Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Farm Liability Laws—Skatin’ on Thin Ice

As this video report shows, farmers might be forced to end some tour groups and visits in light of a recent Iowa Supreme Court decision. Iowa farmers had been protected under a statute that states that farmers are immune from liability of injuries that occur on their property aside from a farmer willfully injuring an individual. But an Iowa Supreme Court decision changed this by stating that unless the injury occurred under specific circumstances, a farmer can be held liable. Ag groups are working to amend this ruling.
Skatin’ along in the Hog Barn

Decades ago, the Ritland family didn’t worry about opening up their farm to the public—they encouraged it as long as folks were willing to trade their blue-suede shoes for roller skates. In 1949, the Ritland brothers figured roller skates would produce a better profit margin than livestock on their central Iowa farm, so they talked their dad into building a barn that became a magnet of entertainment during the next fifteen years.

They installed a maple hardwood floor so the skates would run true, and when the barn was finished, a couple of
the boys used a rope to pull a bicycle to the top. They planned to ride along the peak of the barn to celebrate the completion, but Momma Ritland took the air out of that idea. Instead, they placed a string of colored lights on top, and the livestock barn became a beacon for surrounding small towns. 

The 140-foot long, 60-foot wide floor would often hold 150 to 200 skaters of varying talents. Wednesday nights drew a large contingency of couples, and the Ritlands might play the “12th Street Rag” over the sound system so skaters could two-step, or a Glenn Miller tune so the floor would turn into a rotating waltz. Romance came during the Moonlight Skate as the lights went low and couples floated around the mirror ball hanging from the center of the rafters.

The rink was a social hangout throughout the fifties with open skating three or four nights a week and parties scheduled on demand.  Friday night crowds were younger and livelier so the Ritlands spent time fitting shoes on squirming feet and serving food to teens who wobbled on their skates like deer on ice.

As the 50s morphed into the American Graffiti Era, they started playing tunes by Buddy Holly and the Del Vikings. They showed teens how to skate with the new beat of rock and roll—including the “tangle-foot,” a type of toe-dance with a bit of Elvis-swivel thrown in. Their limbo skating contests offered prizes and showed that Iowa had both talent and klutzes during the Eisenhower administration. Those with the best moves eventually took center stage, and the usual crowd flow might stop to watch a couple waltzing backward or a show like the match-lighting act. Irvin Ritland would skate in the middle while swinging his friend Kenny by one leg. Kenny had a wooden matchstick in his teeth, and as Irvin twirled him around, he would eventually get low enough so he could light the match with his teeth by scraping it on the wooden floor.

We preteen novices were impressed by the “cool skaters.” Our night was successful if we could skate through the swinging doors of the toilet without rolling headlong into the urinal. After a few weeks, we could maneuver up to the food counter without spilling someone’s cherry coke, and this is about the time we’d get suckered into a “crack the whip” episode. So-called friends would skate by, reach out a hand, and say “grab on.” After pulling us long enough to build up speed, the prankster would whip us around and catapult us toward another struggling skater or toward the wall in the shadows at the north end of the rink. 
With special fifties-style uniforms on, the Ritlands kept the music flowing and the skating fun. On certain nights they organized activities for church groups or 4-H clubs. Sunday was “white shirt night,” and on occasion, they would host high school class parties or Halloween costume contests. They worked hard to entertain their customers with events such as the Grand March.  While Souza music came over the speakers, four-somes or six-somes would move in formation, build archways, and carry flags or banners.  The “bell skate” was also popular, especially with those hoping for a touch of romance.  At the ring of a bell, couples would change partners, and the object was to end up with the person “you were sweet on.” 

By 1964, the colored lights went out for the last time, and eventually, the classic floor was sold. The building is now home to hogs, hay, and tractors, while cattle feed in the lot next to it. Some of us can squint and see the Studebakers and Chevys parked in the glow of the yard light as the barn vibrates to the sound of Fats Domino and skates-on-wood, but “Skating Elvis” has left the building for good. by dan gogerty

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When the Dam Bursts (Earth Day—April 22, 2013)

April 22 Earth Day UPDATE: A list of 13 ways to support food production and the environment. A personal video about a universal thought--thanking farmers for the food and environment work they do. And check the links below, following the "Earth Day reflections about water" blog.

Water, Water Everywhere, but...
Eight of us are scattered in the creek or on the bank. We’re moving stones and clumps of sod or pushing large sticks into the shallow water. Breeches in the small dam continue to pop up, but we’re slowing the flow. Our pre-teen mob of siblings and cousins can accomplish plenty if we call it play and not work. The younger ones aren’t much help, but they’re into the buzz of it all. They see the water rise, hear us brag about making a swimming hole, and maybe believe us when we talk of constructing a dam like the beavers did a mile or so downstream in the woods.

For a while we ignore the blowflies, and we’re too wet to feel the sun searing into our shoulders. A couple of us dog paddle and scrape our knees in the dam’s backwater. Terry, the oldest of the cousins, names it the Grand Coutie Dam.

About the time a bigger rip in the dam opens up, the youngest cousin gets tangled in nettles, and a few of us start a mud fight. Eventually a cloudbank casts a long shadow, and the light breeze shifts to the northwest. We dog paddlers shiver a bit and pull on our t-shirts.

“Hey, Mom’s baking chocolate chip cookies this afternoon,” my brother says. On the walk home we avoid the Canadian thistles by following the cattle path in the pasture. The younger ones lag behind, but we turn often enough to make sure they’re coming. Mom makes us step out of our wet Keds, but she knows the kitchen will soon be marked with mud, cockleburs, and loud boasts about conquering the creek. By the time we’re halfway through our cookies and milk, clear flowing water has opened several large holes in Grand Coutie. By tomorrow, the bend in the creek will look about the way it did earlier this morning when the sun rose over the farm.

Some of us were lucky enough to grow up not worrying about fresh drinking water. My family members thought the bored well on our central Iowa farm in the 1960s made the best coffee and tea in the pre-Starbuck’s era. The creeks that flowed through our pastures were not just pastoral backdrops for the grazing cattle; they were playgrounds where youngsters went swimming, fishing, and ice skating. If agricultural run-off or poorly engineered feedlots pumped toxins into the streams, it didn’t register with us. We may have noticed if cattle crossed the creek just above where we were wading for minnows, but the poison ivy on the bank and bumble bees in the clover concerned us more.

Now we realize that the little capillary streams on our farm are part of the arteries that form the lifeblood of our state. Water that flows under the bridge on our lane eventually joins the Mississippi River and flows on to the Gulf of Mexico. We’re all part of the world’s circulatory system.

In the classic science fiction novel Dune, water is so scarce that the inhabitants of the planet Arrakis have adopted techniques to save every possible drop. They recycle bodily fluids, and shedding a tear for someone is considered an ultimate gift. On today’s Earth, some are shedding a tear for the condition of water sources in many parts of the world.  Access to clean water is not only a topic for symposiums and research papers, it is a matter of life and death for those in critically affected areas.

Many organizations are working to make clean water available to all. It would be great if youngsters around the world could wade into rural streams on hot summer days to build sod dams and race homemade stick boats. First, we need to get them a safe glass of water.  by dan gogerty (photo acquired from Shutterstock)

Links:  ** CAST publication: Water and Land Issues Associated with Animal Agriculture: A U.S. Perspective  ** CAST publication: Assessing the Health of Streams in Agricultural Landscapes: The Impacts of Land Management Change on Water Quality  ** Water for Life Program from the United Nations  ** Guinea Worm EradicationProgram--for water safety--includes work from the Carter Foundation, Gates Foundation, and others. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Doc Callahan on Guns, Farms, and Bugs Bunny

Note: Doc Callahan, retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time pontificator, occasionally adds his advice column expertise to our blog. Doc’s viewpoints are not necessarily those held by CAST—or, frankly, anyone else.

Caroline Aims Her Gun Questions at Me

Gun ownership, use, and regulation are not in my realm of expertise, so I have been surprised at the countless inquiries I’ve had about the issue related to living on farms. But it’s a hot topic now, and I never let a lack of knowledge interfere with my propensity to babble. This letter from Caroline sums up many of the issues:

Dear Doc,
I’ve never lived on a farm, but from the old Beverly Hillbillies to the modern day Duck Dynasty reality shows on cable, it seems that rural kids in your country learn to shoot before they are potty trained. Did you have a gun when you were a kid? Were guns a necessity on the farm? Did you ever have a gun accident? What do you think of the gun control debate?
Sincerely, Quizzical Caroline in Canada 

Dear Caroline,
I started with fully loaded sticks. We’d run around the farm play-acting scenes from Gunsmoke or Davy Crockett. The coonskin caps we received at Christmas helped us win a lot of battles against imaginary foes, but by late afternoon, we were ready to check our firearms at the door so we could turn on the black-and-white TV for The Mickey Mouse Club. We eventually went through the BB gun stage, but wildlife was safe around me. Years later when I read Harper Lee’s classic novel, I realized I must have been subconsciously following Atticus Finch’s edict, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” My poor aim took that a bit farther: “It’s impossible to kill much of anything.”

Your second question probably depends on when, where, and why. When we were kids, we didn’t even lock the doors, so I don’t think we gave much thought to personal protection. However, after my grandpa died, Granny kept a 4-10 shotgun in a closet on the porch of her house across the road from us. It had “Lil Pet” inscribed on the stock, and I’m glad to say she never actually shot it—Granny was tough and determined, but small. The recoil probably would have sent her into a backwards somersault, and by that time, her tumblin’ days were over.

In our house, we had a shotgun and .22 rifle, and I guess the necessity factor came up with another flashback to “Mockingbird.” Like Atticus, Dad emphasized safety and respect around guns, and he also had to put down a rabid animal—in this case, a skunk that was doing circles on the driveway one hot summer afternoon. Dad and my brothers became good at taking out raccoons with distemper or other problem critters. I’ve always made a point of not looking too sick when I visit the farm—no pus-filled eyes or frothing at the mouth, and I definitely don’t run in circles on hot summer days.

You ask about accidents, and yes we had one. Armed with BB guns, my brother and a cousin chased a rabbit until it hid under a small soybean bin. These two Elmer Fudds knew the best way to trap poor Bugs. One went to each end of the crawl space under the bin, and they peered in at the rabbit huddled in the middle. My brother shot first, and the rabbit knew when to duck. The pellet struck my cousin in the eye, but luck was with us--it hit him in the eyelid and not the pupil. Bugs Bunny got away, my cousin has a tiny scar, and my brother went on to be the best shot in the family and a dedicated proponent of safe, common sense gun use.

Your last question is the hardest because of the gap between the most fervent of both sides. Seems the extreme gun proponents think the gun control folks want to pass restrictions until only crazed criminals can get their cold, undead hands on a weapon. The extreme gun control proponents seem to think the gun rights people want to force children to get a semi-automatic for their tenth birthdays. I just hope common sense and compromise prevail. 

In the meantime, I’ve signed up for the Keanu Reeves Matrix Defense System. It’s an online course designed so the purchaser can learn how to dodge oncoming bullets. I have to admit, the 90-degree backward bends are tough. I think I’ve reached Granny’s stage—my tumblin’ days are over.
Stay quizzical, Doc
 (by dan gogerty, photo from