On an early morning bicycle ride I roll past a massive red combine slumbering at the end of a freshly barbered wheat field.The machine is so big that the 40-acre blonde bed it rests in looks more like a playground than a farm field. That scene — red combine, trimmed wheat field, bright sunshine — causes me to back-pedal 50 years to the farm of my youth where I see my father, in the center of a rolling cloud of gray dust, combining wheat with a then-state of the art IH 303. Some of you are there, too, because each time I offer a 650-word snapshot of my family’s by-gone southern Illinois dairy farm I receive a wave of emails and letters from readers who recall their family farm, its people and shared times.
In the past six months, however, the columns that generated the most mail were two on Iowa State University’s cozy arrangements with one of its governing regents, political kingmaker Bruce Rastetter, to ramp up an 800,000-acre “farm” in Tanzania.Most writers were stunned that a land grant university like ISU would be hooked up with an operative like Rastetter (he was named regent of Iowa’s major universities by Gov. Terry Branstad after he poured a reported $160,000 into the guv’s 2010 election) on a project halfway around the world even as the university struggles to maintain its extension programs in Iowa. “These facts send chills down my spine,” wrote Paul from north central Iowa. Dianne, from South Dakota, echoed the feeling. “I am involved in mission work in the Central African Republic and find … this deplorable.” Mike, an ISU alum living in southern Missouri, wrote to say thanks and note that “Unfortunately, we are going to see more of these violations of the public interest as the decline in state funding for public colleges (means more) private sector partnerships.”
Two columns detailing this past winter’s slimy controversy on adding lean, finely textured beef to hamburger brought salt and pepper from every corner of the planet.A couple, like this one from Nebraska, contained some red meat of its own. “I will be having discussion with our local paper about providing a more fair and balanced approach … I am quite sure that I … can make you look very uneducated if you continue to publish articles of this nature.” A tribute to Willard Cochrane, a legendary University of Minnesota ag economist who passed away March 5 drew kudos and boos alike. One email, from a former dairyman named Joe, noted that he “continues to read your column to attempt to understand how you represent agriculture.” Like Cochrane, he chides, “maybe … with federal money… your views of progress (will be) fulfilled.” A May 17 email from Chris in Colorado has to be the finest pat-on-the-back/ kick-in-the-pants letter I’ve ever received. It begins warmly: “I follow your columns … mostly to the dismay of my friends at the sale barn.” After a few more compliments, Chris cracks out the shoe leather to kick me on my “obsession” with the beef checkoff and my “confusing” beef demand with beef consumption. He then takes a poke at beef’s “paranoid malcontents” who “hide their xenophobia behind big hats and mustaches.”
Then his sunny side re-emerges and he closes with, “But enough of our differences. Thank you for writing at least 50 columns a year that give me food for thought, cause for alarm, and so often beautifully depict life in our small community.”Wow, anyone that eloquent is always welcome in my email inbox. And to the letter writer who not once, but twice, snail-mailed a four-page letter about one state’s grain-funded “travel agency,” I’m in the book; call me. You can call, too, but like that kid who sees a combine and still thinks IH 303, I still love gettin’ mail. The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at www.farmandfoodfile.com.