Retirement is something many city people work toward. It is not just an end, but a goal. However, for many of America’s family farmers, the singular goal is to grow another crop. That’s the way it is for View from the Cab farmer Karen Johnson of Avoca, Iowa.
Thanks to modern medicine, health and life expectancies are on the rise. “I really think you have to give up this quaint notion that you have to retire when you’re 65,” Karen told DTN. “We have neighbors still farming at 95.”
She means what she says. At age 66, Karen isn’t ready to call it quits on the fourth-generation farm she works, alongside her 72-year-old-husband, Bill Johnson.
Karen and Bill were married in 1968. At first they lived up the road from Bill’s parents. After a few years, due to ill health, Bill’s dad did the unthinkable and retired. That’s when Karen and Bill moved onto the farm purchased by his grandfather in 1887. It’s where Bill was raised.
It’s also where Karen and Bill raised their three children, Alan, Kristin and Jerod. Today Alan is an architect in Kansas City. Kristin lives not too far away in Oakland, Iowa, where she works as a pharmacist. Jerod is still close by and helps out on the farm.
There is a history to family farms. A sense of what was, leading in a steady line past what is, to what will be. Karen has that sense. The farm is her passion. She knows where she has been and where she wants to be.
She can tell stories of once-raised crops like organic or high-oil corn, tofu beans, white corn, hogs, a 225-head beef cow herd, and fed cattle during the ’70s, with 40,000 (that’s 40 THOUSAND) small square bales of hay put up from 225 acres of alfalfa — every year. Karen ran the windrower and baled hay. She says she has small hands. That has always been a plus at calving time when birthing cows need help.
Farrow-to-finish hogs ended in the ’70s. Hogs fell by the wayside completely in ’89. Feeder cattle eventually replaced fed cattle.
“The ’70s were good,” Karen said. “We moved in ’74 and had a lot of money borrowed for improvements.” Then the timeline changed. “I think hogs went down $30 a hundredweight” as interest rates went “up and up and up.” That was 1981. Bankers got nervous. They started looking for borrowers with liquid assets, people who could sell something to renew bank capital quickly. They saw the Johnson’s cow herd that way. Karen summed up the threat: “We would never have lost our ground, but we would have been out of farming.”
Where there’s a will there’s a way. “If something doesn’t work out, you just do something different,” Karen explained. After a nine-month struggle, lenders were satisfied and the farm was still intact. But challenging life experiences didn’t end there. There were fires, a shop and hay shed. And even scarier things than fire.
Karen was bringing corn in from the field during harvest years ago when Kristin was trapped in a gravity-flow wagon full of corn. By the time she was discovered, it was almost too late. “Alan was about 12. He put the power take off in gear to get the corn out of the wagon while I held onto Kristin” to keep her from sinking deeper into the grain” Karen recalled.
Happy endings seem to follow every story. But in 1989, a loader tractor overturned with Bill, pinning him underneath for two-and-a-half hours. He was hospitalized for over four months with a pelvis broken in four places. He has a steel rod implanted in one leg to hold it together from the same accident. Karen did all the farm work while Bill recuperated.
What can you do with so many life experiences? Karen and Bill wrote not just one book, but two. “Once Upon a Farm, How to Look Listen Laugh and Survive,” volumes one and two. There’s plenty of material. “I have kept journals now for 45 years,” she said. They do public speaking, talking about their many experiences, and life in rural America. In addition, Bill does farm safety presentations at local schools.
Today the farm is downsized from what it once was. The Johnsons still produce beef with a smaller cowherd of about 50 head. They still raise hay, but not so much, about 35 acres, with 45 acres in pasture. Row-crop acres are a rotation of corn and soybeans on about 1,100 owned and rented acres.
Bill runs a planter in the spring and a combine in the fall. Karen helps fill the planter with seed and hauls harvested grain away from the combine. They have a 12-row corn head, held over from when Bill did custom work four or five years back. With 200-bushel-per-acre yields, “That 12-row head just about runs me ragged trying to get back,” Karen said.
Seed soybeans are grown for Remington Hybrid Seed Company with delivery to Harlan, Iowa. Some corn is fed to the Johnson’s calves, but most is sold to an ethanol plant, Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs. “It’s done wonderful things for everyone in this area,” Karen told DTN.
Karen keeps up with markets, checking them three times a day. “Bill listens to me when I tell him something’s going up or going down,” she said. Things like recent events in Crimea or South American weather get her attention.
Karen is active in Farm Bureau and the Iowa Soybean Association.
The saying “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” certainly applies to Karen and her husband Bill. But as Karen points out, some things have changed. “Preventive care is so much more common now. My dad never saw a doctor until he had a stroke,” she said. The couple is much healthier today than parents and grandparents when they were a similar age.
Just the same, bodies do tend to wear. Karen and Bill have aches and pains, but nothing that keeps them from their work.
Based on outlook meetings she attended during the winter, Karen concludes that “there is an excellent future in farming.” With the outlook so bright, and with a long history of resilience in the face of adversity, it’s not likely things will change on the Johnson farm anytime soon.
“We would still rather be here than sitting in a house in town,” Karen said.