There I was, fresh off my 25th annual A.I. season with nothing really pressing on the schedule. It was a beautiful August day, so the solution was quite obvious: Farfegnugen! It was time to hop in the Volkswagen dune buggy I acquired on eBay in 2003 and hit the road.
Main roads are great if you happen to be in a car on a mission. If you’re in sort of a more relaxed, dare I say, carefree mode, you tend to skip the expressways. Nothing says relaxation like a curvy blacktop through some scenic country. I headed north on Highway 139 and then east on a county blacktop. This blacktop has one of the highest Ryans-per-linear-mile of any road in Winneshiek County. Actually, if you add in all the Ryans in the cemetery at the Plymouth Rock Church near Coldwater Cave, it’s not even close. I’ll more than likely end up there someday myself . . . probably after they scrape me off the pavement as the result of one too many buggy adventures.
Shortly after I went past the Plymouth Rock Church, my vision was suddenly impaired. This was close to Bluffton, so there is never a shortage of CRP acreage in that area. One resident of the vast weed prairie was a fairly hefty hen pheasant. Did you ever notice that little kids never tell jokes that begin, “Why did the pheasant cross the road?” That’s because pheasants often don’t close that deal successfully. This one didn’t. In a car, that’s not really a big deal. Maybe some cracked glass on a headlight or a few feathers in the grille. With a buggy, however, you have ringside, 50-yard-line, front-row seats better than any virtual reality scenario a team of geeks could ever dream up. Everywhere I looked, there were feathers. Feathers in my lap, feathers on my dash, feathers on my windshield, feathers blowing around me in a cloud that would make Charlie Brown’s friend, Pigpen, feel downright surgically sterile.
That’s when I started doing some math. Another mile, maybe a half-mile per hour faster and I’da taken that bird right square in the face! Fortunately, physics were slightly more in my favor than the pheasant’s. He took my driver’s side mirror and spun it around almost a perfect 180 degrees. Once I had my bearings again and realized I didn't have to wrestle some Al-Qaeda poultry, I brushed the feathers off my lap, squared the mirror back up and took a quick look around to make sure no one saw me. Then I looked in the back seat to see if I had a new passenger. No carcasses to be found. Must be the collective luck of all those dead Irish people that was on my side.
I turned south at Highway 52 and headed down the road for another blacktop. Then it was over to the North Winn School and up through beautiful metropolitan Hesper before heading into Mabel. From there, it was straight north with an ultimate destination of Rushford. When I got to Rushford, I stopped to stretch and top off the tank. It was mid-afternoon and geography was telling me it was snack time. That’s because I was quickly coming up on the booming metropolis of Whalan, MN — population 64 — known for the Aroma Pie Shoppe. I think it’s either a Class C or a Class B felony to drive within 1,000 feet of Whalan and not stop for pie if you’re even remotely hungry.
Pie it was. After I pulled up to Pie Mecca and parked, I tried to blend in with the crowd. I left the farmer hat in the buggy and walked into the place in my fashionable Levis and bright red Whitey's Ice Cream T-shirt I picked up a couple weeks ago. Once I got a slice of coconut cream, I headed out to the screened-in porch on the north side, away from the kitchen hustle and bustle. A family of four was seated in the corner enjoying their pie. It was Mom and Dad and two kids of maybe five and seven. The parents looked fairly white-collar. At least, I was pretty confident you would find neither chaff nor calluses anywhere on either of them.
While Dad stayed at the table, the rest of the family hit the restroom. I noticed that Dad looked over my way a couple of times. Once the rest of the family got back, Mom shot a glance or two in my direction, too.
As the family got up to leave and walk past me, Mom stopped a couple steps away from me. She looked at me, smiled and asked, “How long has it been since you’ve had Whitey’s Ice Cream?”
I told her it had been about two weeks. That delighted her to no end.
“Really!!?!? We just love it. Where did you go? Which one?”
Iowa City, I told her, not knowing where this may lead.
“Oh, well, we went to the one in the Quad Cities. We lived around Eldridge before we came up here and we just loved it. It’s a long ways to Whitey’s now. We just moved to Cresco, a little ways south of here,” she said as she pointed sort of toward the southwest.
Really? I started to reach into my back pocket for a card.
“Yeah, we’d always heard about this place and decided we wanted to see what it was like, so we came up here for a ride today.”
With that, I handed her my card and said, “Well, what a coincidence. I’m from Cresco!”
You want to see someone blown away? Have them be a newcomer in a new area and then tell them you’re practically their neighbor. Mom was suddenly quite relieved and quite friendly. She looked at my card, read it and started to laugh as she handed it to her husband. Things got better from there.
“So do you actually farm?”
Those two words, in that order — actually farm — have to be my favorite question. I was at a party for a friend with a whole bunch of high-profile people in attendance a couple of years ago when I was introduced to one of them. I handed him my card and he shot me the same question Mom just did, only better. Since he’s in the business of asking questions and telling stories, he had a follow-up. “Do you actually farm? I mean, you just own the land and someone else does all the work, right? You just contract them to do it.”
I did my best not to act too incredulous at his inquiry. This occurred in downtown Des Moines, after all. This wasn’t at a cocktail party in Connecticut. Yes, I told him, I’m an actual farmer. I do the work myself and sometimes I get dirty doing it. I even own the livestock I raise. It’s not a contract deal. That shocked him to no end. An honest-to-God Iowa farmer, right there in front of him. How quaint. He wanted to come out and see it for himself sometime. I told him to show up anytime and I’d give him the full tour, maybe even letting him play with some toys himself.
Back to Mom’s question. I told her that I do, in fact, farm. Then she had a follow-up.
“Do you sell corn?”
The capitalist in me sort of liked that question’s framing. Raise it? Well, yes, but Mom wasn’t so much into the raising part. She was into the ka-ching part of the equation. I believe it was the great philosopher, Dot Com Guy, my Internet executive friend, who said, “God, I love the smell of capitalism in the morning!”
Yeah, I sell it.
“I mean, would you sell it to the general public? We just bought a corn-burning furnace for our house and we need to find a place to get the corn. Would you sell us some of your corn?”
Speaking of great philosophers, this would have been a great spot to insert either of two quotes from one of the all-time greats — Kramer. We could have gone with the always-popular, “YeeeeeeaaaAAAHHH!” and then spun around and danced a jig, or my personal favorite, “Retail is for suckers!”
The coconut cream was going to make the first one hard to execute properly and politely. The second one . . . Well, these were potential customers here, so why go high-brow on them? I went with a more understated option.
Yep, no problem.
“You WOULD? REALLY???”
Sure. I’d probably even deliver it.
Well, it may as well have been Christmas morning for Mom about then. She was downright giddy. Dad, of course, had a bit more testosterone and needed to see if it was still flowing, so he flexed his negotiation muscles.
“What moisture level do you dry your corn to? Fifteen? Twenty?” Dad inquired.
Whoa. Dad’s apparently an accountant, an engineer or an actuary.
I told him we usually go to 13%, maybe 12.5%. Had I been thinking, I would have tested his background a bit more and told him we set the computerized drying system to dry it to a 13.7% level and then take the remaining 1.2% off with aeration to keep the drying costs low. That might tell me if he’s a banker.
Dad was okay with my answer, so there was no need to make this a playground game and see whose muscles were bigger.
We wished each other well as they headed out. Mom mentioned that they now have my card, so they will be in touch as soon as it’s time to stoke the furnace. I polished off the rest of my coconut cream and headed for the door.
On my way out, I noticed that Dad was on his bike, ready to go, but he was alone. I walked around the corner, down the street, and hopped into the buggy. As I pulled up to the stop sign to leave the downtown metroplex, I waved at Dad across the street. He was still waiting patiently in the launch position. Dad looked shocked when he realized it was me behind the wheel.
Yeah, I actually farm. That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.
Guy No. 2