Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cattle Grazing in the Living Room

Note: According to recent reports, more people in their 20s and 30s are going into farming. Young people are joining university ag programs, farmers markets, and ag social media forums.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for 100,000 new farmers within the next few years, and Congress has responded with proposals that would provide young farmers with improved access to USDA support and loan programs. The blog post below is an update of last year's holiday entry. CAST wishes you all a Happy New Year.

     On the day of my eighth Christmas, I spent much of the time harvesting the carpet and penning up a herd of cattle in the living room.  First I had to arrange the plastic fence that stretched from the barn to the TV stand.  Most of the cattle grazed comfortably in one spot unless my brother ran through the room and did a four-year-old’s version of cow-tipping.  The field that needed harvesting was between the lounge chair and the sofa.  I did not have a real combine in those early years of farming, but I had real kernels of corn, so loads of grain magically appeared, and I hauled them from my “south forty” using a green cab-less tractor and non-hydraulic wagon.
     I had some distinct advantages as a starting farmer: Dad’s Christmas gift was a red wooden barn he had made, with a hinged hay-mow door and the classic white trim around the edges.  From past birthdays and a few trips to the local Ben Franklin Store, I had some basic equipment and enough cattle and hogs to start a decent operation.  And few farmers enjoy climate control as I did.  On that winter day, I farmed in 72 degree comfort as sun rays slanted in through the large picture window.
     With some creative applications of Lincoln Logs and erector set pieces, my ag-operation grew, but I imagine my interest waned as I discovered the hard work and constant attention a farm requires.  Or maybe I just had to move the barn and livestock so Mom and Dad could use the living room again.  Either way, I hope that in this era of high-tech equipment and confinement farms, some kids still take possession of a barn with a cupola on top and some plastic cows that need a section of fresh carpet to graze on.  Dan Gogerty (photo, ars/usda)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Take This Job and Love It—even if it only pays 50 cents an hour…

First, to state the obvious. Basic child labor laws are essential to keep youngsters from dangerous jobs (coal mines and factories come to mind) and to let them have a chance for play and education. But even in the Dark Ages of the 1950s and 60s, we hopped on the yellow school bus every day, and with four siblings and nine cousins just down the road, we used our Midwest farm as a year round playground.
Along with building dams, snow forts, and  haymow hideaways, we also learned to chore early--moving buckets of grain, milking our lone Guernsey, and eventually grabbing pitchforks to haul manure (my vote: chicken coops are the worst; I still have poultry dust in the upper reaches of my sinuses).
We eventually moved on to driving tractors and walking bean fields, and that’s where the proposed child labor laws come in. The ag community seems abuzz about the possibilities, and many are probably shouting “over regulation” and forecasting doom for farm families and student livestock groups. That might be true; I don’t know the finer points of the proposals, but if something is enacted to truly help with the safety and well-being of children, it’s hard to argue with it. However, if regulations interfere with regular “growing up on the farm" work and proper livestock show handling, then something seems amiss.
Stringent laws would have kept me out of the soybean fields at age thirteen.  We had “walked beans” for Dad a year before, so I knew a bit about pulling the right weeds. When a neighbor needed a crew the following year, brothers, cousins, and I grabbed our gloves and hopped in a pickup truck to head down the road. I think the first job made us 50 cents an hour, so it’s obvious our union rep wasn’t very effective. But we had some fun and made some spending money to go along with bug bites, blisters, and sunburn.
We also learned how to cooperate—or fight—as a crew.  And at times we worked for some enlightening farmers.  One old timer, Clare, lived in the woods and his fields were set along creeks, groves, and rocky pastures. He’d tell us tales of his trapping days on lakes up north: “I’d pull a muskrat from a trap and have him skinned by the time I skated to the next trap.”  We didn’t care if he exaggerated: “We hit a bee hive when shelling corn, and the bees came at us so thick, we were wipin’ ‘em off our brows.”  He taught us how to cool down on a 95 degree day—he took us to a natural spring near the field and showed us how to first put cold water on our wrists then necks before drinking it.  When we grew a bit older, we heard stories of Clare’s booze-running days in the Prohibition Era, but as with most of the tales, we weren’t sure what to believe.
As we matured into hay baling, tractor field work, and hog management, we grew to be less starry-eyed about joining the adult work force, but eventually the gas money I made for the ’56 Chevy dad had as a second car came in mighty handy. I also had a college savings account at the local bank, but I’m sure the amount in it suffers from huge inflation in my mind as I think back to my thrift—or lack of.
So, child labor laws?  I know taxation, safety regs, and other policies have changed, and in many cases, changed for the better. But are new laws going to interfere with farming operations and youth livestock groups? I hope all sides concerned can use a bit of common sense to protect children but also protect useful activities on farms and in clubs.
Personally, I’m glad we had a chance to do a bit of paid outsourced work.  But to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded some government regulations on the unpaid chore work on the home farm. I have a feeling that when I shoveled corn in a huge grain bin or helped vaccinate the hundred pigs in the hog house, the tune running through my head was probably the original line from the classic country song: Take this job and shove it.  
by dan gogerty (photo:

Friday, December 9, 2011

Where’s Mr. Ed When We Need Him?
My only encounter with horsemeat was innocent enough.  I had no idea it was coming with the meal, but I ate it.  Our family was traveling in rural regions of Nagano Prefecture in Japan, and we stayed at a Ryokan--traditional guesthouses that usually provide expertly prepared local fare for the evening dinner.  As the meal progressed, the kimono-clad waitress placed various dishes in front of us, and one contained a paper thin slice of red meat, cooked on the edges but basically rare, soaked with a soya-based sauce. 
During our many years in Japan, we ate plenty of food we hadn’t completely identified, so by the time a friend at the table told us what it was, I’d finished half of the small portion. I ate the rest. I’d probably do the same again in such circumstances, but I wouldn’t order horse meat in my Iowa home region. It wouldn’t be an option, and I just don’t have any desire to eat horse. But some people do.
Midwest gal diggin' into
the glazed grasshoppers
With the change in government policy, it certainly seems that the U.S. will have horse slaughterhouses and will export meat. It’s also certain that many have passionate views about the legal move, but I think one concern should be paramount: The welfare of horses. Is it better to allow slaughter in the U.S. because the ban actually made conditions worse? Not all would agree, but a December 2 blog entry from Brandi Buzzard explains why a horse lover might support the lifting of the ban.  Check out the many other opinions on the Net about this issue if you want.  I’m sure you’ll find views from all ends of the spectrum—except from the horse’s mouth. Where’s Mr. Ed when we need him?
Buzzard’s December 5 entry is more about freedom of choice when it comes to menu items. As she says, income, religion, morals, and taste all enter into the decisions. Once again, not all would agree, but I do understand her point.  In Bali, a boy showed us a large fruit bat in a cage that would soon be on the dinner table. I didn’t eat bat, but we tried frog legs there. In Beijing, we ate at a restaurant that boasted various donkey dishes. I couldn’t get the image of Eeyore out of my mind, so we passed. But in Japan, we did use chopsticks to try the stir-fried, glazed grasshoppers that the locals offered. Crunchy on the outside; chewy on the inside. I haven’t ordered them since. by Dan Gogerty

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ma Kettle Has a Tattoo: The Stereotype is Now the Exception

As a kid growing up on a farm in the 50s/60s, the only people I knew of with tattoos were WWII military vets.  And I can’t specifically picture the designs because nobody flaunted them back then. So when I read a recent blog from“Dairy Carrie” about farmers with tattoos, it reminded me that farmers are a diverse lot indeed. Her posting features some intricate designs—crosses, flowers, skull art--but the one that intrigued me the most is the tattoo wedding ring. It makes sense. My last sustained bout of farming was decades ago, a tour of duty on a hog farm between teaching jobs, and even though I wear only a small gold band on my finger, I still have the scar from when I caught the ring on the metal bar of a feed wagon and ripped my finger open.
Dairy Carrie’s point was not about my farm safety practices; she opens up a forum for those who know that farmers aren’t all cut from the same mold. Green Acres reruns, corn seed ads on TV, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic may have convinced generations of city folk that farmers all wear denim, drive pick-ups, and chew tobacco, but even in my youth, farmers weren’t sun-wrinkled peas in a cultivated row of pods.
A hog farmer three miles north of our central Iowa farm had a go-cart track in his pasture for teen racers, a family five miles west turned a cattle barn into a successful roller skating rink, and my brothers helped me mow and tend a putting green in our backyard so we could hack away with the wedge and putter that an uncle passed on to us.  From late-night coon dog hunts to competitive tractor pull contests, the community did plenty of what might pass for stereotypical rural pursuits. But other farmers were musicians, artists, and airplane pilots—the neighbor who took up ultralight aircraft was only in for the short haul; he walked away from a crash on his maiden flight and decided farming was already dangerous enough without adding stunt flying to it. 
The rural folk didn’t all listen to Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. Many of us farm boys started ruining our hearing by plugging transistor radio buds into our ears and listening to Bob Dylan while we cultivated endless rows of corn.  I remember a dusty July field and the metal box radio bolted to the vibrating fender of a 4020 John Deere; I might hear muffled riffs of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” whenever the tractor was turned in the right direction.  From country music to rap, technology now offers farmers a much broader range.  A few years back, my brother was combining beans in the evening and listening to public radio FM classical music. He called the DJ on his cell phone to request Beethoven’s 7th, and some time later, when the announcer introduced the song, he mentioned that it was requested by a farmer in the field planting crops. My brother made a good-natured call later to let the urbanite know what season of the year it was, and he continues to listen to everything from Gershwin to Zeppelin in his modern air-conditioned cab.
Even though farmers make up an ever-shrinking percentage of the population, they are probably even more diverse now in the high tech digital age.  In some ways, maybe the traditional idea of a farmer is no longer a stereotype but instead a rare lifestyle in its own right. There’s something reassuring about visiting my hometown and seeing folks like my brother-in-law.  It always seems to be chore time; he’s setting his own pace to move from one to another of the endless tasks; and his Great Dane is sitting tall in the passenger’s seat of the pick-up truck when they drive by on the dusty gravel road. On second thought, I think the dog is usually driving.  by Dan Gogerty  (graphic from