New Life

Chores at sunup before eating. Opening up the roosts for the egg-laying hens, so they can hop into the straw and lay eggs.

From there Doug and Justin rode around back to check on a big black cow who was hours, or days, you never can tell, from giving birth. No calf. Yet.

Inside, we turned the cameras off, and started cooking bacon, sausages and frying eggs. Or I should say Justin cooked breakfast while the rest of us sat around the spacious kitchen and talked. Our plates got filled up with good, filling food. Eggs, bacon, sausage, and bread toasted with butter. The eggs from the farm, the meat from a nearby place that's part of the Iowa Food Co-op, and the bread and butter from- well not sure- but HyVee I would guess. It was damn good, the kind of meal one eats before starting a full day of physical work.

After coffee and tea were finished, and the last of the dishes in the washer, we headed outside, into the deceptively cold morning to interview Doug. He sat on a picnic table which is in front of the front door of the house, a beautiful brown house that sits on top of the tallest hill in the area, so looking out, one gets the sense that they've got the best view around. Doug started off talking about how he got into farming, how he remembered the fateful times when Earl Butts said “Go Big, or Get Out.” That was what guided him for a while, the thought that through chemicals, machinery and land acquisition he would be able to make a living farming. After a time of this, and with a growing family of 6, he realized that his acreage- a few hundred- wouldn't be enough for him to make a living farming. But like all farmers, he loves farming so much that he just can't walk away from it. So he got another job in town, as an electrician to pay the bills, and raised some cattle, and tried to make it work. But it wasn't until he stumbled across Joel Salatin, and read the Omnivore's Dilemma, and most importantly- until his stepson Justin decided to make a full-time commitment that this whole thing started to make sense. Doug has a natural charisma, and makes all around him feel at ease. That's why when he talks about how he was sick and tired of working so that other companies could keep most of the profits it is so powerful. When he talks about how producing a product that has his family farm on the label- Rapid Creek Ranch- that it makes you want to go out and spend money to support your local farmers.

Doug finished- Andy, Justin and I walked around to a barn and opened a door that doesn't usually get opened so we could get nice light. Justin shared that as a 4 year old he farmed with his biological father, who started the first commodity farrow-to-finish operation in Iowa. His Dad died shortly thereafter. Doug has been his father figure most of the years since then- and they interchageably use the terms son, stepson, father, and stepfather in such a way that you realize that these terms are semantic, and that the word family, is the key one. Justin talked about his connection to the land, and to the animals, and about how he works a part-time job putting in hardwood floors to pay the bills. The guy he installs the floors with also wants to start a farm, so when they are putting in the floors they're talking mostly about farming. He talked about a life-defining moment when a strep-infection spread from his spine to his heart and on his deathbed, the doctors saved his life by inserting a couple of mechanical heart valves. That after months in the hospital, and a long time unable to lift his baby girls he decided he didn't want to deal with the daily stress of an engineering career- or an office job. He wanted to work outside, to have that connection to the many things we are not immediately connected to when we look up and don't see the sky.

By this time, the light was crap and we stopped shooting after gathering some eggs. Inside again, we had lunch, a bacon cheeseburger, a hot dog and yes, I've put on some weight on this trip. And there was some kind of asian cole slaw too. The burger was from the farm, as was the dog, and both really good.

Full and done shooting for a bit, there was some e-mails, phone calls. We drove over to a great school that is in its first year. They've taken over an abandoned school- and started teaching kids with a curriculum centered around gardening. Prairie Green School. Paula is doing what school masters did in the 1800s, moving out to a rural area and devoting herself to education. It's pretty inspiring to see kids enter an abandoned school and start learning. We decided to form a partnership with our program at Leave It Better.

In the evening we drove East to Iowa City where Rachel of Simply Food and Jessica Burtt of Farm to Family was hosting a screening for students of the university of Iowa. About 40 students sat in a theater with 60 seats, so it was full but not uncomfortable. Bill Ellison and Lois spoke beforehand about their farm, and then were kind enough to watch most of the film for a third time. Justin, Doug and Pam arrived shortly after delivering eggs, and watched this film for about the 7th time I think. That means a lot considering they were up so early. After the screening, Doug, Justin, Jessica and I talked about farming, and about this movement and there was a good vibe in the air as a lot of folks stuck around after the talk to talk some more and connect. As we left someone snagged the last burrito from the 30 or so that Chipotle had donated.

It was about 10 when we got back, everyone worn out and ready for bed. Except something had happened. That big black cow had given birth. New life. Andy and I delirious grabbed the gear- the 7D and the damn Tascam, and mic'd up Doug and Justin. The momma was worn out and angry, running around and trying to intimidate the oncomers. Doug and Justin calmly navigated the maze of metal gates and managed to separate calf from momma so they could tag the ear and measure the hoof. This maneuver involves a kind of gentle tackle- that Doug managed with the grace of someone who's done it before. Welcome to River Creek Ranch, he said. It seemed the right thing to say. The little heifer- that's a female- was about one hour old- and was already walking. We walked back to the house. A long day. But a good one.  

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published this page in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:41:35 -0400