Farm Life Journal - April 2019

By Tom Oswald

With the turn to April, the winter should be behind us, the weather warming and soils becoming fit for field activities. I closed my last Farm Life Journal entry looking forward to equipment preparation, but so far there haven’t been many days pleasant enough to work outdoors or in my unheated shop. I’ll begin once things warm up and dry out a bit.

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I’ve always loved April as it’s my birthday month. The start of this April has not been such a good one for my family. My mom passed away on March 30 and things have been plenty different since, especially for my dad. I dedicate this Farm Life Journal to my mom, Sally.

Late March was the last of winter meetings for me. I am a United Soybean Board (USB) liaison to the American Soybean Association (ASA), so I attended the March ASA meeting in D.C. to report back on biodiesel and infrastructure updates and participate in discussions.

During the same trip, I attended Capitol Hill visits with the Iowa Soybean Association delegation. We met with key staffers because none of the members of Congress were in the city. As a USB member, I am not allowed to lobby, but can engage in information exchange. It’s always good to listen to the conversations and share perspectives.

We had the pleasure of visiting with folks at USDA including our former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Under Secretary Greg Ibach who hails from Nebraska. Meeting with those two felt so much like meeting with friends and neighbors back home.

Our visit to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative was interesting as we met with Chief Agricultural Negotiator Gregg Doud and learned how complex it is to build a new trade agreement with China. As with so many things, it takes time and patience, especially when culture and language are quite different. There is no doubt in my mind these leaders are working hard to reach an agreement.

He also noted how important passage of the USMCA trade agreement is for agriculture. Information regarding that agreement can be found here. Trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada makes a lot of sense. I’ve had Mexican grain buyers and feedstock importers on my farm. It was clear they liked learning how Iowa farmers produce the soybeans and corn, and they trusted the quality of our products.

It was shortly after our return from D.C. that it was apparent Mom was struggling to recover from that which was ailing her. And, in the end, her body was too weak to recover. Our family feels fortunate that she didn’t have to linger. Mom did not want to linger, and when her time came, she didn’t.

Mom was every bit the picture of a farm homemaker. Her life was dedicated to her family. If she knew company was coming, there’d be a warm chocolate cake waiting. People seldom left hungry.

Her meals weren’t always complicated but were always comforting. One of her most memorable dishes were her chicken and homemade egg noodles in a gravy over mashed potatoes. I’m not quite sure whether her Angel Food cakes or the yellow egg noodles came first, but one often meant the other would follow. 

We called her Angel Food cake “diet cake” because it was so tall and light. It would overgrow the pan until the pan legs weren’t tall enough and she would prop up the pan with a pop bottle in the center hole. I’m not sure where the “official” 7Up bottle is now, but the image of it supporting an inverted Angel Food pan from the center hole will never leave my mind.

She’d roll out that noodle dough and let it dry over dish towels on the dining room table before rolling them up and cutting the roll by hand. Those rings of noodles were good even when not cooked. Of course, Mom would warn us there were uncooked eggs in there, but those were our eggs. But then, the chicken was our chicken as well.

One of the less fun activities was when we used to butcher our own chickens. In the springtime we’d get in baby chicks. Taking care of them meant a watchful eye, making sure the temperature under the heater was right, the feed was fresh, and clean water was available for them in the hand scrubbed, disinfected and freshly bedded brooder house. The roosters (male chickens) were butchered on-farm once they’d grown large enough later in summer. The hens produced eggs for us to eat or sell.

Like when we process our own sweet corn, everyone had a job. 

From the best of jobs (not many) to the worst of jobs (plenty) we worked together as a family to get the butchering done over the course of a few early mornings every summer. There was no whining. But the reward would be those chicken and noodles with Angel Food cake for dessert. The day’s work would be delivered to the local locker plant where we would have the birds flash frozen and rent freezer space.  There aren’t many of those plants are around anymore.

Mom loved fresh garden produce, other than peas. She never seemed to get into shelling peas. She’d be giddy over fresh strawberries whether from her own beds or Getting’s Garden. Strawberry pie and jams in June. Green beans were the rage until she “just had enough” picking, prepping and freezing. She’d say, “I only need a few for supper” once she reached that point. She so loved fresh tomatoes plucked from her own plants.

Cucumbers and zucchini usually overwhelmed us. Baked Acorn squash would be a fall treat as temperatures got cold. Potatoes and sweet corn were higher volume garden produce. I wonder how many thousand packets of sweet corn she froze over the course of her 67 years on the farm. New potatoes are hard to beat, and she’d want some dug for Dad’s birthday in July.

Her favorite apples came from Deal’s Orchard of Jefferson. When she’d walk in, they knew she’d ask for their No. 1 Jonathans. We discovered Deal’s in the late 1970s when I was first going to Iowa State University. To this day, apples are a part of our family’s harvest lunches.

Mom wasn’t just a gardener, cook and baker. She was always sewing something. I’m not sure how many outfits she made for us kids growing up. She sure knew where the fabric stores were, that’s for sure. At one count, I think there were five sewing machines in the house between Mom and my two sisters before they left home for their own places.

For a young boy pushing his farm toys on the carpet, dropped pins were a real hazard. Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind pushing the Kirby vacuum as a kid. Pins sucked through the fan made a funny sound while threads wrapped around the beater bar, and that wasn’t much fun to cut at all.

There was a labor of love in the garments my mom made for her siblings’ kids as well. I don’t know if patching the knees of the blue jeans Dad and I always wore for work was a labor of love or not, but mom always offered to mend our work clothes and did so up until the last year or so when it was too tough on her hands.

She was always offering to help keep us going during the spring and fall “push” to get the crop in or out.  I almost forgot the essential chocolate chip cookies, Special K bars, pies and other sugary wonders that kept us going. Though my wife is a fine baker and cook, with our farming headquarters at Dad’s place, Mom’s kitchen was often frequented, saving me the drive to my place and time to make my own lunch when my wife was at work. Once I hit the field this spring, I’m sure that’s one thing that I will really miss. Mom never spent much time in a tractor, but she made sure our bodies were fueled… she looked out for us.

Mom’s social life was heavily dominated by her support for her family. She was a band booster and seldom missed my brother’s sporting events. She was our wheels growing up and often our shuttle driver when equipment was moved farm-to-farm.

She was so proud of the work I was doing in service to agriculture through soil and water conservation, county Farm Bureau, and my major commitments to the soybean industry. She was proud of all her kids and grandkids.

There is no doubt Mom was devoted to my father. They spent very few nights apart in their 67 years of marriage.

The one thing they enjoyed together that wasn’t related to farm or family was GOP politics. Mom loved going to meetings in our county or around the state. She enjoyed the caucuses and meeting the wide range of candidates. In fact, a few of her friends who came to her visitation or sent cards fondly noted times spent with Mom at GOP events. Though I know there are followers of other political perspectives reading this, it is not meant to be in your face. I close with this photo of my parents with Senator Joni Ernst.  My mom loved Joni and I love the expression on my mother’s face in this photo so I have to include it.

Here’s to you Mom. We’ll all miss you as will all the people you touched in your life.

Until next time,