When bins fly

August 22, 2010

You know the moment — that micro-millisecond — when you see  something terribly wrong, but before your brain has  processed it? We experienced just such a moment a week ago. We were driving home about 9:30 p.m. when we saw our small 1,000-bushel grain bin in the neighbor’s field. It was dark and rainy, so we could only see as far as the headlights.

The devastation was frightening as we made our way through our farmyard. Power lines were down. Our 7000-bushel bin was caved in from the impact of the small bin, which had been blown from its foundation. Our mini-van, which we owned just six weeks, was smashed in on one side — another victim of the flying grain bin. Our cattle shed, which V., his dad and D. rebuilt just two years ago, was obliterated from the straight-line winds that reached 70 mph. V.’s pickup was buried in the rubble. Thankfully, the house  had just minor shingle damage. In fact, the power had only been out a short time. If we hadn’t stopped at the grocery store, we would have been smack dab in the middle of it.

We had a restless, restless night as we calmed D. and E. and fretted about what was ahead. The morning light revealed more damage — our 70-year-old red barn was shifted eight inches off its foundation, augers and windows were smashed, and our seed wheat was trapped in the crushed bin.

I shed many tears. We will never replace the large bin. It was put up when V.’s family stored a lot of wheat and milo. The cattle shed’s block foundation, each block poured and laid  by V.’s Grandpa, could not be saved. Both our van and the pickup were sure to be total losses. 

The next morning and all this week, V. and his dad, Stanley, showed me yet again what it means to be a farm family. It’s OK to look back on your farm’s legacy, as long as it doesn’t keep you from looking forward. You get up, clean up and rebuild. Along the way, you share meals and care for kids, animals and crops. In fact, thanks to our rural electric cooperative and a caring neighbor, we had power restored by 11:30 a.m. — and came in as usual for a large noon meal.

V. says our farm will be better than ever when all is said and done. I know he’s absolutely right. Plus, our kids will have a great story to tell their own kids as they sit in our yet-to-be-built cattle shed.

A conversation

July 15, 2010

A big deal happened for me this week — I was featured in the “A Conversation With…” feature in the Wichita Eagle’s Sunday business section: http://bit.ly/9750Gz. I was flattered, flabbergasted and flushed. What would we talk about?

The business reporter, Karen Shideler, was interested in my roles as a writer and PR counselor — and that of a farm wife.  Karen is a pro and very easy to talk with, so it was a fun conversation. I greatly appreciated her take on my life here on Woolf Farms.

The conversations after the Conversation have been just as fun. Two families are planning visits to our farm. I’m meeting with one soon-to-be ag journalist and connected with a colleague, who is also doing ag advocacy, on the ethanol front. Others sent notes detailing  fond memories of their grandparents’ farms. This note from retired schoolteacher and farm wife Kay Wulf made my day.

Today’s Americans may be generations removed, but the family farm is still very much embedded in our culture. Let’s keep it that way.

Naming rights

May 31, 2010

I am under no delusions about what happens when livestock leave our farm. However, it’s hard not to become a little attached, especially to those we bottle feed twice a day. So, I name them. Not every one, of course. That would be just plain silly. However, some names just seem to fit. There’s Gladys, our old nanny goat and young Francine, our nanny-t0-be. There’s Butterscotch, our Brahma calf, and his cow, Bossy. Our farm has also been home to Montie, J.T., little Bern, Johnny, Mr. D. and many more.

Now, my farmer-in-law has sent me proof that I’m not crazy — or alone:

“Cows are rarely kept as pets, but giving them pet names could be good for business. Agricultural professors from Newcastle University in England found that dairy cows called by name produce more an average of 68 gallons more milk per year. This tidbit may surprise city folk, but the 516 dairy farmers interviewed for this study were hardly shocked. Ninety-three percent of them agreed that it’s important to get to know each cow as an individual.”

So, bolstered by research, the kids and I have picked Tiki as the name on deck, creature TBD.

Roberta Seiwert Lampe’s life took a different turn than most women of the mid 1950s. She enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and became a reporter, writing at bases in the U.S. and Germany.

Roberta returned home to Kansas in 1959 and took on a more traditional role: farm wife. Throughout the many years of raising her family and helping on the family farm, she heard amazing stories from other farm women, those a generation older than she. The stories were big: how they emigrated from Germany and how they homesteaded in Kansas. The stories were small: how they chased off neighboring farm boys or warmed calves in their kitchens.  These stories ruminated for years.

Then, as she neared 70, her role as farm wife transitioned into caretaker. Her husband now had cancer and her daughters suffered other tragedies. Here’s her account of how she coped:

“In the midst of family crisis, Seiwert Lampe awoke one morning to hear her subconscious say, ‘The time is now.’ She lifted a worn business advertising ballpoint from the desk drawer, grabbed a wad of scratch paper and set about following the directive. Wherever she went, the old pen and paper were handy. With a few minutes here or a half-hour there, she turned to the stories.”

After two and a half years, she had written two novels and nine short children’s stories, all in long hand.  She then set about to transition from writer to author. She self-published until she found a publisher. She peddled books on her own until she landed signings at Border’s and a spot on a local author lecture series. Her husband died, and she kept writing down the stories.

I gathered up all her books at a signing at our small town library. Roberta handled the sale, gathering change from a pill jar in a metal box. She told the story behind the stories, entertaining along the way. She warned that she would “bend our ear,” if we allowed her. We did — and were glad for it.

She is her own “strong woman” story. I’m glad to share it.


April 29, 2010

I was never interested in creepy-crawly creatures. I’m more enamored with the four-legged, panting, drooling kind. However, thanks to my work with Extension 4-H School Enrichment, I can spell — and use in a sentence — worlds like chrysalides and proboscis. And, butterfly larvae are staring at me right now, merrily exploring their cup — their sealed cup — on my desk.

I helped develop the Life Cycle Miracle (butterfly hatching) program last year and I just wrapped up this Spring’s classroom presentations to nearly a dozen schools and hundreds of elementary students. The students capped off the program by releasing the butterflies they raised.

It’s been a wonderful opportunity to see the 4-H experiential learning model at work. Here’s a summary:

  • Experience – Youth do before being told or shown how.
  • Share – Youth describe results of the experience and their reactions.
  • Process – Youth relate the experience to the targeted life skill.
  • Generalize – Youth connect the life skill discussion to the larger world.
  • Apply – Youth use the new life skill experience in other parts of their lives.

It’s been fun testing out the project at home with D. and E. The other day, we struck gold. We witnessed one caterpillar make its chrysalis when it shed a final layer of skin. D. described it perfectly:  It’s like the caterpillar unzipped its sleeping bag. E. released one batch of butterflies last week. Pure joy for her, the butterflies, and me watching.

If you’d like to do the project, go here to download the guides: http://www.sedgwick.ksu.edu/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=481.

Women in Ag

March 8, 2010

LaDene Rutt, portrait by Paul Mobley, from American Farmer: The Heart of our Country, by Katrina Fried


LaDene has been to all 25 Women in Ag conferences, sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. I now know why. I recently attended for the first time and these words come to mind: welcoming, informative, inspirational and motivational. 

The conference celebrated the role women play on the farm. However, the conference wasn’t about awards or pats on the back. This was about farm wives, mothers, daughters and grandmothers gathering to share meals and learn from the experts — and each other. Learn we did, about the government’s farm program, marketing strategies, advocating for agriculture, operations and financial management and so much more. 

One woman in her 70s was planning for retirement, while seeking advice about how to  pay for her mother’s healthcare. Another young farm wife attended with her mother, also a farm wife. One presenter on Medicare and Medicaid shared stories about her own farm life in a remote part of Nebraska — 35 miles to the nearest grocery store. Many studied and asked questions about which government program to enroll in — to protect their operations from the inevitable weather disaster. 

I have great admiration for what these women do and manage each day. I play a smaller role on our own farm. However, there was no discussion about who was bigger or better. The conference was about preserving a livelihood and building a legacy for future generations. I’ll definitely go back. 

Click here to learn more about the conference. Click here to see some amazing portraits of farmers, including LaDene.


February 23, 2010

I felt quite clever last week. I mistyped the word “farm” and “family” in a story and wrote “farmily.” Thought it was such a cool word, that I tweeted my discovery. Ann Wylie, a leading communications and writing consultant, retweeted me. She has more than 900 followers, so I was now both famous and clever.

A Google search deflated my ego. Urban dictionary listed the word, so somebody, somewhere got there first. No matter. I still love the word.

Farmily is the reason my D. choses to spend every June in the combine with Grandpa, instead of at the baseball field. It’s the reason E.’s recipe box is right at home in the same kitchen in which her grandma and great-grandma cooked, baked, boiled and fried. It’s the reason V. introduced me to his family at a noontime meal, when everyone was in for a break. (I knew I had to marry him when his mom offered me seconds on her out-of-this-world chocolate cake, with home-made fudge frosting and pudding filling.)

A great word. A great way to raise our family.

Unplanned milestone

February 13, 2010

My car — my little, perfect, never-say-die car — has now reached 200,000 miles. It’s a milestone I didn’t plan, but should celebrate nonetheless. This celebration doesn’t mean I don’t complain about driving it. There’s no hiding the signs of wear, thanks to dirt roads, kids and a teething black lab. However, this car is almost indestructible. The only repairs have been to replace windshields (thanks again to dirt roads), tighten a belt or two and replace the brakes. (There was that little fender bender in our driveway, but I don’t like to talk about that.)

I considered the “cash for clunkers” program, but it didn’t qualify because its gas mileage was too good. Yet another strike…I mean, plus.  So, for the time being, I’ll keep driving it and continue hauling everything from kids to groceries to farm supplies.  Maybe I’ll even officially celebrate with a good scrub-down inside and out — and premium gas on the next fill-up. Not that she would ever ask for premium gas…

Life skills

January 31, 2010

Before ag journalists had Google searches and social networks, there was the Extension ag agent. I first learned of their knowledge, connections and resources on one of my first writing jobs. I was a reporter for a farm magazine, whose focus was farm management and the commodity markets. My knowledge of farming then was based on what I learned in a dairy tour in grade school. I knew even less about marketing crops. It was the late 80s, so there was no turning to a search bar or Wikipedia to find sources or story ideas.

Like many ag journalists, I turned to Extension agents many times in that first position — and afterward. One story source was so captivating I just had to marry him. (A story for another time.)

Now, many years later my respect for the Extension Service is even greater. Our family participates in 4-H, an Extension program. Our kids belong to a local club and have projects ranging from photography to rockets to chickens to sheep. E., at just 11 years old, has already made three club presentations and won a merit award in a regional photography competition. D. is just getting started at 8 years old, but has given a presentation and won a showmanship award. But, any 4-H agent would say awards are just part of the story — and I think the kids would agree. 4-H is about learning life skills, whether it’s speaking in public, knowing how to cook healthy food, or donating your time and talent to your community.

I am now starting my second year, working for the 4-H school enrichment program. I teach elementary students about wheat science, fractions, healthy eating and butterfly life cycles. The programs are simple, but loaded with interaction and hands-on learning. We reach lots and lots of kids — 1,600 with wheat science alone.

I was even lucky enough recently to bring my own kids to a class. I was scheduled to teach, but they were off school.  “Bring them along,” said my boss. She said it would be a great community service entry for their record books. So, I did. I suited them up with aprons and assigned them each to a group of kids. They did great and even talked about growing wheat on our farm. I was so proud of my little 4-H and farm ambassadors.

And, now my own pitch: I would highly recommend joining a 4-H club in your community — or starting one. How can you go wrong with an organizati0n, where the kids cite this pledge:

“I Pledge my Head to clearer thinking,
my Heart to greater loyalty,
my Hands to larger service,
and my Health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

Random connections

December 13, 2009

My 10-year-old is a free spirit. I am not. Consequently, I learn a lot from my tween hippie. Like a few weeks ago when we were shopping at Sheplers, one of our favorite stores and “the world’s leading provider of apparel and accessories for the country/western lifestyle.”

We were enjoying a nice chat with the cashier. E. was talking about how old she was, horses, etc. The cashier remarked that she was going to be tall like her dad, who was standing nearby. We’re an adoptive family, so those remarks can leave us wondering. How much do you share with a stranger?

It didn’t faze E. “Oh, I’m adopted and my birthmom is short,” she says. I was proud of her straightforward response, but what will the reaction be? The clerk put her hand on her heart and said, “I’m adopted, too. You just gave me a shiver. I can’t wait to tell my daughter.”

Here’s the best part. It was no big deal for E. — just a simple statement and another one of life’s random connections.

I left with another reason why I admire my daughter. E. left with a great pair of cowgirl boots.

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