in which i pass through farmland and become confused

Yesterday was probably the last day of ‘good’ weather I’ll see until Spring. I’m using the term ‘good’ deliberately and after some consideration, because in the Midwest near the end of October a day in the mid-70s is a treat — even if it’s windy and cloudy and looks like it might could decide to storm at any moment.

And what’s a guy to do on the last day of ‘good’ weather? Get on the bike, of course, and take off — preferably someplace new. Which is exactly what I did. I rode north on a bike trail out of Ankeny, Iowa into farmland. Open fields, corn, soybeans, barns, cows, and a whole lot of wind.

Long before this was a bike trail, it was part of the the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad line. Before that, the tracks belonged to the Des Moines & Minneapolis Railroad Company. And before that I believe dinosaurs roamed the earth. Now it’s part of the 20,000 miles of rail-to-trail conversions in the United States.

One reason these converted rail lines are popular with cyclists is because they tend to be relatively flat, smoothly paved, with gradual shifts in elevation. That makes for easy riding, of course. And this trail was no exception. Riding north was an absolute breeze. Literally. There was a 17 mph wind at our backs. Riding south was a lesson in wind resistance. Iowa has a lot of wind.

It also has a lot of sky, and fields that used to hold crops, and farm structures, and black dirt, and giant Tootsie Rolls made entirely of hay. I assume that’s hay. Or straw. Do people grow straw? What the hell IS straw? I’ve always assumed that whatever it is the farmers roll up into those massive pellets was something to feed cows. Or horses, maybe. Or, I don’t know, goats. Farm animals. Livestock. Although now I think of it, in the movies barns are always full of hay. Or straw. And some kid is constantly using a pitchfork to move it around from one part of the barn to another, though it’s never quite clear why. Maybe hay it’s like cat litter for horses. I don’t know.

Whatever those massive pellet rolls are for, I rather doubt they’re scattered around the fields for aesthetic purposes. But it would be very cool if they were.

Equally intriguing (to me, at any rate) is the old farm equipment that gets shunted into small paddocks or stashed away behind sheds and barns. I find myself wondering if the farmers think this equipment might somehow come in handy in the future. As spare parts, maybe, or material that can be scavenged and cobbled together with other odd bits of this and that to create…well, something like that blue pick-up bed/trailer-looking unit that’s been attached to what appears to be the framework for some sort of enhanced interrogation device. Clearly that thing, whatever it is, was constructed with a purpose. Unless the wind just picked it up and deposited there, like Auntie Em’s house.

Maybe this is the farmer’s equivalent of the urban dweller’s problem: what to do with that twenty-two pound, twelve-year-old computer monitor that nobody wants, and has been taking up space in the storage room since two computers ago?

It’s the same with old farm vehicles. What do you do with an old 1955 Ford pick-up? You park it out back near the even older 1950 International Harvester pick-up. I was really drawn to that old Ford. It must have been at least partially restored at some point in the last couple of decades, then put back out to pasture. It’s actually a very cool looking machine, and whoever chose that color to restore the truck had some taste.

Back when those two trucks were new, the D&M Railroad was already a hundred years old. A hundred and fifty years ago incredibly powerful locomotives pulled boxcars loaded with coal and grain across those same fields I was bicycling through. I find that oddly comforting. I like to think that in another hundred and fifty years that same band of now-public land will still be used by ordinary folks in some way.

Unless Mitt Romney gets elected. Then we’re just fucked. Go vote.

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5 thoughts on “in which i pass through farmland and become confused

  1. I love the ‘vote’ plug at the end – and also your photos, they are amazingly lush (I always feel strange using that word, but I think it’s perfect to describe the colors popping out of them).

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  2. I can explain the hay vs straw thing for ya…. The old farm equipment put out to pasture, I’m still not sure about… (my father is a packrat. He still uses SOME of his farm equipment, but not much of it anymore.)

    Hay is a grass mixture, grown and harvested specifically to be used for feed. Definitely in the winter when livestock cannot get out to eat fresh grass in the pasture, but we also fed it in summer as a supplement to pasture and grain. My father’s hay fields are a mixture of timothy, clover and birdsfoot trefoil. Hay will appear green when baled, either those big round bales, or much smaller rectangular bales, that one can catch being made but rarely will find left in the field (though it does happen on occasion.). If it’s a normal growing season, a farmer will typically get two cuts of hay, probably in about June-ish and August, I think (I never actually pay attention to when, I just notice when local farmers are making hay…) If it’s been a good growing season, a farmer can get a third cut of hay.

    Straw, on the other hand, is what is left over after wheat has been harvested, generally, the wheat stalks. These are golden yellow in color, and yes, it’s like kitty litter for farm animals.

    Hay can cause allergies (it’s dry grass), straw does not. My family groans and rolls our eyes at reenactments when the organizers obviously don’t know the difference between hay and straw, and asked the local farmers for hay for the reenactment for people to spread around and under their tents and potentially sleep on.

    … I can give you a few more factoids about hay if you’d like, but this was probably “dry” enough ;-)

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  3. Susan, thanks for the Intro to Hay and Straw 101 workshop. I’m so glad I finally learned the difference. Now I just have to find some way to work that into a conversation.

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