure it was to share homemade vodka in their homes. How they made him feel welcomed, and what a rush it was to have a conversation with a people so engaged on the really big questions of life.

Watching these people fight for their country. I think of how our own must have been once, before it is like it is now.

The village near him was remote. Livestock roamed in people’s yards. A huge community garden was just outside. We would think of them as poor. At the time some were survining on a little more than $600 a year.

Were you or I passing by, we wouldn’t have said two words to the people we found there, but the conversations Kees was having were changing his life.

Today we have this western notion, that everything is going to work out, because usually it does, I guess. We find comfort in the hope that maybe everything is happening for a reason yet to be revealed. Maybe were we in their shoes, because of those thoughts, we would rise to the occasion and fight.

I don’t think the folks you are seeing on TV have those thoughts, however. In the last hundred years alone, Ukraine has no doubt witnessed millions of people killed worse than cattle. From the Holomador, to their Jews in the Holocaust, their soldiers in WWII, and Stalins whims and Nazi incursions. I don’t know if that’s much of a departure from the rest of their history.

I don’t believe the Ukrainians are comforted by the belief it’s all going to work out. At this point, I don’t suppose they think someday there’s going to be a reason big enough to soak up all the blood thats be spilled in the last century. I would guess many do know God is with them, and they probably feel like He’s the only one at times.

I lost count the number of times I heard people express, ‘God’s in control’ during the last two years. I don’t know how I feel about that. If He’s in control, He’s letting a lot of shitty stuff happen. Maybe He’s just expecting you and I to do a little of His work.

There are some Ukrainians and Dutch working their asses off. They might not expect a thing, but they do know you sure as hell better try. It’s hard not to notice that, thanks to Kees.

Ring Them Bells

Towards the end of our journey through Ukraine, we finally settled down into the port of Odessa.  Gone now were the rough and winding roads that occasionally ended in dead ends not yet mapped.  Gone as well were the mass of people traveling with us along them, by horse cart or motorcycle, in old communist cars or over-crowded city buses, or on foot in high heels in areas so remote there only purpose could have been to garner interest for a ride out.

Gone were the rural villages with their houses guarded by concrete walls, which held livestock in and the West seemingly out. Gone were the crumbling concrete edifices of old communist apartment buildings, with walls covered in air conditiong units, latticed with random wires, and balcaconies enclosed in plywood. Gone were abandoned factories.

It seemed the only rural fingers which made their way into this port town were grain and stray dogs.

Here in Odessa, there were tree-lined streets and mowed grass and even lovers on occasion.  Communist party members had vacationed here, one of us observed, and they were wise enough not to shit where they slept. This they had in common with the stray dogs, but commonality ended here.  The dogs were indifferent about where they vacationed.

At the port we found the Black Sea, and it lay open ahead of us.  At its shore were tied up cruise ships, barges, dinghies and yachts with names like “Lady Luck.”  Towering above them in the nearby shipyards and were massive cranes, yet even at the great sea’s shore they could not reach its bottom and busied themselves instead with what floated on top of it.

Above the boats and below the cranes, at the furthest point of our pier, was an Orthodox church. From its far end against the sea, rose a bell tower.  It was Sunday morning.  At this tower every 15 minutes or so, a boy appeared, darkly tanned, dressed in jean shorts and a t-shirt.  Among the collection of bells within the tower he would hammer.  He hammered well.  Were Odessa silent, the bells would ring as far inland as they did out to sea.  This boy straddled the coast, and with his ringing I began to reflect on what I had seen.

We had seen American farmers in Ukraine. We had seen the Dutch. We also saw the Russians. After viewing the Dutch run farms it was difficult to sleep at night, thinking about all the low hanging fruit, and how quickly they would become competitors to us. After viewing the Russian farms, with modern tractors abandoned and varying modern implements being raided for parts, we slept better.

At the beginning of the journey one farmer gave us his take on the Ukrainian condition.  “Years and years of communist rule has left the average Ukrainian unable to think for themselves.  They don’t want responsibility.  They can’t handle it.”  His long time Ukrainian right hand man was present for this.  So may have been our Ukrainian guide.  I don’t recall where the bus driver was, but he spoke no English so it didn’t matter.

He fed us a large lunch of traditional Ukrainian staples, as well as beer and vodka.  I ate to my heart’s content, as his Ukrainian cooks, both markedly attractive, brought out course after course.  In the end I wound up with indigestion, but the cooks were not to blame.  I suspect my conscience had done it.  I plyed my conscience with the booze, and it worked nicely.  Writing about it now cleared it up entirely.

It is easier to go with the flow than take the responsibility of raising an objection; especially when the flow is feeding you.  This is as American as it is Ukrainian.

“If you want to get a handle on what these people have faced, read The Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder,” he said. When the Soviets came to power they sort of laid the law down in each village and moved on. They came back in a month, and if you weren’t doing what they told you, they lined you up against the wall and shot you. After a couple rounds of that, those left understood not to do anything unless someone told you to. It’s still like that today,” he opined.

Another farmer offered a different take. “The Ukrainian villager may not have a satellite dish, we might view them as surviving only on subsistence farming, but they are highly literate, much more so than we are.  I don’t mean a higher percentage of the population can read.  I have no idea about that.  What I mean is that a higher percentage does read.  All the houses have books, and they are not just any books, but Tolstoy and all the other Russian and Ukrainian greats.”

On our way through, passing immense fields worked by fleets of new tractors and harvested by teams of new combines, a lone horse cart sat on one end of a five acre field.  Working here was a solitary man with a pitch fork.  He was turning over a field of hay.  In the countryside there were no fences, and in a day or two we would begin to find 2 or 3 people keeping watch over the village’s cows or sheep for the day.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the whole country is held in small 5-10 acre chunks by villagers, and assembled into much larger tracts by their tenants.  There is no open land market in Ukraine. How it is leased is still impacted by the communists rise to power. 

1932-1933 was what some call the Holodomor (Extermination by hunger) in Ukraine.  Stalin had seized the wheat, and by spring 1933 general estimates are that around 3.5 million people had starved to death.  The Soviets did the best they could.  They printed posters warning the peasants to refrain from cannibalism and prosecuted 2500 for doing it.

To this day most villagers take their rent in bags of wheat, not cash.  After a year the crop is sold and a new bag takes its place. If God hates a coward, I should think it harder for Him to find one here than other places.  Perhaps I am sentimental.

What does the future hold in store for Ukraine?  I can’t say.  I can say perhaps our presents, though, aren’t all so different.  We are both trying to do the best we can, but find ourselves only able to do the best we know how.  Perhaps we both might show each other how to do better.

“Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams.  Ring them bells from the sanctuaries across the valleys and streams.  For they’re deep and they’re wide, and the world is on its side, and time is running backward and so is the bride.”

Telling Our Story Through the Beef Checkoff

There’s a story my Dad was fond to repeat when I was growing up. It was about a local guy, taking a load of fat cattle on an old stake bed truck into the packing plant located near downtown Des Moines. It was a nice day. Folks had their windows rolled down, and this would prove to be unfortunate for the poor woman, parked in the lane beside him at a stoplight, when a steer in the back lifted his tail, shot through the slat side, and right into her open window.

She was disgusted. The driver was undeterred. “Don’t worry ma’am,” he is said to have remarked. “It’s only grass and water.”

I suppose the beef community has always had its advocates. In the decades that have passed, the story has become more layered, our connection to consumers has become a little less personal yet more developed, and our advocates have become more skilled in communicating the story behind the product they raise. Still, sometimes all of those things have to face some pretty strong headwinds.

This has become increasingly evident this spring. Robust demand for our product and the good price consumers are willing to pay for it isn’t translating to higher prices on the farm. While this issue commands the most attention, it isn’t alone. Feed and input prices are rapidly climbing, dryness in some areas is expanding, and the forecast for the summer ahead is full of as much uncertainty as I can recall.

On some issues we face and of some remedies proposed there seems to be consensus within our community, and on some we find disagreement. Farmers, ranchers, and feeders want to know what anyone is doing about finding a solution, what efforts are working, and which are not. They are frustrated, and it couldn’t be more understandable.

Against this back drop, one morning on the farm, I found a month old calf with her leg tangled in three strands of a new barbed wire fence and her mother waiting anxiously beside her. The new wire was so tight, I couldn’t release her until I ran back to the farm, grabbed the wire cutters, and cut her free.

The wire had tore to the bone on both sides of her leg. The local veterinarian took care to clearly spell out that her chances were slim. Yet even against the backdrop described above, there was no debate about how we were going to proceed. We gave her the best care we possibly could.

As a producer, I need favorable economics to survive. It seems like a big hill to climb right now. Yet across the valley of this current spring is another peak, I think of equal height, about who we were, and why we do what we do. These two, on our farm, have to work together. Your Beef Checkoff works on both.

That’s hard to remember sometimes, specifically because strong demand and a good price from consumers are things we would like to point to as something enhanced by checkoff efforts. I understand the obvious concern raised when not as much of that price is making its way back to the farm as we would like. An uncomfortable question we might ask ourselves is where we would be without that demand and without that sense of value consumers feel they get from our product.

I’d like to think a remedy can be found in governmental policy or the enforcement of law, but neither are in the arena the checkoff is allowed to operate in. Against this backdrop, we sometimes lose sight of all it can do.

I have a good friend who is a photographer, well known in Iowa agriculture and beyond for his work. He knows how to select the right equipment, catch the right light, and how to position himself at the right angle. He also knows how to capture images that resonate with folks. About the latter, he knows two secrets we as producers too frequently miss. Or if you don’t, I do.

The first secret is about the power of the images he is capturing. It connects folks outside the agricultural community to a story they want to know and be part of. That connection coveys a sense of trust that facts and figures need to be piled tenfold to equal. The value of that trust would be difficult to measure. The second secret he knows is where to find these moments.

He knows that in our everyday work, the images he’s looking for, the ones that resonate with the consumer, abound. To capture them, all he has to do is spend a little time with us as we do the work we often take for granted, because it needs to be done. In our daily work, we are stewards of our cattle, stewards of our land, stewards of our family and our local communities. Nothing offers you a chance to be the steward of your own story as a beef producer like the Beef Checkoff does.

Other industries are envious of the story our community has. They should be. Over their mountains of facts and figures that glaze your eyes over, stands one rancher watching their cattle graze on a beautiful day or pulling a newborn calf out of the mud.

I’m not aware of anything as dedicated to refining and discovering the value of our daily story as the efforts of the checkoff. I know of no venue that brings our story to such a wide audience, nor offers to producers such an opportunity to take part in shaping how that story is told. I know of no vehicle that delivers that story not dependent on characters and scripts, but with our own lips conveying the true essence of who we are and why we do what we do.

As a producer, I don’t want us to take it for granted. We need the ability to tell our story, and we need to keep telling it, in good times and challenging ones, with any effective means at our disposal, save perhaps stake bed trucks and open windows.