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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Given the snow, and the distance to Algona, we decided to stay in Carroll. It was the first night in a while we didn’t have to set an alarm.

In the evening we found many restaurants completely full- due to a youth basketball tournament- and eventually found a place with NY style pizza.

That evening, we logged some of the footage we’ve recorded, which basically means we scanned it over and marked what is seen or said throughout. It was a low-key, regenerative day.

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Schaller to Carroll

Not sure of the roads we drove North from Audubon to Schaller. The roads had some ice, but it was a clear day, and people were driving in awareness. We turned left past the mailbox with Miller on it, and soon met up with Daren, who was wearing a pair of beat up Carhartt coveralls. He had been up since 4am loading hogs, at a place where he works in addition to chores at the home farm, in addition to going to school full time at Iowa Lakes Community College. 

Snow blanketed the landscape as Daren filled up 5 gallon buckets with corn, then put them on a trough in the mid of the cattle. They converged on the feed, their breath a slow mist rising. He unhooked the gate, grabbed some more buckets and filled them up at the water pump. Back through the gate, he walked past the cattle into a small old barn, where he dumped the water into a big black plastic tub. Soon the animals left the feed and went in for a drink. There weren't much chores today, so we walked around until we found the right light for the interview. 

Daren talked about his initial desire to be an artist, something he found difficult career-wise, although he plans to set up a studio for the off-season to work on pointalism. Friends have him draw some of their tattoos. He farms because when he's outside, tending animals or planting, or harvesting, it doesn't feel like work. 

He showed us a busted-up snow mobile he'd been driving on a football field the night before, with friends, in the swirling snow. Don't buy one, they're deathtraps. We said goodbyes, and thankyous and headed South to Carroll for the afternoon screening. 

After some technical challenges, we got the screening underway for about 40 or 50 folks, most of them students, many farmers in the mix. We split up into groups and asked questions. There was a lot of spirited discussion, with some of the adults in the audience very strongly speaking out on behalf of conventional agriculture. More so than at any of our previous discussions. We found some common ground, talking about the raising of broiler pens as a good FFA SAE project, and about the economic advantages of local distribution. 

We stayed talking long after the screening, and were energized by students and farmers coming up to say thanks, which we returned in kind. 

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Today was a lot of driving. 

In the morning we jumped on 80 West for Des Moines. I edited while Andy drove. It was raining, sleeting, and passing semi trucks with their back spray was enough to make the heart jump a bit. 2 hours later we were screening at Scavo Alternative High School. There was freshly popped popcorn- which Suzet helped set up- and that seemed popular. About 60 kids in the gymnasium. The combination of small speakers and a large space is generally not the best- but for the first part of the documentary the students were able to keep quiet enough that folks in the back could hear. We had to leave after the first discussion in order to- yep- jump on 80 East- right back where we started in the morning. Not the best scheduling on my part. It would get worse.

Iowa Mennonite School and English Valley were kind enough to host us, and we had a good number of farmers turn out- probably about 20, and they matched up with the 50 or so students. Karen gave an impassioned speech about agricultural education before we started, and some students helped run the sound and computer. The conversations were pretty good during our breaks- some groups more engaged then others. It may have been that I was tired from the driving, or maybe everyone was a bit worn out from the slushy wet weather and the mud everywhere. All in all, we sparked conversations about farming, and put some new ideas out there. 

We stopped by Doug and Justin's place to pick up our stuff and say goodbyes and thankyous- before getting on 80 again- retracing our steps again- West this time. Dinner in Des Moines at Zombie Burger where we had the best fried brussel sprouts ever- a bright spot in a road weary day. This was followed by a 2 or 3 hour stretch in a blizzard that was so strong there were moments that it seemed that we were moving backwards because the snow was so forcefully blowing into the windshield. We stopped hours short of our intended destination, holed up in a motel, and tired, tired, tired. We're supposed to shoot tomorrow morning with Daren in Schaller, and hope that the weather and roads will have cleared enough to make that viable. 

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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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City to Country

We crossed the street to Des Moines Area Community College- or D-MACK- as it's called. 35 students in a small room in the most urban of our screenings thus far- meaning some of the students present were totally new to farming. But given  this is the heart of agriculture in America- there were still a good number that grew up on a farm, or continue to live and work on their parents or grandparents place in the summers. 

Some scenes- like the story of Richard Morris- a city dweller who ditches a 100k job to start farming- seemed to resonate more, while stories like that of Curlew, IA- a small rural town losing people- was more distant. 

Our friend Brianne Cummins, who's starting a farm in her backyard in Des Moines city limits, and Melanie- who's also starting a farm- a grass-based system similar to Polyface- helped to lead discussions with the small groups around the room. Some students were already excited about local food, as we heard from a woman who helps operate a CSA, and others were a bit groggy considering the screening started at 8am.

Lunch was at Big City Burger, a wildly popular local chain that sources some of their meat and produce locally. 

After- we hunkered down at Java Joe's and edited and e-mailed for a few hours before heading East on 80 towards Oxford. The sun was setting in our rear and side mirrors, round cumulous clouds extending towards the horizon, with red and orange light dramatically underneath. 

Andy took a picture when we stopped to fill up with gas.

As we arrived at Rapid Creek Ranch- near Oxford, IA- a town of 500- Doug and Justin were finishing up chores. Well not totally, they still had some eggs to wash and put in cartons for tomorrow night's delivery. We sat around the kitchen table eating 7 layer dip and talking about the emerging local food movement, about how Rapid Creek Ranch is seeing a continuous rise in demand for their produce. About how they are now getting closer to being able to secure larger guaranteed contracts with schools, farmers markets, restaurants, and even with the local prison. A number of other grass-based farmers are sprouting up in the area, and there's a sense that this thing going on has some staying power.

Pam got home from work and took over quality control of the eggs making sure to shut out an active orange cat. After all the eggs were packed and ready, she made sure we all had cake before heading off to bed. 

Chores start up at 6:30 tomorrow.

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Upkeep, Downfall

So windy today it was comical. When we opened the screen door the wind would snatch it out of hand and slam it against the hinges. 

We said goodbye to Paul and headed South and East to Mt. Vernon where Cornell College was kind enough to host us. After a lighting mixup, we got the movie going for about 35 or 40 in a cozy commons area. It was about the perfect fit of people for the venue. 

We opted for a traditional panel following, which was really engaged. Kurt Friese a top chef at Devotay in Iowa City spoke passionately and eloquently about the importance of cooking. It's the act that separates us from animals, he says, and the old saw, you are what you eat, is absolutely true. Given that fact, most Americans are fast, cheap and easy he said with chuckles throughout the audience. 

David- a vegetable farmer- gave an inspiring answer to a young fellow in the front row who asked about how long it would take to be a farmer. Thirty days- he said- which is how long it takes to grow a radish from seed. The enthusiasm was apparent, the sense of possibility pregnant in the air. 

Bill Ellison and his partner Lois talked with romantic charm about the summer they fell in love- he an auctioneer, and her in need of someone to sell her machinery. They started farming, raising lamb, pigs, cattle, and are a big source of meat for Friese's restaurants in Iowa City. 

Brett from the Environmental Working Group pointed out that there are long term and short term goals when aiming to change. When you're looking for immediate results, change what you eat today. If you want to change the food system at your school- plan on it taking a number of years. An attempt to change a system is for the greater good, and may not take firm root until the next generation. 

We called it at 8:30pm and from there small conversations started between lots of folks. Bill Ellison and I got to talking and I mentioned that with the price of oil going up, there could be the possibility of the price of land dropping, allowing an easier entry cost for young farmers. He said he hoped so. Bill then gave a look straight into my eyes and said over the years he's learned one thing... once your upkeep gets too high it'll be your downfall. It made sense. It's true of every business he said. We may be entering a new phase of agriculture, one where high-input production requires too much upkeep to keep up.


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Day of Rest

Went out looking for eagles again in the morning with Paul, this time joined by Phyllis. We were further North near Fertile, and moved along the Winnebago River. Winnebago is named for a Native tribe, not for a recreational vehicle. As we drove the country, Phyllis told the history of the families in the region, often stories of troubled times. We stopped by and said hello to Phyllis' sister Gale, who loves ducks.

 Through the afternoon, we saw a number of nests, and eagles, as both Paul and Phyllis are very familiar with the area.

 Phyllis showed us how to play teapots as musical instruments before we headed back to Paul's farm. There we sent out e-mails and started editing the next group of videos that we'll post by day's end tomorrow.

 It was a day of rest and preparation for the times ahead.

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Eagles' Nests

Paul and a fellow we hadn't met before- named Daryl- pulled up mid-morning. Paul and Daryl were planning on driving along the West Fork of the Cedar River to look for eagle nests. They asked us to come with. We had a lot of laundry to do, so we put a load on before jumping in the back of the mini-van.

Paul and Daryl are old friends. They went to highschool together, and then reconnected a couple decades later.

As we were leaving Thornton, Paul noticed some cars downtown and figured there was an auction. We parked and investigated. A room filled with people- mostly over 50- were sitting in wooden chairs, as an auctioneer with a quick voice jumped from box to box of items for sale. Stuff like porcelain dolls, salt and pepper shakers, pyrex bowls and jewelry boxes. In the minutes we were there, about 8 sales were made- nothing more than $6. Paul later explained that these types of auctions usually happened after funerals.

Daryl spotted the first eagle's nest. It was towards the top of a very tall tree. Paul, Andy and Daryl are all avid birders, and the excitement in all of them was contagious. We took turns looking at the nest, and then started driving away when Andy spotted an eagle on a nearby tree. These are large, commanding birds. Up until a few years ago, eagles were rapidly decreasing in number. DDT- a chemical used to kill insects- was discovered to be the root cause. We stopped again and looked at the bird. By the way- stopping on country roads is totally fine. There's little traffic.

We continued to follow the river as best we could in a car. The grid of roads is rectangular, and the river meandering, which meant many stretches we were without direct vision of the water. Eagles nest near water.

Paul saw a beaver dam, and we stopped again. Paul, Andy and I went to the river to explore and Daryl took a call from his sister. The dam was impressive, hundreds of sticks fit together. It spanned the width of the river.

It was different to see land that wasn't being farmed. Trees, grasses, rivers. It made one wonder what the land was before.

As we drove and drove- there were a lot of abandoned farm plots. Daryl and Paul talked about how there used to be lots of family farms. When they went to highschool each of the small towns had their own school. Today, at least seven schools have consolidated into one, and instead of listing out all of the community names- Thornton, Sheffield, Meservey, Swaledale, and some others that are escaping memory- they call the school West Fork- after the part of the river they all share. A lot of the homes that used to be here have been completely swallowed up by the corn. The last remnant usually being the old driveway.

We found a second eagle's nest- and then got lunch at Casey's- a gas station chain that also serves as a grocery store and restaurant for a lot of rural communities out here. Daryl was kind enough to treat everyone to lunch, which was eaten in the car as we continued on the river.

Before heading back, we saw a third and fourth eagle's nest, including one with an eagle in it. Paul and Daryl were really surprised and happy. Just a few years ago this would have been unthinkable. But since we stopped using DDT- eagles have been growing in number. They are finding habitats and thriving. It's a reminder of resilience. As we continued back to the farm, endless stumps of corn stalks passed by, and I couldn't help but hope that one day we'll see the small family farms return like the eagle has.

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Jude's Barn

Chris, Andy and I met up with Jude Becker at dawn or so.

There was a heavy cloud cover, which the sun only managed to break through in long thin beams, giving the farm a mythical feel. Jude fed some sows- female pigs- and then fed some weaners- pigs that have recently been weaned from their mothers. We then went out to the insulated farrowing huts, a somewhat recent breakthrough- that has allowed sows enough warmth to give birth in winter.

Chris and Jude are good friends, and walked the farm, talking about what's happened since their last visit, soon forgetting the camera Andy held, and the occasional question or comment interjected.

Winter is a time of absence out here. Especially this winter, because there's no snow. The ground, the trees, the roads, all seems to be shades of brown. As I looked out across the arched metal huts sitting on the brown dirt, I couldn't help but imagine how different it must look in the full green of summer.

After Jude finished showing us around, the four of us entered into Jude's dream barn. It's a barn from the 1870s I think- that Jude has renovated into a living space. The entrance has a couple of large ornate wood carvings, which were done by Jude's father, who has passed on. Jude explained the history and background of the pieces, his words full of pride. There's a whole room with carvings that Jude will soon have organized into a formal display. 

Upstairs we had oatmeal, and prosciutto from one of Jude's hogs, as well as some cheese and wheat thins. Excellent.

We interviewed Jude, in a hoop barn with nice light, but it was too loud so we moved to an empty hoop barn, where the light wasn't as nice, but it was quiet. Shortly thereafter we interviewed Chris, once again switching from our initial location.

By this time, it was nearing midday, the sun had broken above the clouds, and the ground was total mud. The mythical feel of the morning was long gone. Chris and Jude went to town to get ingredients for lunch- Andy and I prepped for the shoot.

Andy and I filmed a kind of informal cooking show with Jude and Chris, as they talked about food, farming, and cooking.

It was a bit awkward at first, largely because I haven't ever directed a cooking show before, but after a short while, we decided for a more laid back approach- which seemed to work pretty well.

The end result was a wondrous lunch. Some of Jude's Applegate Bacon- which has been carmelized in a syrup and soy sauce, laid on a bed of spinach and garlic shrimp. It was amazing. Chris finished just in time to get to the airport, and we said goodbye and thanks for a great week. Andy got a few last shots of the farm, and we uploaded our footage from the day. Jude and I talked about land challenges, before goodbyes.

We drove West and North to Thornton, stopping for a meal in Cedar Rapids. Home after a full week, sleep came easily.

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