Welcome to the Farm

The Savvy Savage, circa 2003

The Savvy Savage, circa 2003

We are off then, not so much like a flash, perhaps more like an accurate bowling ball off of one of those launch ramps that they have for little kids and those who no longer have the knees and other major joints for the game.  Either way, we finally, officially started this thing.  This blog is dedicated to the life and love and work of my dad.  Steven Allen Ihde was a lot of things to a lot of people.  He was a “can do” fella who never bowed to a challenge, and believe me the universe tossed many a challenge the way of the man known better around these parts as Idaho…

I recall a long day of my farm youth at the age of 9 that I had spent driving back and forth on our big yellow Minneapolis-Moline across the south field, first with a disc and then towing the six section drag.  We were prepping for seed and rain was on the way.  If we kept our shit together and stayed true to the course we'd be in good shape and be seeing germination within the week.  Up rolled the blue truck as I pushed the throttle after my last turn about.  One last stretch end to end and my day on the tractor was over. 

A drag section is about 4’ by 4’ square.  It’s made of steel and has rows of adjustable tubes with spikes the size of a large middle finger welded in every six inches or so.  There is a lever that sets the angle of the spikes to accommodate how aggressive you need to be on your drag pass.  On our six section drag set up, three frames folded in and the single drag sections were lifted up and held in place for road travel by spring loaded hooks and chains.  There was one section on the rear right with a frozen spring and you had to remember the chain.  Dad talked about the rest of the day and the need to be up and sharp that next morning to beat the rain as we racked the sections.  He had swung and secured the left side and moved to the middle as I tried to keep up on the right, my head already elsewhere daydreaming about searching the creek for fossils as my dog and I rounded up the cows for night milking.  “You got her lockued?” he asked as I began swinging the big set up towards the frame.  As the words hit my ears the momentum going at the frame rebounded and the weight of the section secured only by the hook with the faulty spring kicked out that hook and began its fall.  In what can only be described as a flash, he was there to push me clear of disaster, and he almost got himself clear as well.

It was a thick red and it pooled just a bit at the top before running off the front and sides of the leather toe and I remember being amazed at just how fast his boot had filled with blood.  He looked at it for just a moment before lifting the section and pulling out the spike that had gone clear through.  I was awestruck and he had to shake me out of my stupor as he hopped toward the truck.  “You're driving,” he said among more explicit words, but it really was amazing how cool he was.  Needless to say, this was not his first brush with a tragic turn. 

The radio played Creedence and I turned it down, trying not to look over at the blood on the floor and the mess I had created.  “You did a nice job,” he said looking over the field as we passed and I tried hard not to burst out in tears.  “Now, tomorrow you’ll have to get out there ahead of me and get the big rocks.”  He breathed through his teeth, certainly in pain, but what he was doing first and foremost was reconfiguring the plan I had inadvertently sabotaged.  Hole in a foot or no hole in a foot, cows needed to be milked and that seed was gonna get in before the rain. 

My poor mom was thrown for yet another loop as I helped him the best I could into the house and to the tub.  He ran the water, took off his boot and as thick mixed with thin the tub was filled with pink. The boot aside, tipped over and seeping, he let water run through the wound and checked it top and bottom with his finger.  Mom campaigned for a trip to the hospital, but he wanted only salve and gauze and tape, and for me to go get the cows and start milking chores.  The image of him hobbling the barn that night and weeks after,walking funny on his heel all over the farm, is forever implanted upon my mind’s walls of memories.  His grimace as he poured seed into the planter, the sounds climbing on and off his tractor, the way he forged ahead and just found a way was so primal.  In reality that display of tenacity, grit, and fortitude was a daily showing as the man grappled with the hardships farming can present.  He heated, welded, and fabricated.  He sought expertise and advice when necessary, never too proud to celebrate another’s talent and always excited to learn and to share.  His brutish toughness I often thought would have served him well in another time and place; he was wild, untamed, unembarrassed. He was stocky, built low and strong and hairy, just a brute at a glance, well suited for his trials and tribulations.  For all of his brawn and primal air from a distance, he had a smile and friendly eyes that in a fell swoop could wipe away all of that savage toughness and reveal a transparent man of heart and hope and straight up savvy; a man with solutions who somehow made time for everybody for all the right reasons.

If I were to say aloud what I am about to tell you, and do so within ear shot of a gathering of big time beef, pork or chicken folks; I would certainly be swarmed. Escalation would be swift.  I'd be yelled at, slurs slung with angry saliva spattering outward along with the loud words.  Perhaps things would calm and I would simply be asked to leave; maybe straight jacketed, removed and never heard from again.  It’s hard to say.

Entry no. 1

Well, here we go.

Collectively, Americans eat too much meat….

The demand is insane.  Not only the demand for quantity, but also the demand for low cost.

It's true, but now as I turn around and tell you that they also don't eat enough meat; you might wonder to yourself ‘Where does one obtain a straight jacket?’ Or, ‘How can I make this crazy man disappear?’  Allow me to clarify.  Americans don't eat enough good meat. 

Too much of the meat consumed in this country winds its way to bask under heat lamps; mashed mixtures of questionable texture and origin, gnarled gristle and throw away parts mechanically pattied for quick and cheap and easy – the very most basic form of dining satisfaction – get full, and get that way as inexpensively as possible.

Meat tagged for mass distribution is handled and processed and trucked about like lumber, plastic or steel.  It is rushed, pushed, forced, stretched to its definitive limits and then excused of everything left in its wake as it makes its way into our food supply.  In the American quest for ease over everything we have allowed for the subsidization of the dollar menu. 

It’s obvious that the average American doesn't understand what it takes to fuel such a system of excess.  Like the elusive Sasquatch we don't see D.C. lobbyists at work, the expansive feedlots of the west, or pork and chicken factories right here in Wisconsin.  While awfully damning examples dot the American landscape you can't simply blame the entrenched American farmer, even those who have yelled things at folks who think as I do like, “You want omega-3’s!?! Eat f@#%ing salmon!”  Whoa… Ok. I will.  I do.  My goodness.  No, you cannot blame the farmer because the American farmer has always, always risen to the challenges demanded by the American consumer.  Therein lies the sickness.

My dream for the American food supply is to see consumers eat better meat while broadening their tastes and efforts in preparing and procuring food.  We can do more with less.  Use your soup bones to build soup stock, sauté a small cut and create a light sauce to flavor vegetables or rice or quinoa. Whatever you do, always choose quality over quantity.  This is a strange thing for a meat producer to say indeed, but truths are truths.  I'd like to see small farms flourish and grow in numbers; sustainable, clean operations where animals are free to roam and never crowded to the point where disease becomes an inevitability giving rise to the need for prophylactic antibiotics.  I want farms where growth hormones are ignored and patience is embraced, where wholesome pastures and healthy fields are rotated to relieve stress and create a natural systematic existence.  I'd like to see better food readily available with less negative impact. I want it in our grocery stores, our schools, even in our gas stations.  I don't think people in Wisconsin should eat meat from Mexico, California, Wyoming or anywhere else unless they happen to find themselves in Mexico, California, Wyoming, or anywhere else.  A good burger at a restaurant with all the fixins should cost $8, $9, $10, dare I say $12?  Would people still eat burgers? Of course.  Would they have two or three daily in their Kwik Trip and McDonald's stops? Probably not. 

The terrible aspects of the meat industry, the feed lots, prophylactic antibiotics, soil and water pollution, hormone treatments to get a beef animal out the door in 14 months (our grass fed beef takes 24 to 26 months), erosion, monocultural desertification; all of these drawbacks exist directly due to the encouraged sickness of American demand.  Wheels turn, always greased, and the great beast that is the American agricultural machine rolls on without the speed bump of a conscience.

I don't think anybody really wants discount meat.  Surely not in the sense that we often seek out things like mattresses, used cars, and plastic home goods…  I hope we all at least want the best for our selves and families, but certainly sometimes  as modern humans we do get in a hurry.  I have definitely wobbled, staring at that strange glow of the heat lamp, stomach rumbling with nothing but an array of change populating my late night pockets.  I know better.  It's not what I want.  It's not what I really want. Damn it. 

I recall a whirlwind journey to San Francisco in the wild days of my college experiment.  Indulging in a nice flow of bourbon and raw fish while tracing the steps of Kerouac and Ginsberg, I soon ripped through my budget like Pete Rose’s steel cleats through the flesh of some poor bastard’s shin.  I was broke and at the mercy of my traveling companion who prescribed and supplied a strict regimen of Pabst Blue Ribbon, value menu items and 99 cent gas station chili dogs.  It was all the way back to Iowa before I came to the realization that I just couldn't take it anymore.  I tantrummed, demanding that he pull the Honda immediately to the side of the road where I forcefully expelled the accompanying demons of the great American road trip.

The wandering, but heartfelt point here is that the whole damn set up is a tragedy on loop.  It's rather disgusting looking into the most important systems of our culture;  health systems, food systems, regulation systems. It is simply wild to see what lies beyond the sight of misaimed eyeballs and find the trail of shame and ugly.

My dad first put this all together in the nineties, about the same time milk prices dropped past $10 per hundred weight.  He sought to diversify, and looked deeply inward at his own practices, focusing on what he really wanted to do with his life and a family farm on his shoulders as generation number 4.  He began to research ideas like organic farming, rotational grazing, and grass fed beef and reached out to people like John Kinsman, founder of Family Farm Defenders, for advice and example. John was the voice of the small farmer and champion of food sovereignty, soil building, and sustainability.  The wick burned fast with my Da,  and never really a gambler, he was all in.

To provide reference to the low prices in the very late nineties, the mid seventies - during the Chester Ihde era of the farm, prices teetered around $14/hwt  and a simple fella could really manage a lifestyle as a small family farmer.  Having merged into the organic lane he began treating mastitis along with other bovine ills along with his own toothaches with things like homemade garlic and vodka tinctures and various extracts all the while struggling with the low standard grade A milk prices throughout certification.  Certification was then celebrated by continuing to await a spot to open up on a sprawling organic route.  In time it was too much.  I'll never forget coming home to an empty barn and empty pastures, stainless steel milkers hung like ornaments.  It was so quiet.  I had rolled down highway 33 excited to drink beer and milk cows while going back and forth quiz style naming artists and song titles on 101.5 out of Madison with my old man.  The cows were gone and there he sat on the porch step watching me pull up precisely at what had not so long ago been chore time.

I sat there yesterday tying my boots on that same step, my ass cold on the cement, my coffee steaming up into the crisp morning a few years now into the Nathan Ihde era of the farm.  There I sat representing the fifth generation with generation six on the other side of the door climbing, jumping, scattering toys, spilling milk and having his typical exciting little boy morning with his momma.  Sipping the coffee I watched the sun slip upward over the hill and cast its first big light into the valley and thought again about what a guy should do with such a farm at such a time as this. 

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