Give Us A Chance

Sunday morning.

Up at 5:30, we headed South in the darkness down 71 towards Elliot. The drive was about an hour and a half, and the subtle purple light of the sunrise slowly brought the fields of snow into view.

Michael Mardesen greeted us in coveralls, and full of enthusiasm. Inside we met his father Ron, and mother Denise. There was some bacon on the table, and we were both without breakfast. The morning light is gone quick, so we headed out to the main farm, which is where Ron’s parents- Dean and Ilene- live.

Michael put on a wrist brace- he’d recently totaled an old car that slid on ice into the back of a truck. Grabbed some 5 gallon buckets- these are everywhere on every farm- and walked towards an open barn for pigs. He climbed up a ladder and filled the buckets with feed, sliding them out onto the plank. The plank as it is affectionately named, is a unique innovation of Michael’s father Ron. Suspended about 15 feet above the ground, the narrow passageway looks something like a ladder that is suspended parallel to the ground above the pigs. It makes feeding hogs easier, as you’re able to throw feed to a larger area. The only catch is that it’s not for those skittish of heights, as there’s no railing, and it has a little sway walking across.

From there, more buckets got filled up with a byproduct of ethanol that is darker yellow than grain the name of which escapes me.  We walked by a series of 3 hoop barns, the history of which, and the stories of which Michael was quick and eager to share. Michael’s got a natural optimism, and an outgoing temperament. Everything in this farm has a story he said. We were lucky enough to hear a good number of them.

After feeding cattle, walked through the hoop barns, where pigs were finishing out. Finishing means being fed and fattened up before slaughter. Most people don’t think that pigs can be herded like cattle. But if you walk among them each day, they can be. As he walked into each barn, he said good morning to each group of pigs.
Next was feeding hay. Big old green John Deere tractor with a two-pronged steel implement on the end of it speared a circular bail. From there out to the middle of the field, which has a big round steel contraption, into which the hay is supposed to go. The hay fell of the tractor before it got in the steel container, and Michael had to get out and do it manually. Somewhere in the mix, the wireless mic he was wearing got ripped, and I had to go back to the car to get the backup.

Ilene and Dean Mardesen were on the porch and said hello. I walked up and introduced, and we started talking about the weather, something everyone has in common. Before long, the conversation moved to farming, and to the family farm we were on. Andy and Michael joined shortly. The pride and concern was evident in the elderly couple’s voices as they talked about Michael, so proud of his accomplishments, and of the man he is becoming. They brought about 5 framed aerial pictures of the farm out to the porch, so we could see the various stages of the farms growth. One from the 1990s showed acres and acres of A-frames- which are small wooden farrowing huts where sows- female pigs- give birth.  A lot of pride.

Dean and Ilene went in to ready for church and we walked around to find good light for the interview.  We settled on a place and flipped three buckets over and got started.

Michael is a state FFA officer, and has leadership instincts and charisma. He spoke with a breadth of knowledge about a number of production models, and a lot of emotion about working with family, in particular with his Dad. When asked what young farmers need,  he talked with the pragmatic tone of a problem-solver when he said more than anything young people need a chance. There’s a lot of old farmers with land and money, with no one to transfer the land to, and there’s a lot of young farmers with able-bodies who don’t have capital or land but want to work. Just give us a chance he repeated.

The interview concluded we headed back to Michael’s home, where we ate that leftover bacon, and some home-made coffee cake that Denise created. It was good, damn good. We talked about the future of agriculture a bit before Ron joined us. He shared his opinions with a comical gift. He had run the farm during its hayday, when they produced thousands and thousands of pigs. That all came to a crash in 98, when a glut on the market put a lot of farmers out. The two lessons he learned from that meltdown- Never trust banks. And always have a floor. After decades of good credit, the banks liquidated the farms assets. The anger in his voice still palapable. And the floor, that refers to pricing. The Mardesens are currently Niman farmers, a collective of small family farms. They set a floor price for their farmers, which basically limits the amount of risk and economic loss. A floor in 98- Ron wasn’t with Niman then- might have saved them.

We sat around a good hour, drinking coffee and talking about what it would take for Michael to become a full-time farmer.

Around noon, we said thankyous and goodbyes, before heading East and North to Indianola where we found a Super 8 with an indoor pool.

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published this page in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:48:04 -0400