Sandbox: Good farm records

Sandbox is a corner of the web dedicated to Iowa City artists working to engage the public in an interactive environment. Find out more here, and check out the first submission by Public Space One’s newest artist in residence, Nick Kleese, below.

A farmer tends to his field, as depicted in a 1943 edition of Farm Business Records, published by the now-defunct International Harvester Company.

Our primary purpose is to facilitate the management of the farm; therefore, we shall consider whatever forms of records promise to be of assistance.

— from, Farm Records (1949)

If you drive down (or up) Interstate 218 and look to the west during the long hours of the afternoon, consider the action of your eyes. They will first try to take in color. Depending on the day and time of year, the difference between the sprawling green ground and the soft breath of blue above will be so stark you’ll have to squint to see. Or, if fall, the soft grays and browns will lull your lids to sleep. DON’T SLEEP. Then your optic operations shift to work at differentiating the sky from the earth. It is easiest during summer when the colors mark the boundary of things. But the later fall goes the harder it is to tell one apart from the other — unless, of course, you’re willing to sit with the landscape for a while (because it is 218 you’re driving down, after  all: you’ve little else to do) and let shape come from color and space: the little hills and rows unraveling over them toward the far away horizon. If your eyes tire, the rows blur and the landscape becomes as messy as a toddler’s fingerpainting. Fencerows transmute into steady movement. The trees: dark blobs only slightly larger than the occasional cattle. Houses and barns blend with silos and bins and old cribs while their worn white sides camouflage them before the splay of winter dirt. When will the tedium end?

I read somewhere that all stories must be read with a cup of coffee close at hand. So, too, the prairie, for if your eyes are wide and nimble, they are able to track the little quirks of the land and its people: a barn below a farmhouse, recently repainted and stark against the sky: a beacon of success. The first calf to be born of the year: there it tumbles in the snow, its mother ambling warily behind. Then, it’s spring and all the land is damp. A trail of thin smoke on the skyline: someone’s burning fencerows, clearing the old grass from the rusted wire strands to be pulled when the ground dries. Late fall. Now, early winter. The open land better reveals the sunset in all its glorious quietude: long clouds recede toward it, stretching with the incandescent orange that melts to red near the horizon but lifts to pink overhead that lifts to gray behind that closes backward toward the eastern coming of night.

More and more I like these sunsets. I am a little older and I have been away long enough to miss them. Five years lived in Iowa City. Summers spent wandering, wandering. One summer in the city, one summer rainy Normandy (milking goats and making cheese). When I returned to burnt and brittle fields (That was a hot one, 2012. Dad said it reminded him of ‘83, when the drought was so bad the fields turned white and the New York Times wrote it was “too late for rain.”) the sky was what I noticed first. Big sky country, I thought again and again as I-88 burned with the scorched corn beside it. Big sky county. I repeat when I head home to the farm after not seeing it for a long stretch. The prestigious brick and granite of Iowa City becomes familiar and comforting and replaces big sky country for a time.

Do I enjoy the sky and the land below and the people and stories that live between because my love for them grows from nostalgia? Have I had to convince myself of their grandeur and made them into something greater than they’d otherwise be? Or, does beauty exist naturally there, here, beneath the sky, beneath the politics and controversy surrounding it?

This land is the land of work and industry. This is the land of broken sod and steel. The farmers from whom I learned and knew growing up take pride in it. They work hard, harder than hell, and abide by the golden ratio of work to self-fulfillment. Talk to a member of another community of industry and they will shake their head sadly at the name. Industry means a forgetting of how to work with the earth. The “conventional farmer” says we (midwestern agriculturalists, namely) need to feed the world. The “new farmer” says demand creates supply, and if we are to change the demand from the conventional to the (shall I say) sustainable, then the demand will likewise shift. The argument escalates.

I’ve been on both sides. I grew up on a conventional farm. I sprayed chemicals over GMO rows. I castrated hogs in CAFOs, shocked them with buzzers onto the trailer, sold my market calves for slaughter. I ate sweet corn from our garden planted by a twelve row planter. I combined corn six rows at a time (small by most scales, now). I thought, until my senior year, I’d go to ISU and study Production Farming — a celebrated field with industrial connotations. Big equipment. Marketing. GPS. But, then, my senior year of high school, I took an English class and started to write. It felt good. I decided to come to Iowa. I met activists and vegans. I took a course on animal rights. I did research, conducted interviews, wrote, thought, and read, read, read. I would drive home on weekends every fall and spring, down 218, to the farm that my family has worked since before the Depression. I helped my father harvest and turn the soil with heavy iron machines with foreign-sounding names (cultimulcher, V-ripper, harrow). I found myself eating less meat, attending local food events, discussing seasonal dieting. I listened to my peers boo Monsanto — the same company for whom I pollinated soybeans in high school. I made the switch to vegetarianism and joined the co-op. I shaved my hair into a mohawk. I wore rawhide leather gloves to help my father link PTO shafts to their stud on the tractor I rebuilt in high school. I felt (and feel, at time) like a walking paradox, as though I were straddling two ideological continents separated by an ocean of culture. And yet, in reality, these two disparate communities existed no further apart than the city limits.

The farther I am from the farm, the more I seek to understand it.

I often wonder what my high school friends and current farmers would say if I told them I’m vegetarian. I have a hunch: don’t you support farmers? I do, I do. Then why don’t you eat meat? What can I tell them?

I wonder what I would tell my local food foodies to convince them that conventional farmers are entirely well intentioned. Then why don’t they go organic? What can I tell them?


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In France, I met a painter on a train. It was a long trip and I was very tired but made small talk and soon got around to shaking hands. He asked where I was from.

Ah, he said, in French. Very flat.

Yes, very flat. Wonderful land, I said, feeling homesick.

You know, he said, again in French. I read somewhere that the more flat the land, the more pious the people. Where you are from is very religious, yes? They say, the intellectuals, it is because the flatter the land, the bigger the land, the bigger the sky, the smaller the person feels. The smaller their experience. The land swallows them up and they feel very small and helpless. So they pray to God and feel better about being small because they are connected to something greater than themselves….

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