A Field Day with the Practical Farmers of Iowa

McGREGOR, IOWA

Imbedded in the older generations of farmers here in Iowa are certain skills that were practiced and understood and shared.  This was before the introduction of the post WWII chemical companies that in time would become the seed companies.  There was a bona fide love of the land, and with it, a celebration of rural community and of family.  A future for the American family farmer that transcended the introduction of commercial agriculture corporations.

The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), based in Ames, have been in the business of getting the American family farmer back on this track for the past 25 years.  When I looked for a non-profit in sustainable agriculture to highlight, I was immediately impressed by PFI because politically, they’ve got the balance right.  The Practical Farmers of Iowa are endorsed by both the Farm Bureau (conservative) as well as Farm Aid (Willie Nelson, Neil Young, etc.).

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“We have a hugely diverse audience,” explained Executive Director Teresa Opheim.  “Conventional farmers down to bio-dynamic farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, corn and soy bean farmers – and what really brings them together is an eagerness to learn, to try new things on their farm, to improve their farming systems [and] an openness to share information with each other.”

Which is where “Field Days” come into play, such as the PFI Grazier’s Day Event held recently on the Koether family cattle ranch in McGregor, Iowa.  Here farmers from across the state congregated to witness demonstrations on how to bring their operations chemical free, the importance of building soil, as well as the joys of old-school herd dog demonstrating.

I spoke with young, conventional dairy farmer Adam Martins, who was genuinely impressed with what he saw.  When asked if he saw organic, holistic farm management as a viable option, Adam responded, “I really like this method – it’s a lot more practical – taking cows and putting them out [to pasture] – it’s better for the ground, it’s better for the cows.”

One of the differences between conventional and sustainable (grass fed) animal agriculture,  can be measured in the longevity of the maternal animal’s life span, which observers note can be three times longer utilizing a sustainable production system.

While few people would argue the merits or the methods of organic farming for both the animals and people involved, the real question comes down to the brass tax – profitability – or as local farmer Craig Tritten noted during a question and answer session out on the ranch, “You’ve got to do something besides building soil – you’ve got to stay alive, too.”

The man with the microphone, six-generation cattle rancher Greg Koether, who took his family ranch organic back in 1982, responded, “Hopefully, at the end of the day, at the end of the season, you put just as many pounds on those cattle, even though you’ve used them as a tool for a few days, the ground’s better for it, and the cattle are as good or better than they would have been … grazed on that short grass we used to think was proper.”

When you talk about demand, the pendulum is finally starting to swing in favor of organic farmers, as seen most readily in the market price of milk which has dropped in the past year from $23 to $9 per hundred pounds, for conventional milk, versus $30 to $28 for organic milk, respectively.  A trend that has brought some relief to PFI member and local organic dairy farmer Dan Beards.  When asked how he saw the future of the American family farm, Dan explained, “Well in our particular case, I think it looks great.”

“Because you’re thinking long-term and you’re using a set of guidelines to make decisions,” expounded Greg Koether. “And those guidelines are essential – especially in today’s [economic] climate … In this ultimate pursuit of a goal that you’ve set out – that’s what holistic resource management is all about.”

Asked what the ultimate goal of his family run ranch is, Greg smiled before answering in one, quick sentence.  “That’s easy; to work as closely as possible with mother nature, in order to create a sustainable and profitable food production system, while providing a quality lifestyle for future generations.”

Small Mississippi River Town Rallies Against Cancer

AITKIN, Minnesota

Here in the town of Aitkin, up in Minnesota’s Wild North, folks don’t mess around when it comes to cancer.  “We decided we would promote awareness,” explains Elaine Hill, co-chair for the county’s Relay for Life Committee.  And they’re doing it.  In the week leading up to the town’s big event, Aitkin is draped in purple (the designated color of the American Cancer Society), decorating their shops to celebrate survivorship, drinking purple smoothies, and raising money on a business and personal basis.

RelayBRelay for Life is in association with the American Cancer Society and is billed as their signature [nationwide] fundraising event to be held locally this coming Friday.  The money collected  “goes to research and to different services that are available,” explained Elaine, “including free wigs, a feel better program” for women and men, and in many cases, when needed, “a free hospital bed”.

But the story of fighting cancer in Aitkin runs deeper than affiliation with Relay for Life.  In a town of 1,984, when somebody gets cancer, it’s personal, because everybody knows everybody.  In a single day in town I found myself surrounded by stories of survival meets images of hope.

I spoke with multiple cancer survivors, many of whom had benefited by town fundraising events in which the good people of Aitkin stepped forward to help each other out.  Silent auctions, live auctions, family and friends not waiting to be asked for help.  But more than monetary support, this town truly lends moral support, as one young man explained, “even if it’s just in one person’s life – it’s still a difference in their life and it’s very important to them.”

RelayCCAt the age of 36, one town cancer survivor, Kathie Smith, a mom of two young children, explained that it was Austin Price, a young boy who was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 1/2, who “paved the way for my kids to handle me being diagnosed with cancer.”  “I graduated from high school together with [Austin’s mom] and Austin was in day care with my children.  He taught my kids that just because you have cancer [it] doesn’t mean it’s fatal.”  Somewhat of a living legend here in Aitkin, Austin, now age 6, has survived a year following eight months of hospitalization and treatment down at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.  “He’s made it,” beamed Kathie, fighting back tears.

RelayEEEWhen asked for advice for others who might be fighting for their very lives around the world, Austin, moving between examining the camera and sitting on his mother’s lap, rubbed his head before answering: “Be strong” – to be followed by the simple, hard fought admonition – “be brave.”

Passing on the dance of the Ojibwe

BALL CLUB, Minnesota

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When the children dance at the Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Days pow wow money is thrown at their feet in a symbolic gesture of respect. The money is then collected and given to the elders, who watch on with great smiles from the elders’ booth.

DanceJVeterans, the youth, women, and elders are all honored at this traditional pow wow, now celebrating its 47th year, in multiple ways. Many of which are sacred and cannot be recorded by camera or sound. For example there are the songs of the drums. Each drum possesses within it a song which is special – a song within that only that drum can play.

Then there are the power rings which form a circle around the pow wow ring, used to hoist individual flags for family members who have passed on in active combat overseas. These flags must be raised by a veteran, and preferably a veteran who is a member of the family. I spoke with Don Schaaf, a veteran that saw combat in Beirut. Don was there to raise a flag for his father, Al Schaaf, who had fallen as a paratrooper in Korea. “It’s basically how [we] grieve and how [we] deal,” he explained.

DanceFWhat makes this particular pow wow special is that it features approximately 300 dancers and concentrates on the old and the young. My take for a story was to attempt to document how the knowledge of the dance is passed down from the old to the young, from generation to generation.

When I went to the source – a senior elder of this Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe – he instructed me in the best possible method. Instead of answering my series of prepared questions, he encouraged me to watch and to listen and to feel – to learn about the pow wow by witnessing it firsthand, for myself. Good advice from a professional educator. John Mitchell, the elder, is 87 years old and just won the National Education Indian Elder Award. He told me that dancing cannot be taught – that it must be watched and appreciated. That there’s a love about it that must come from within – a love that can be passed from generation to generation.

DanceZAnd funny enough, when I spoke with Andrew Wakonabo, a winning boy crowned “Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Brave” from last year, he said the same thing, explaining, “I pretty much learned myself – watching other people dance.” The winning dancers are crowned “brave” and “princess” and their title is more complicated than simply wearing a crown and a banner. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Councilman Joe Gotchie explained that once they win, for the entire year they must “demonstrate responsibilities [so] that other youth look up to them.”

There are all sorts of dances at the pow wow and members must be dressed in full regalia to be permitted to participate in competition. Here we witnessed grass, traditional, jingle dress (healing dress) and fancy shell dancers. There are also dances for everyone in the audience, dances for the entire community and all visitors to participate in.

When I met with the councilman the night before the pow wow he told me of an aunt of his who back in his rebellious youth was a real hard case. She’d get all the boys riled up and excited about the pow wow. “You know the pow wow’s coming,” she’d exhort, “yelling and cussing and telling us we had to sort ourselves out and get ourselves in line.” Joe broke down while he told me the story – he said that it was for her that he would dance – that to this day he’s going to all of this work year in and year out (now running the show) just to make this aunt proud. Even though the aunt has been gone now for several years, he can still hear her.

DanceXThere’s a bond between the old and the young within the Native American community that other cultures can learn from. The Ojibwe historically used complex pictures on sacred birch bark scrolls to communicate their knowledge.

Today, I learned that for the Ojibwe, dance communicates love. I saw a lot of smiles and felt a feeling that as one older member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe explained “is impossible to put into words”. A language all its own which is positive and knows no age.