- What We Yield
Our childhood rests in the barns and hillsides at the end of a long Iowan history in which small family farms were still successful, or at least manageable. My younger brother and I grew up in Montezuma, a small town of eighteen hundred in central Iowa, during the 1980s. My memories manifest themselves as moments of that landscape: the swirl of funnel clouds whipping across a dark-green July sky, the stubble of broken and dry corn stalks after harvest, the weathered red of collapsing barns, the fog settling along the creeks in early winter, the spring calves wobbling after their mothers.
Our time there corresponds to the worst years of the farm crisis, the hardest time for rural Americans since the Depression. The price of farmland inflated at record amounts during the 1970s. Farmers borrowed cheaply to purchase the expensive machinery they needed to farm more land, finding assurance in high land and crop prices as well as expanding foreign markets. Interest rates went up in the early 1980s and the land and crop prices fell. Foreign markets disappeared and pushed prices even lower. Those farmers who didn't go bankrupt borrowed more money and hoped things would change for the better.
We weren't farmers, and neither were our parents or our grandparents. The Depression had done in my family's farms across Iowa fifty years before, but we didn't escape the effects of the farm crisis, and neither did any of the other members of our small town. Even if a family didn't farm, they ran a store on the town square, owned the grain elevator, or taught at the school. Our dad ran the veterinary clinic.
I know most of the farms we visited with our dad aren't in operation anymore. Many of the farmers are dead; they were already old men and women when my father knew them. After struggling through the 1980s, [End Page 49] many surviving farm families were unable to compete with the invasion of corporate agribusiness during the 1990s. Their sons and daughters may have tried to keep the farms afloat, but most of the family farms I visited as a child ran out of money as the price for hogs fell and the pollution from corporate hog confinement lots polluted the creeks and rivers.
People in our town discussed the weather not out of politeness or boredom but because it determined how much hay would be baled that day, when the crops would go in, or how much of a crop would be lost. Despite the frequency and importance of such discussions everyone knew that there wasn't much use in talking about the weather: July tornados ripped out entire fields, summer brought too much or too little rain, a late snow storm might ruin an early planting. Maybe talking about the farm crisis in those years was like that, maybe people figured their hard times were beyond their control and they had to wait them out, like a blizzard. "Wait five minutes and it'll change," Iowans joke, knowing that weather on the central plains, like survival, is a mystery.
Our bare legs stick to the leather seats of Dad's silver Chevy pickup. I sit between Dan, my younger brother, as he squiggles in the dust of the dashboard, and Dad as he spins the AM dial, a Winston hanging from his lips. Grain and livestock prices follow the news update. A deep, long exhale and Dad turns the radio off. The humid July heat blows through the open windows, and I squint my eyes against the midafternoon sun. With a sucking noise that stings, my thighs detach from the leather seat as I turn to look out the sliding back window; Iowan hills rolling behind us in a cloud of dust.
The wind in the cab grows, catching Snickers wrappers from the floor and half-open glove compartment. We're on our way to a calving, our favorite calls to go on with our dad. My hair blows into one big tangle. Dan holds his stomach with both hands. "Here comes a good one!" Dad smiles as we...