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City Girl Meets Rural Iowa

I barely remember Green Acres, the old TV show where city loving Eva Gabor marries a man with a dream to be a farmer. They move to the country, “Lisa” with her proper and elegant 1950s shoes and hats, he in a suit as he drives his tractor. Hilarious hijinks ensue.

What I do know is that I am no Eva Gabor. I don't wear blingy jewelry. I don't speak with a dramatic Hungarian accent. And I don't wear frilly housecoats in the city or on a farm.

Yet I do feel like I have inadvertently been cast in her role in an updated, 2017 remake of the show. Suburban girl from New Jersey, living in big-city San Francisco moves to rural Iowa, makes a fool of herself asking stupid questions like “do the cows have names?” and learns in her mid-forties how to build a fence. Hilarious hijinks ensue.

Of course as you may have already read in our blog, a key element of the story line is a bit different – my husband John grew up on said Iowa farm raising corn, pigs, cattle and soybeans on his family's farm. They owned one of the first hog confinement units in the state, and he saw the final tree in his grandfather’s orchard pump out its last persimmon (yep, you can grow a persimmon in Iowa).

From the moment I met him he proclaimed his love for his home state and his dream to move back and take over the farm. As soon as his boys were grown, he stated matter-of-factly, he was going back to his family’s 580 acres of land.

So what was a woman in love to do? It was a dream that was a good 10 years off, and so I said I’d think about it. In the meantime we spent weeks every summer there with the kids, rocking on the porch swing, watching the lightning bugs, swimming in the pond at the crack of dawn. We helped build fences and find escaped cattle.

Young trees grow in new orchard

We even started planting a new orchard with apples, pears, peaches, cherries, chestnuts, and walnuts and had to water 180 of them by hand one too-hot July. I learned to drive the tractor around and around in circles to cut hay (although not yet by myself).

We started to think more seriously about what we might do with the farm. Neither of us were interested in keeping the status quo - a farm dedicated to growing feed for animals and cows that are sent to confinement lots when they are old enough (where they then eat feed). But how can we make a living while creating a more varied farm to "feed the world" a more healthy and diverse diet?

We looked for help.

The USDA’s Farm Services Agency is located in an unassuming one story brick building as interesting as the flat parking lot that surrounds it. We walked into the air conditioned and up to a long wrap around counter full of posters and pamphlets.

“Can I help you?” asked the woman at the counter.

We described our situation. We were there to see if we could find any information about how to transition John’s family farm to one with more diversity - maybe one with grains humans could eat, fruits and veggies, pigs. Could they help us figure out which government agencies may be able to help? Were there mentors? Pamphlets?

“Your family’s name?” She asked.

“Hogeland. I am John Hogeland.”

“Oh,” she smiled. “Leroy’s boy.”

Beth driving around new orchard.

Maps of the property were pulled out. Documents clicked out of binders. A FSA agent was called.

Yes, they could help. They could tell us more about corn and soy rotation, erosion prevention or putting land into conservation programs. They knew exactly how many acres of corn or soy John’s dad was growing this year, when it next needed to be rotated from one to the other, and the subsidy amounts he would receive for each crop.* I am sure they also knew the price of corn or soybeans that day, the expected yield and the average cost of fertilizers and Round Up.

But trees? Oats or barley? organics? They stared at us like the proverbial deer in the headlights. There was a guy in the next county over who grew something organic, an agent told us, maybe you could ask him for some advice.

Not a single pamphlet in that air-conditioned, flat brick building existed on growing apples or peaches or cherries; not a single agent could help us learn about other grains (not even popcorn or edamame, also from corn and soybeans). Nuts? Not a chance. There wasn’t even anyone who knew anything at all about pasture raising pigs or cows.

This was not because they did not want to help or because they were not well educated. These agents were likely graduates of good agriculture programs in big universities, trained in the latest greatest farming techniques. I am sure they could easily advise on when to harvest soy this year, the best GMO corn seed varieties being planted, and they might have even been able to tell us where to find information on cover crops used to stop erosion.

The problem is not the people then, but the system. A very sophisticated, elaborate system catering to the production of only two crops - corn and soybeans - both of which are fed to animals, turned into fuel or become sweetener.

There are of course exceptions. There are people able to help outside of our government entities, like the organic farmer we visited or the academics we have met who study how to change current farming practices. There is the Practical Farmers of Iowa too who run field days to farms which do things differently. Farmers band together to learn from each other, to talk about successes and failures, and to not feel quite so alone in the sea of corn and soy that is today Iowa.

Miraculously then, each summer, when I show up for farm field days - the city girl, know-it-all journalist in the crowd - people are welcoming. They are excited about us coming back to Iowa, bringing our curiosity and even some of our San Francisco city ways of eating and thinking about food to rural communities.

They might even stand for me making a fool of myself once in a while.

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