With a little reflection, I’m sure that each and every one of us can remember an event or conversation in our lives that left an immense impression upon us, an impression that had little effect on us at the time, but instead became essential to our existence and being. Our lives are filled with moments of meaninglessness on the grand scale, yet every now and again, something happens that moves us and redirects us onto a new path.
Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, summers for me were a time to escape the concrete and asphalt of the city, and forget the abrasiveness of people. To really live in the Midwest was to be where it was defined, on the family farm. The summer of my 14th year is one that many in the Midwest will not soon forget, for 1993 was the year of the great floods. I suppose that each generation has some significant disaster or event that leaves a mark on the timeline of their lives. For me, the sodden landscape and its complete disruption of the natural order of modern agriculture that summer left an impression upon me that would help to alter the trajectory to my future.
It was late June that year, and little league baseball season was over, but there was still a damp chill in the air. Farmers were tending to their fields feverishly while crops all across the region were being hastily planted at the last possible minute. One such June morning, I was walking through a freshly planted field in an overcast drizzle with my grandpa Jensen, who was dressed in his farmers’ uniform of brown lace-up HH boots, blue-jeans and a blue button-down shirt, topped off by a ball cap sponsored by one of any number of seed companies. With us was Dan, the family friend that worked for and with my grandfather. We wanted to see what effects the rain had on the newly impregnated ground. I noticed that I grew taller with each step I took as my boots grabbed more and more of that famed west-Iowa loess soil until the weight of the mud cleaved it off in great sticky clumps.
I squatted down to investigate these small, bright green spikes of plants emerging from the wet soil, watching these struggling cotyledons stretching out from the damp crust of the soil, parting the earth through their own intuitive will. It was as if these fragile lives were being pulled from the earth against great odds by the very primordial strings of evolution that propelled them forward from single-celled algae floating aimlessly upon ancient sea currents, to the dominant angiosperms of the modern epoch. Of course, that sort of philosophical look at the world escapes a teenage boy with too many 20th century things on his mind.
“What did you plant here grandpa?” I asked with mild curiosity.
“Oats” he said “but you don’t plant oats, you sow them.”
“I don’t see the difference; you still have to put seed in the ground either way no matter what you call it,” I said with a sneer of teenage angst for being corrected. He smiled a grin that only he had, stretching from ear to ear, expressing those clear light blue eyes under enormously bushy eyebrows as he looked down upon me from his colossal 5’8” stature (I hadn’t had my growth spurt yet). My grandparents were some of the only people I still showed and genuinely had respect for then, so I tried to smother my fire as much as possible.
I continued to walk around in concentric circles, making patterns with my feet in the mud like a child while keeping one ear keenly pinned to the adult conversation going on between my grandfather, the professor, and Dan, the student. They talked about the possibility of this field being oversaturated and causing fungal rot. They discussed their worries over that year’s corn and soybean crops, hoping that if the rain didn’t spoil them, there would be phenomenal market prices that winter when so many other farms were being lost to flooding. They talked about the mundane to the theoretical, fences to beef market trends, and I was both intrigued and hopelessly lost at the same time.
We slowly struggled back to the mud-smattered pickup, and took turns kicking, flinging and scraping the field from our boots before crawling back into the cab. I hopped in without effort and scooted to the middle of the bench seat. My grandfather pulled himself up with the grip of one of his broad-palmed hands and slid into the passenger seat while Dan started the diesel engine. We slowly spun out of the field turnout onto the gravel road where I could hear the mud-packed tires pick up and sling gravel into the body of the vehicle as we ambled down the road at an idle, analyzing the progress of each of the newly germinated fields near the distended river bottom.
Since it was drizzling and wet that day, we were making our way to the sale barn in Dunlap, via the Dairy Queen in Dow City of course. This was not done for my pleasure so much; I was merely a proxy for my grandfather to get a strawberry ice-cream cone for the road. I went with my usual chocolate malt while Dan passed on the ice-cream all together. My suspicion was that with my grandfather, Dan had consumed enough of the frozen dessert to last two lifetimes by then.
While savoring my treat, since grandpa was already done with his and eyeing mine, he asked, “Are you going to sow oats on your farm someday?”
I looked up, surprised by the question. I suppose I hadn’t really given any thought to what I was going to do with my life at that point. I was just beginning my pre-ordained-to-fail attempt at understanding the opposite sex. I answered, “What are the oats for? Do you sell them for oatmeal?”
“Oh, no,” he said while snickering and wiping the remainder of the pink ice-cream from his chin. “We feed the oats to the cows,” he sang in an uproar “so they grow and grow, from their heads to their toes!”
I heard Dan let out that easy rolling laugh of his on the other side of me, and wasn’t sure what he was laughing at, my assumption of the demise of oats or my grandfather’s silly song about cow toes. He finally chimed in and said, “How else do you think we get the cows and first-year heifers to come up to the truck so that we can take a good look at their calves? It’s like ice-cream to them.” I could almost feel my grandfather’s smile from behind me.
“Not a lot of farmers around here sow oats anymore. It’s one of those things that are disappearing, right along with the family farm. Since we still raise beef cattle, I like to grow oats every now and again just to keep them interested,” grandpa explained. He gazed out of the passenger door window of the truck nostalgically at the blur of early summer green whipping by with what seemed like a longing for the way things used to be for farmers.
He looked back at me and smiled. “When your mom was a little girl, we still milked our own cows and raised chickens and geese. And when I was a little girl, we still drove horses to farm, can you belief that?” he said with a goofy grin at almost a shout.
“I can believe the horses, but I’m not sure about the little girl bit,” I said feigning suspicion. “Do you think I could farm when I get older? Is that possible even though I don’t live on a farm every day? There seems to be a lot of things to think about and understand that I haven’t learned yet,” I said with a note of anxiety in my voice. I thought I could picture myself on a farm someday. I had always talked with my friend Andy about partnering together to farm with him and his dad. Why not?
My grandpa looked at me gravely, and with a drawn face said, “It takes a lot of capital to start a farm these days. When your grandma and I started, we had 55 acres and almost no money between the two of us. But back then, it was still possible to make a go at farming if you worked hard and saved everything you made. Your grandma and I would buy a farm, pay it off, and then invest in the next. We never over-extended ourselves financially or took unnecessary risks such as buying brand new equipment every other year like some of these bigger operations do.” I knew from previous conversations that he was referring to the type of farming going on down the road from them by guys like Denny Topf. He had farms all over the place with employees and more cows in his yard than you could count in an hour.
“Do you think you could teach me to farm!?” I asked, bolting upright in my seat with sudden aspirations of being the next ‘Farmer-of-the-year’ in Progressive Ag magazine. But both he and Dan fell quiet for a moment, and it was clear to all of us within that silence that it was too late for him to take on someone who didn’t have a clue of what he was getting into. Not at that late stage of his life anyway. Besides, he already had Dan there to help him, which made me look on Dan with eyes of envy and flat out jealousy. ‘He was living my life!’ I thought.
My grandfather broke the silence saying, “If you do end up farming someday, just think about the oats; just because they’re not being grown by everyone any longer doesn’t make it unimportant or not worth the work it takes to do things the old fashioned and often the right way.”
The rest of the ride to Dunlap was soon jovial once again as conversation slipped from one of contemplation to talking about flooding, accompanied by more singing and familiar phrases we all grew up hearing such as “Bossy, bossy, get off my toes!” and other melodies and limericks that so often and easily sprang into my grandfather’s head.
I essentially had a seed planted in my mind without knowing of its existence that day. It was one of those off-hand conversations that stay with you, but you’re not quite sure what its relevance was at the time or will be in your life until certain events line up in the sequential order necessary for that memory to spring back to the center stage of your mind. I had always been encouraged by my grandparents to pursue my interests, but I think it took everyone by surprise when I decided to study agronomy at Iowa State University. I myself wasn’t sure what that path would lead me towards, but I kept moving forward, letting life happen as it will.
In 2004, I found myself uprooting from everything I knew and heading out for the wild, wild west of Arizona, working for none other than the San Carlos Apache Tribe, one of the most ferocious and notorious native peoples to be shattered by this country’s government. I am a soil conservationist, but the world I now inhabit was at first alien to this Midwestern son. There are no gently rolling hills with waist-high grasses to wade through, nor is there water burbling in each creek and stream you skip across. There are, however, flora that seem hell-bent on maiming you, and fauna you would soon never have to run from if given the choice.
Last summer, I found myself in an interesting situation of assuming the management of the Tribe’s farming operations. The word ‘overwhelmed’ couldn’t begin to describe the feelings I was drowning in when I began to realize that I knew nothing of cotton, irrigation or water-rights as they so confusingly dominate life in the West. The previous 10 years of management had been dumbed down to one drawer of loosely organized file folders, and the far from reliable memories of half-a-dozen people around the reservation.
I soon reached solid ground and was off, growing with each passing day. I learned and soon began to understand the Tribe’s water-rights as they pertain to agriculture, and helped to initiate a new irrigation system designed to minimize water use and loss through micro-drip technology.
Late this fall, my employees asked me, ‘what are we planning to do on those cotton acres this fall that we took out of rotation this summer?’ I decided to put some of my Iowa farming knowledge to use and instructed them that we would be planting a cover-crop for the winter that would in the spring be disked into the soil as green manure. This would be the toughest but most economical way to add organic matter and nutrients back into the mineral-rich but structure-poor soils. ‘We are going to plant oats,’ I announced with pride.
As soon as the cotton had been picked, the rows listed and the end-rows bucked for irrigation, we sowed our oats into the fields. This was followed by three days of unseasonal rains; pure, salt-free water that produced nearly instant germination. Before the week was out, I was bending down to investigate these small, bright green spikes of plants emerging from the wet soil, watching these struggling cotyledons stretching out from the damp crust of the soil, parting the earth through their own intuitive will.
At that moment, my mind became flooded with thoughts of that cool June morning 20 years ago when my grandfather was asking me if I was going to sow oats on my farm someday. I realized that a small prophecy had been foreshadowed and now come to fruition after all this time. I began to reflect upon my grandfather as I stood in the field and watched the swift and swollen Gila River flow by and fighting the mud clinging to the bottom of my boots. I still, and will always look up to him for inspiration and direction, even though he is gone.
I planted oats, not because anyone else was doing the same, but because it was important for the farm. It may be a little old-fashioned, and a hard way to improve the land, but grandpa and I still believe it’s the right thing to do.