Farm Life Journal - August 2017

By Mark Jackson

“A Boy and His Dog”

There is nothing stronger than the connection between a young boy and his dog. It is a bond of unspoken terms, which includes a mutual devotion with no boundaries and where seldom a word is spoken. Maybe a nod, whistle or a snap of a finger is all that’s needed to fetch a stick, follow along or to just sit quietly at your side after a long day. A bond that endures as that boy becomes a man and as his horizons expand, there is still that unconditional devotion with mutual respect. Though the balance between the march of time and the cycle of life often is not fair, the lessons shared and time spent together somehow makes it worth those feelings of loss of a faithful companion before it is time.

As I write these words, I recall my life’s experiences of growing up around the farm and being that “boy and his dog.” From my first dog, when I was seven, until today with Murphy my Black Labrador, it’s with a tear in my eye that I tell you of Murphy’s sudden passing. Her illness from last month was a sign of more serious things to come, and despite a major surgery with optimism for a full recovery, that was not to be. She was a gentle soul, faithful companion and an inspiration for those she met; she will be missed. Murphy will always be fondly remembered in the same frame of mind as, “A boy and his dog.”

No Guarantees

“No guarantees,” these were words spoken by my grandfather during a discussion on my desire to farm after graduating from college in the early 70s. He related to me with, his hand on my shoulder, “The work is relentless and the days are long, but a man with a true hunger never finds the bread hard.”

Wise words to ponder from a man with a lifetime of experiences. More than four decades later, no words ring more true.

Modern agriculture is the evolution of generations of father to son farming, which incorporates lessons learned while embracing continuous improvement protocols through solid science for a stronger environment. And yet it’s curious to me, as society craves the newest versions of smart phones, computers and flat screen TVs, or the sleekest new car with extra drink holders, that farmers are often expected to be stagnant in embracing technology and regress to practices used by generations past. Doing so would mean rejecting solid science and succumbing to emotion for the production of food.

Today’s commodity groups, such as the Iowa Soybean Association and others, ranging from the grains and hooves to the fins and feathers, are key to the growth of agriculture’s many successes. Using the farmers’ very own dollars sourced from membership and production, we help fund university research, expand market opportunities and promote honest and fair regulation. And though there are no guarantees in farming, by using solid science and recognizing the importance of a healthy environment, agriculture is devoted to a strong farmer and consumer partnership. In fact, did you know that 97 percent of the more than 88,000 farms in Iowa are family farms?

Marking the Close of Summer

August is Iowa State Fair time where a million of Iowa’s closest friends come together to celebrate Midwest agriculture and all things food (on a stick)! It also marks the close of summer with harvest quickly approaching and crops racing to maturity’s finish-line. With typical August rains, the corn stalk transfers sugars into its ears to fill the starch packed kernels while the soybean plant fills its many pods with protein rich beans.

Just as my grandfather said about there being no guarantees, I’ve been experiencing the worst drought Mother Nature has delivered in my area of southeastern Iowa in nearly 30 years. With only one-third of Iowa seriously affected by a lack of rain, markets are not reflecting the drought. This situation becomes the worst-case scenario for farmers like me – a short crop at reduced prices. For me, crop insurance payments won’t start paying until I have at least a 25 percent loss, which at these price levels, an average crop will barely cover my cost of production. It’s very likely that my family’s countless hours of labor will go unrewarded for 2017. We’re not alone in this situation.

To this point, part of my annual planning is to incorporate top-rated, drought-resistant corn hybrids. Despite receiving slightly less than 1.5 inches of rain since the third week in May, I still have the potential to produce a partial crop. The use of modern GMO hybrids greatly reduces or eliminates the formation of cancer-causing toxins (typical in drought corn), which could cause the total rejection of my harvested crop. Regardless of the situation, preparations for fall harvest must continue.

Home-grown Food, Home-cooked Meals

Unlike my farm fields, I can regularly water my gardens, allowing my flowers and produce to mature properly despite the blazing sun and hot temperatures. One of my most unusual garden flowers are my “Naked Ladies” – or, as my mother would lovingly call them, Surprise Lilies. Combine these flowers with Cleomes, Phlox, Cone Flowers and several others, and my beautiful parade of colors and butterflies continues throughout the summer!

The tomatoes and cucumbers need to be picked daily, not unlike grandma’s eggs from her henhouse. “Never let your onions see the August sun,” one of those sayings handed down – though I’m not sure of its validity – I use as a marker for a timely harvest.

My onions are dug, cleaned and stored in several cardboard boxes in the garage along with my red and white potatoes. I savor the many options for using my farm fresh produce, a BLT for lunch, homemade chili on a cold winter day (made perfect with diced onion and garden-canned tomatoes) or a pot-roast surrounded with home-grown potatoes and carrots, topped with rings of onions and slow cooked to perfection. How about the tangy smell of freshly canned sweet pickles... Home-grown kitchen aromas are the best!

Let’s not forget sweet corn, a seasonal delight we all love; however, did you know that sweet corn is less than two-tenths of one percent of all corn grown? In an average year, Iowa grows more field corn than most countries. When you realize there are seven hogs and 20 chickens for each Iowan, the need for corn and soybeans for livestock production becomes apparent, and you quickly understand why livestock is the farmer’s largest customer.

The state’s overall economy reflects agriculture’s contribution to our bottom line, where one in five Iowa jobs are ag-related, and more than 30 percent of Iowa’s economy is supported by farming and related industries!

Tomorrow's a new day.

Midwest agriculture at it's best,

Mark Jackson