By Jerry Bowen
Flyover Country, IA, USA

Our family farm sits in the Troublesome Creek Valley of west central Iowa in splendid seclusion. But connected. The Troublesome feeds the Nishnabotna River. The Nish flows into the Missouri, on to the Mississippi and finally into the Gulf of
Jerry Bowen
Mexico. Connected and secluded.

This is a special time of year here. The drab, gray winter landscape is gone. The life affirming green of Spring has arrived in its varied hues. Tree leaves to pasture grass to endless rows of plants popping up across the horizon. 

Mechanical planters have injected 35,000 corn seeds per acre. Each seed will produce one plant with just one ear. If nature cooperates each acre will yield 200 bushels of corn. At $3.50 per bushel the gross will be $700. Maybe enough to make some profit. But not much.

Our farmer neighbor and renter Joe is philosophical about it. Even- tempered. Accepting of what comes down the line. Hailstorms may damage the crop. The 20-year sunspot cycle is forecast to arrive. Spots on the sun vanish and often trigger drought that cuts into the harvest. Somehow his blood pressure stays low.

He can’t control nature. But he and his friends wish they could influence the human tornado in the White House. Get the President to talk and tweet less.  Put a lid on the trade war threats. Let the market forces work.

Millions of bushels of corn and soybean are grown in Iowa. Hundreds of thousands of hogs are raised in massive feedlots. China and Mexico are big customers for all of it. All the tariff talk is making people uneasy here in the heart of Trump country.

The commodity markets are already low enough. Losing big customers could mean farmers losing their land and their lifestyle.

The Bowen Farm 

Joe has been thinking about that and a lot of life’s issues lately. Things that are changing. Good things as well as potentially bad. His two oldest daughters got married in the past year. The oldest just gave birth to a 7- pound baby boy. First grandchild in the family. That’s very good.

Then there’s the bad. The continuing slowdown dance in rural America. Out in the flyover country where Joe grew up. Where our ancestors started tilling the deep top soil 150 years ago. One of those fields he was plowing actually revealed a mastodon skull. Got him on the radio to talk about the find years ago.

It is what he saw last summer that got him ruminating and thinking about the way of things. Almost as strange at that mastodon. Something he saw on the back roads. Way off in the distance cresting and disappearing behind the hilltops was a ghost ship of sorts. Kicking up the dust. A big yellow school bus. Empty except for the driver.

It didn’t belong said Joe. “We don’t have kids out here anymore. They’re all grown up and gone.” It was out of place. Fifteen to twenty years ago it would have been stopping at every farmstead for miles around. It would have been jammed with girls and boys going off to Exira or some other small town struggling to stay on the map.

The big old bus was a rolling reminder of what’s been lost out here. Young families. Once bustling towns. Futures.

Joe thinks the bus driver was simply lost. These days that is a shared feeling.

The small town of Exira is just four miles northwest of here and it is shrinking. There weren’t enough students to keep the old two-story brick high school going. So Exira consolidated with a town ten miles away. And the school was destroyed brick-by-brick.

The town lost a vital part of its social fabric last summer. Jerry’s. One of the two watering holes and cafes in town. It burned to the ground and took a third of the main drag with it. Arson say investigators. But no one’s been arrested yet.

The “Pour House” remains on the corner just across from the blackened rubble. Thirsty patrons still have a hangout. In a wonderful small town touch, some park their rider mowers at the curb on lazy summer afternoons.

Across the street is the town square and the old covered bandstand and the new digital sign reminding passersby that this years 4th of July Celebration is coming. Will be better than ever. The party draws 12,000 to the parade of tractors and homemade floats. A good party is always something to look forward to. A good way to put reality on the back shelf for one day.

It shouldn’t be surprising, but it was to me. In my home state, farmer suicide has become a major problem. Not just here but all across rural America. Farm suicides are higher than for any other profession. Including returned military veterans. We hear about the veterans. Not so much the farmers.

It may be because the deaths are disguised as accidents. Tractor rollovers. Getting caught in a combine. Accidents mean the insurance kicks in. Insurance can save the farm for the survivors. Keep the banks away.

It is bad enough...enough are depressed over debt and low prices and the real possibility of losing it all that Iowa and a handful of other states have helplines to call for mental health counseling. Washington is considering nationwide funding for helplines in the new farm bill, but in this climate, there’s no guarantee.

It all sounds so hopeless. So depressing. Yet Joe and his neighbors wouldn’t want to be anywhere else doing any other job. The life can be hard. But it is the life they know and the independence they feed on. And when it is good it is magic. And this is the magic season.

Planting time. Time to see what may come up.


Jerry Bowen is a three-time Emmy Award-winning news correspondent now in retirement after 33 years with CBS Network News. He lives in Los Angeles but escapes regularly to commune with the coyotes and cougars on his family farm in southwest Iowa.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.