I learn about farming corn in a backwards sort of way. I spend my first morning in Iowa sitting in a tractor with my friend Brian, asking every stupid question that crosses my mind (What’s that called? Can I climb it? What does this thing do? Do you maintain everything yourselves? Can I drive that? How many acres is this field?). We are running wagons of corn from the field being harvested to the dryer back at Grandpa Carl and Grandma Betty’s place. For four days I ride with either Brian or his sister Melissa, first in the tractor, then in the grain cart (which moves corn from the combine to the wagons) and finally in the combine which actually harvests corn from the field. Like I said, kind of backwards.
Brian is incredibly patient with my questions. I even stump him a few times, but he always comes back the next day with an answer. Sitting in a tractor with someone for hours on end, there’s nothing to do but talk. As Melissa puts it, “It’s like a really slow road trip.” Apart from my frequent questions about farming we cover many topics. Brian and I catch up on the big changes in each other’s lives fairly quickly before moving on to deeper conversations about relationships, family, travel, life goals, Monticello politics, and the technology, politics and ethics of farming. Melissa and I mostly talk about dudes. Michael (big brother) and Rich (dad) are also working the harvest and sometimes one of Michael’s young sons rides along too. Every day LuAnn (mom) delivers a home cooked lunch and sometimes dinner to the fields.
Some of the fields they harvest are the same ones Grandpa Carl used to pick by hand. A lot has changed since then. The farm has grown from around a hundred acres to somewhere near two thousand. The idea of farming even a hundred acres without modern technology is mind-boggling.
The entire Wolken family are so generous with me. I stay with Brian and his beautiful wife Ali. LuAnn takes me on a tour around town and delivers the best vegan food in Iowa right to the field like it ain’t no thang. I’m invited to the weekly family dinner at Carl and Betty’s where ninety some year old Betty also passes the vegan challenge with a wink and a smile. Melissa lets me tag along to her work party where we take a party bus to a haunted house in Mount Carroll, Illinois. We throw together Back to the Future costumes with a couple of Melissa’s friends (it’s Back to the Future day – October 21, 2015!)
Brian’s life seems like some kind of Middle American fairytale and I’m a little jealous. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a farmer, but Brian loves it. He’s surrounded by family and a strong community, he’s fixing up the run-down Victorian mansion he’s wanted since he was a kid and last year he married his sweetheart. Don’t get me wrong – Brian works very hard, argues with his family and bickers with his wife – his life isn’t perfect, but it is a picture. Apart from the occasional twinge of jealousy, mostly what I feel is stoked. Brian is good people and seeing him happy and in his element makes me happy too.
Life Lessons Learned:
- Visit your friends. They do cool stuff and they can teach you a lot. Maybe they will let you drive their combine?
- Ask all of the stupid questions.
- Vote Wolken!
Soundtrack: Kenny Chesney – She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy