Reflections on Iowa from a farm kid

Fred Nelson

Recently I retired from paid employment. I’m enjoying writing and reflecting on life past, present and imagining the future. One of the past events I recently wrote about was my first hike into the Grand Canyon in the 1972 with my older brother, Chris, and three friends. We were all farm kids hiking in our work shoes and jeans carrying a large canvas tent for camping. This memory led me to consider that our generation of farm kids which were so ubiquitous in the Iowa of my youth is much diminished. The Iowa family farm of my youth so mythologized has almost vanished along with the farm kid’s unique perspective. 

The December 2021/January 2022 Iowa Lawyer magazine listed four prominent attorneys who recently died.  All four memorials acknowledged a life beginning on an Iowa farm. This included former Congressman Neal Smith and Iowa State professor Neil Harl. Once a farm kid, always a farm kid. 

I recognize that nostalgia can cloud the reality of the past.  Still there may be benefits from recalling small farms and small towns and self sufficiency of raising your own food; knowing all your neighbors and trading work.  I know it still exists but the scale is much reduced.  

I was raised on a small farm in the hills of southwest Iowa.  My wife was raised on a small farm in level north central Iowa (considered some of the best farmland in Iowa and the world). Both farms historically had livestock — chickens, cattle, milk cows, and pigs with crops of corn, oats, clover and alfalfa, and later soy beans.  My family had a large garden including cherry trees and apple trees, grapes, rhubarb, and raspberries.  The basement had shelves full of canned produce.  This was not unique to the many neighboring farms.  

With numerous farms, most small towns had schools and a variety of shops and services.  This included hardware stores, grocery stores, butchers with freezer locker storage for your butchered livestock, banks, drug stores, gas service stations, plumbers, feed stores, grain elevators, barbers and hair salons, newspapers, churches and my wife’s small town still had a family doctor.  

My parent’s farm raised the meat we ate, the milk we drank, the eggs we ate and the vegetables and fruit we ate. On Saturday night we would go to town for “grocery trading” to purchase the items we did not grow ourselves. I never thought much about the term grocery trading until I was older.  It’s evidently a hold over from a time even more remote. However, we still did a bit of trading with the “egg man.” A local creamery purchased our eggs and our cream from our milk cows.  In trade, we received butter as well as payment for the eggs and the excess cream.  

Whether or not as a kid, you liked farm work, it made sense. If you didn’t gather the eggs or milk the cows, you didn’t have eggs or milk. If you didn’t take care of the livestock, you didn’t have meat to eat. If you didn’t plant and harvest crops, you didn’t have corn, oats and hay to feed the livestock or straw for bedding the livestock in the barn. If you didn’t take care of the garden and orchard you didn’t have vegetables and fruit (and pies). In addition to growing food to eat your efforts meant having pigs and cattle to sell as well as excess corn.  Sold livestock and produce brought in money to buy what you didn’t raise. This included money for farm needs, food items, clothes, vehicles, fun items and maybe even for a camping vacation.  

The work could be difficult or pleasant — the weather: warm or cold or wet or dry. It could be a good year financially or one that meant barely getting by with a visit to the state fair as our vacation if we were lucky.  Whatever the case, the farm work was a clear connection to where food came from and the connection of survival to nature and the land.  This is not a new revelation for the human species. We are of nature and have been directly dependent on nature since the origin of humans. What is new is the growing loss of the direct connection of humans to the land and to nature. 

Much farming today is almost not recognizable to the farm that formed my values and connection to the land and nature. My wife’s  northern Iowa family farm was transitioning ahead of my family’s southwest Iowa farm to solely corn and soybean crops. When my dad first started growing soybeans, he referred to it as a “cash crop” — only grown for sale.  

Today we can drive from Des Moines to the farm where my wife was raised in northern Iowa without seeing any livestock in the fields, or on the few remaining farmsteads. If it’s not planting or harvest time for corn or soybeans, we can make the 130 mile drive without seeing any people in the fields or farmsteads. In many parts of the state, there is no pasture land and all the fences around the fields are gone. There is virtually no variety in farm crops of corn and soybeans and livestock is raised in huge confinement facilities.  

When I was born in 1951, there were around 200,000 farms in Iowa. Today there are about 85,000 farms.  With the continuation of vanishing farmsteads, once familiar country roads have lost the landmarks of homes and barns.  

My education included participation in a 4-H club and the Iowa Future Farmers of America (FFA). In the 1960s, I was awarded the gold medal in the state competition for freshman FFA Creed Speaking.  “I believe in the future of farming…” The current revised FFA Creed believes in the future of “Agriculture” and no longer includes the term farmers or rural America. The “joys and discomforts of farm life” are replaced with “I know the joys and discomforts of agricultural life.”

Recently the Des Moines Register’s editorial page celebrated Iowa’s 175 years of statehood.  A reprinted 1981 article by Hugh Sidey caught my attention — “Iowa is people and land in rare harmony.” Like my memories of growing up on an Iowa farm, Sidey’s article is about an Iowa of a time past. The essay celebrates Iowa’s great natural resources benefiting “those who found Iowa in the last century” (19th century). This is a story of my ancestors who homesteaded the farm where I was raised.  The article omits the people who already called Iowa home. In the 1960s and 1970s, I likely viewed Iowa in a similar light to Sidey.   

Today, Iowa is recognized as one the most altered natural landscapes of any state in the United States. Due to the intensive agriculture in Iowa, almost all of Iowa’s natural prairie landscape is gone. Today, Iowa’s waterways and ground water contain nitrates and other chemicals.  Our state is considered one of the major contributors to the large dead zone extending into the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of the Mississippi River. Cities such as Des Moines have major costs to remove nitrates and other contaminants from rivers for safe drinking water.  

My uncle Irving would leave a cup or can on a steel post by drainage tile outlets for a drink of the safe filtered tile water when working in a nearby field. Not so long ago, farms all used their own wells with safe untreated drinking water. My parents rotated a variety of crops to maintain soil fertility.  Today, the once rich Iowa soil requires huge amounts of fertilizer and chemicals to sustain the constant mining of the land for corn and soybean cash crops grown primarily for fuel and livestock feed.   

None of this is news and my farm kid memories are not unique. As a  young man, I discounted the old timers remembering the 1930s. I realize there is only going forward. Still, in going forward, reflecting on the past may be helpful in recognizing positive and negative changes. Are people in harmony with the land? Is it helpful to mythologize a time past as if it represents today’s reality? Is Iowa recognizing and honoring our human bond with nature?  

These aren’t new questions either, but they might be worth thinking about. 

Fred Nelson was raised on a family farm near Stanton. As a young man he helped his parents on the farm, worked for the USDA Soil Conservation Service, the local Rural Electric Cooperative, and with his brother, raised pigs before leaving southwest Iowa. Thereafter, he worked in  theatre and most recently retired as an attorney with Iowa Legal Aid’s Hotline for Older Iowans. His two brothers are farmers and the homestead is still in the family. 

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