We had an incredible day in Iowa, hosted by Jim and Marilyn Rychnovsky. They are Kymberlee’s Aunt and Uncle, probably some sort of 2nd or once removed thrown in there. Basically Jim is Kymberlee’s grandmother’s cousin. Heck, I’m not even sure I got that right. But regardless, they were excellent hosts and we feel very spoiled right now. Jim was a farmer for almost 50 years, an southwest Iowa born and bred black dirt farmer who has been through many trials and tribulations over the years, not just surviving but thriving as a husband and father. Given my more than passing interest in both small towns and farming, Jim and I had many wonderful conversations regarding the changes going on in both.
Rural America is changing. I’ll skip most of what you’ll hear about empty downtowns and youth flight, but what it comes down to in small-town Iowa is that farming now takes more capital and less labor. That’s a fancy way of saying that each person is more productive through more mechanization and specialization. Jim shared with me the story about his farm that he now rents out to others. What used to take him three days to harvest with a two row combine now takes 4 hours with three 12 row combines. All it took was about a million dollars worth of machines and a farmer’s productivity can be easily tripled or quadrupled.
Less people equals smaller towns and schools. Jim mentioned that on one bus route through a section (1 sq mile) near his farm, the number of kids went from 13 to 0 since the late 1900s. He showed me homestead after homestead that had been burned and buried in order to raise the amount of land that can be farmed.
The house that Kymberlee’s mom was raised on is gone, but in this case was replaced by a modern house for tenants, not for farmers. Many family homes are now gone with nothing but old pictures and memories to honor the past. I realize that in many ways this is progress, but when you go through towns like Prescott, Diagonal, Corning, Clearfield, Arispe, Lenox, and even county seats like Mt. Ayr, you see the empty storefronts that lend a sad backdrop to an otherwise incredible landscape. Jim and I both dream that someday the technology that has drained these towns will eventually allow them to thrive. I can imagine things like teleportation, holography, and personal jetpacks, but I’m hoping that there will be something I can’t imagine that will help revive the small towns and the small town culture that comes with it.
We also stopped for lunch in Gothenburg, Nebraska on the way to Iowa. The small donut shop/cafe we ate in keeps track of all their visitors. And the owner gives you two hotpads, knitted by her
mother, to take with you. For free. One has an N on it for Nebraska, and the other has a G on it for Gothenburg. You won't find that at the McDonalds closer to the interstate. And you also won't find this flyer in bigger towns: "The Future of Gothenburg Depends on our Ability to bring our Youth Home after College." They're trying, which is
encouraging to me.
You'll also find some bright spots where there is creativity and vision. I'm not sure if they are successful, but I like the bravado of Ramsey's Supper Club, listing Newport Beach and Hollywood as the other locations for their fine establishment.
One of the amazing things we saw in our journey around four counties in Iowa was that Jim knew almost everybody. Our parting was at his son Wayne’s house. While we were talking outside, and young woman walked by with her dog. After a bit of chit-chat, he asked her last name. He recognized it and proceeded to reveal that he knew her parents, brother and that she was working in Des Moines and sometimes flew in a medical helicopter. In my world, that is a bit freaky and unnerving. In small town America, that is normal. It can also be considered good or bad depending on your perspective. I wouldn’t mind giving it a try. Now I’ve got to get back to working on my personal jetpack….