“Danny’s dad’s dad was killed by a team of horses,” Faye tells me.
That’s Dan’s grandfather. Dan’s grandmother died shortly after giving birth to her eighth child. Then, this heartbreak struck. Dan’s father was in his early teens. “All eight kids were home yet,” Dan tells me of his father, aunts and uncles. “So four neighbors in the area – at that time, you usually had four farms [one farm on each 160-acre plot] – took two kids, and they raised them until they were old enough to be on their own.” My mouth drops. “Nobody went to high school – lucky they went to anything. My father was raised by neighbors.”
“They were able to keep that whole place. I don’t know how they did it,” Faye shakes her head.
Dan’s grandfather moved from Oklahoma and bought that northwestern Iowa farm on which he was tragically killed, where Dan’s father farmed, where Dan grew up and eventually farmed, and where Steve and Chris farm now. It’s been in their family for 100 years.
“Years back it was all plotted out in 160 acre plots to each section. You had a half-mile square, half-mile square, that’s the way most farms were set up. And then some of them were divided into only 80 acres. Years ago, people in this area raised a family just on 80 acres. Every square mile has 640 acres, you know.” I probably knew that at some point, but I am happy Dan is reminding me. “And now we’re gettin’ bigger farmers, but Iowa’s still known for small farmers.”
My parents have a little bit of farm land in western Iowa, where my dad grew up, about 150 miles south of where Dan and Faye are. It’s been in our family for maybe 75 years. We’re not a farming family: my great-grandfather Jacob ran the general store and my grandfather Howard worked in the town bank. My grandmother Muree was a nurse and stewardess on the Union Pacific railroad (I think it’s so cool that she was a working woman in the ’30s and ’40s). My dad graduated with a master’s degree in piano, and after a couple of years teaching at the college level, he’s spent most of his career in the music business. Even though my family didn’t work the land, I grew up hearing my father frequently repeat, “grow beans, grow!”
“We’re getting a lot of investors too. That’s just hurting us,” Faye says.
“How so?” I ask.
“Because the farmers are losing out,” she says. “We make our living on the ground, and then you have these big conglomerates coming in and buying our ground because the stock markets were so bad. They’re investing in land instead of the stock market.”
“Well that’s what wealth does to a country. You know what you get on a CD at the bank – one, one and a quarter percent at the most, you know. And if they’re in a gamblin’ mood, you know, they like to play the stock market.” Dan’s tone is serious. “It is truly the same thing as our cattle and hog commodities. We can buy and sell, and you call it on the board and sell it on paper. We used it as a tool; we were a little bit scared about the market, what we paid for the animal, and whatever got invested in it, with grain and everything. If there’s a profit down over here, then you’re gonna grab it that month and you sell it. And you pick it back up later. We use that all the time.”
I’m fascinated, recognizing how much financial savvy is required in farming.
“You can’t afford the risk anymore. What does a 700-pound calf cost anymore?” Faye asks Dan.
“Just a calf, fresh from the cow, now will cost right at a thousand. A lot of feeder cattle you buy to bring ‘em into a yard, fatten ‘em out for finished product, you can invest anywhere from $1100-$1400 per animal.”
“Was your dad a cattle farmer?” I ask Dan.
“Yes he was. But if we farmed the way he farmed today, we wouldn’t be farming anymore,” Dan says. “All the little fine things, when you feed a few numbers of cattle, you save ten cents here, twenty cents there. That all adds up by the time you got that animal back to market. So you get real sharp on your nutrition, how you’re feeding. Formulate your rations so you get the right combination for the animal. Each day they need so much of nutrients, and you gotta make sure of the ingredients you buy, you gotta analyze that, and whatever that’s short of, then you supplement that.”
I could learn a lot from Dan, and I wish I were able to spend a week on the farm with him to soak it all up. He brightens at an idea. “I can throw her in the car, just drive through the cattle yards and back home again,” he tells Faye. “That takes fifteen minutes.”
“You can’t do anything in fifteen minutes,” Faye says, laughing.
“I could,” Dan protests, laughing too.
“But our boys have changed a lot too, since they started,” Faye adds. “They farm different than we did. And we farmed different than his dad did. [Dan] said there’s nobody gonna see as many changes as he did, ‘cause he farmed with horses.”
“Really?” I ask, as scenes of Michael Landon on a horse-drawn wagon from Little House on the Prairie play in my head.
“When I came home from the service, we still used a team of horses in the cattle yards, and we scooped all the manure by hand. That was in ’59 and ’60. Now we got tractors that you get in ‘em and you don’t even steer. All in one lifetime.” Dan grins.
“My dad actually never gave me no land. He did after he passed away, but we started from scratch. We rented some land that was right in the neighborhood. Our farm was always a livestock farm; my dad always had cattle; I had cattle, hogs. But –” suddenly Dan’s voice breaks as he chokes up.
“Alright, we’re not talkin’ about it anymore,” Faye says, laughing lightly.
I’m not sure what’s going on. I realize that Dan has one of those faces with the same expression, whether he’s laughing or crying. We were just laughing a few minutes ago.
“It got very bad,” he manages, wiping away tears of sadness, not laughter. There’s something about seeing a father figure in distress that instantly brings tears to my eyes.
“We lost everything,” Faye says quietly.
“Oh, my gosh.” My hand reflexively goes to my chest. I’m confused and concerned.
Faye nods, attempting to explain what happened. “I think Nixon put a ceiling on what cattle could bring, and we got to the point that the bank gave us the money to buy our cattle – we had our yards full of cattle – and then they wouldn’t give us the money to feed ‘em. So we went through a pretty, pretty tough time.”
Dan composes himself. “So by that time we had bought two farms – things were goin’ good, you know, but then land kept goin’ up. So the bank could stay with you ‘cause you had equity back here to back it up with, see. But in the ‘80s, the land went down. It was just like pullin’ a light switch. That’s how that went, you know.”
“I don’t understand how that happened,” I say, feeling completely ignorant. Vague memories of Farm Aid come to mind.
“That’s how bad it got,” he says. “See everybody – all the cattle farmers pretty much bellied up. That’s how come Iowa lost its cattle feeding. It all migrated to the Southern states. And all these big cattle yards you drive by – they’re all investors.”
“You want another cup of coffee?” Faye asks me, nonchalantly trying to change the subject, refilling Dan’s iced tea.
“So here I had four sons, and here they wanted to farm so bad –“ Dan chokes up again.
“They did,” Faye steps in for her husband. “Steve went to school study mechanics, and Chris went to Indiana to learn to fix radiators, but they both came back and started farming. They each got a Young Farmer’s loan and bought 200 acres of land.” Their operation is now permitted for 2500 cattle. Steve and Chris have been working together for 35 years – since high school – and have built the farm back into a thriving business.
I’m struck by this family’s passion and resolve to start their farm from scratch after losing everything – after starting it from scratch to begin with. I ask Faye if she knew what she was getting into, before she married a farmer. She laughs. “I was young and stupid! I was a city kid. I didn’t know what a farm was, for crying out loud.”
Susie, Dan and Faye’s youngest and only daughter, stitched this for Dan. She found the poem in a magazine, but the description fits Dan to a tee: