Algona, Iowa

May 24, 2006
Filed under Travel

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Of the land in Iowa, 95 percent of it grows something edible. That’s true of no other state. Most of it is corn; still, the state ranks first in the nation in soybean production. Huge fields of oats and forage are here, too. But it’s corn that has my attention right now. I’m on one of those narrow strips of concrete that partition Iowa into squares, making it a quilt of green in the summer, and brown or white the rest of the year. Designed as “field-to-market” roads, they were built in the 1920s and ’30s, and go to the four points of the compass. This uniformity makes it tough to get lost, but nearly impossible to take an oblique heading to anywhere.

I was looking out over the tops of corn stalks that shoot all the way to the horizon. Chopping its way through a field was a big John Deere corn combine — its yellow top floating on a sea of golden tassels. I pulled the RV off onto the grassy shoulder and got out to watch. Rusty, my dog, joined me, having her own agenda. It was headed right for us, leading with scoops that cut the corn stacks off at ground level and appeared to chew them up and spit them out the back, leaving a well-defined course of leftovers. Swinging around to line up for another run at the field, the wheels of the big green machine rolled to a stop.

A fellow swung down off its side platform and walked toward us. Rusty, tail wagging, ran to meet him. He joined us on the grass, and we got into a conversation about life on the road, then about life in Iowa. All the time the combine was sitting there, its big diesel belching in idle. When I mentioned that, he said that the operator was having a coffee break. He was the farmer who owns the corn, I guess. We never got to that; didn’t even exchange names. He invited me to take a ride. So with Rusty on a leash, contentedly stretched out on the grass, I had one of those experiences in life, that if they ever happen, it’s only once.

We climbed up the ladder to the platform as the combine began to rumble. The operator was comfortably cocooned in an air-conditioned cab with a thermos of coffee beside him. What he could not see of the operation through the big windows, he could see on TV monitors. As the machine slashed its way through the field, it cut the corn from the stalk, removed the husk from the corn, shaved the corn off the cob and spun the corn into a bin behind the cab. My host opened a hatch on top and said for me to grab a handful of corn. It was sweet and tender. Intended as feed for hogs and cattle, I never realized how good hogs and cattle have it. At the other end of the field, a high-sided stake truck waited. It came alongside.

A long chute on top of the bin swung out over the truck and out poured the corn. From there the truck hauled it to a silo. A summer’s work for Mother Nature, all harvested and put away in a morning — from field to silo, done by two guys; one in a truck, the other in a swivel chair in a high-tech machine. I drove on to Algona where I have a cousin, Chuck Sheakley. Early the next morning we went to have coffee with a few of his friends. One of them was a farmer, and a three-day-a-week pharmacist. But they all knew a lot about the agri business — it comes with living in Iowa. “Forget corn for a minute,” one said. “Iowa makes more on livestock than on field crops. About one-quarter of the hogs marketed in the United States come out of Iowa.

In fact, Iowa is the lead state in the number of hogs raised. At the last count made by some farm bureau — we got a lot of those in Iowa too — there were 13.5 millions hogs here.” The farmer/pharmacist added, “And don’t forget the 8 million turkeys. We’re not talking people now — there are only 3 million of us.” On the southern edge of Algona, I drove into a wooded area that seemed more appropriate in Northern Minnesota than here. The road opened onto a huge grassy park. It was empty except for Randy Waugh and his son, Brett, who were tossing Frisbees. They said they do it every morning here — play Frisbee golf. “Never heard of it,” I told them. “Then you don’t get around much,” Randy said, glancing at the local Iowa license plate on my cousin’s car.

“It’s big out West. Arizona has Frisbee golf tournaments. Ya don’t see it on ESPN or on TV anyplace, but it’s getting really popular. “See that basket over there?” He pointed to a wire basket on a pedestal that was raised a couple feet off the ground, with a little flag on top. I looked around and saw more of them, 18 in all. “That would be the hole.” He hunched over, leaned forward, sailed the Frisbee and missed. “It’s not easy.” I watched. Brett made a hole, or whatever it’s called. After a few rounds, I decided that Frisbee golf is a challenge for the player, but not much of spectator sport — don’t think I’ll go looking for it. But I did resign myself to take Randy’s advice and get around more.

Bill’s e-mail address:roadscribe@aol.com

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