11 Things a Farmer Needs to Hear Today

Holly Spangler, editor of Prairie Farmer, just published a short but meaningful column on what farmers need to hear just about now. As they bring in the harvest and possibly face some disappointments in yields, market prices, or aging equipment, Spangler reminds them to keep their work in perspective.

Holly’s reminders apply to a whole lot more than farming, I think.


Female Farmer Project

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Audra Mulkern, founder of The Female Farmer Project. Through a podcast, website, Ted Talk, and soon, a documentary, Audra is committed to bringing the stories of female farmers from around the world to the forefront.

Check out these links for the written story Audra captured about my journey with family farming and the podcast we recorded last month.



Thanks, Audra!

Midwest Time

Fall is always my favorite time to visit Illinois. The temperatures are cooling, combines are in the fields, and harvest festivals abound. Last week, I had the chance to ride alongside Bob, one of the farm operators who keeps our family’s operation going, on the combine as ears of Illinois corn were plucked and shucked and the kernels were removed from the cob for transport to the elevator.

I also got the chance to chat with Abe Lincoln during the Apple and Pork Festival in my hometown. The pic below was snapped while Abe and I were chatting about the troubles he’d had with Alabama back in the day. I hear you, Abe.

Remember from whence you came

One thing I attempt to do in my writing and my teaching is to value the places from which my audiences–whether readers or students–hail. Part of being sincere and generous in the conversations in which we engage is also remembering what grounds me as a writer and a teacher.

We are undeniably grounded by the people and places that surround us, past and present. I’m convinced that there’s no getting away from the complicated environments in which we were raised, no matter how hard some might try.

As a case in point, at my university, I’m Dr. Ryan. At home in rural Illinois, I’m just Cindy, Jerry and Mary Ann’s daughter, the latest Ryan to try her hand at keeping the family farm going for another generation.

In her book Uprooted, Grace Olmstead says that since leaving her rural community in Idaho for a writing job in D.C., she never quite “fit” in either place again. In D.C., she was still the girl from Idaho, and in Idaho she was a successful journalist who’d sought greener pastures.

I find Olmstead’s assessment of a conflicted identity intriguing, but I can’t say that I’ve experienced the same. In Alabama and in Illinois, I’m just me. I slide right back into the roles that I occupy in each place without forfeiting other parts of myself. That said, I can’t say how others might view my “dual” selves.

Charles Blow addresses something similar in a column called “Writing for the Poor”: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/12/opinion/advocacy-poverty-journalism.html

As a successful columnist for the New York Times, Blow keeps the memories of his childhood and the conditions in which he was raised in mind every time he puts pen to paper. His efforts keep him humble and real.


My colleague Kerry Madden-Lunsford penned an op-ed in today’s LA Times that resonated with me, and I’m sure, many others who have lost loved ones and find themselves experiencing firsts without that person.

For me, it was the first harvest following Dad’s passing. Dad and I had spent nine months working our way through another growing season. He and I headed out to the fields, him teaching me what he could before leaving me behind to run the operation and me grasping for knowledge. In hindsight, memories were the most important thing that I gained.

The first season without my father

By Kerry Madden-Lunsford

My sister texted when the games started: “I miss Dad.”

It’s the first football season without our father, and I miss him too.

Dad, a college and NFL football coach for 30 years — he was defensive coordinator, assistant head coach and special teams coach Joe Madden , not head coach John Madden — used to tell us, “The one thing you big turkeys can count on is change.”

His comment usually followed the announcement of a move to a new football team, ignoring any dissent from his noisy children in the peanut gallery. We grew up Cyclones, Wildcats and Panthers, to name a very few.

Now the change we can count on is his absence.

Last year, as memory and language were leaving him, Dad watched football from a wheelchair. He’d yell at the players on the screen, coaching still: “Pick it up! What are you doing?” — always peppered with profanity.

Dementia was gradual for Dad, but I knew the tectonic plates had shifted on a Monday night when I changed the channel from football to Turner Movie Classics. Greta Garbo was on the screen and all Dad said was, “Wow, would you look at her?” In the old days, fireworks would have erupted. Football ruled in our house. “It’s our bread and butter,” Mom would remind us when my sister and I complained.

The first signs of decline came on a family trip to Italy in the summer of 2017. Dad grew up in Washington, D.C., and he thought the Tiber River was the Potomac, and St. Peter’s Basilica was the Washington Monument. He’d doze off after a plate of linguini and wake to say, “At the Sugar Bowl we ran the zone defense against Georgia and —”

Mom said, “You’re in Rome! Snap out of it!”

After Italy, Dad got tested. The diagnosis: Alzheimer’s/stroke-related dementia.

At first, things went along. Dad joined a senior center where they played bingo and danced. A van picked him up, and Dad liked the driver, Steve.

One morning, Dad said to Mom, “I need to let the defensive secondary know where practice is.”

Mom was exasperated, “There are no players, Joe! There have been no players since 1990.”

But Steve had a different strategy: “Hey, Coach, practice isn’t until Thursday.”

When Dad said, “I need to get in touch with Jon Gruden. I’m getting back into coaching,” Mom tried to tease him: “You intend to run the field again like in the old days? Maybe you ought to get out of that chair first and walk the dogs.”

But Dad didn’t walk the dogs, and the Raiders’ Gruden didn’t return his calls.

When Johnny Majors died — Dad coached with him on four teams — the headline connected: “That breaks my heart,” Dad said. But the next day it was: “Get Majors on the phone.”

Mom said, “Your father would hate this. I hate it for him.”

My brother Duffy stepped up. Mom washed Dad’s face, brushed his hair, and gave him breakfast. Duffy made him lunch and read to him — Vince Lombardi’s “When Pride Still Mattered” and Bear Bryant’s “The Last Coach.” My other brother in Chicago talked football with Dad on Zoom. As things grew harder, my sister found caregivers for a few hours a day, and then hospice.

The nurse interviewed Dad.

“What year is this?”


“Where do you live?”


He had coached at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Mom sighed, “We were happiest there. Pitt won the Sugar Bowl.”

On a summer afternoon last year, I arrived in San Diego (our final team was the Chargers) and found him smiling. “How are you, Dad?”

“I’m great,” he said, eyes bright with joy. “I just talked to Ralph Hawkins.”

“Where?” (Ralph Hawkins died in 2004.)

“In heaven. Where else?”

Hawkins and Dad were boyhood friends in Washington who grew up to be football coaches.

“What did Ralph have to say?”

“I told him what I was doing and what I wasn’t doing. He listened. I told him to hug the hell out of my parents — ‘Would you do that for me, Ralph?’”

On Jan. 8, Dad slipped away, around noon, during a bustle of noisy activity. I couldn’t believe it, that he could just leave like that in the middle of Zoom calls, visiting nurses and, yes, football on TV. At least we didn’t have to say goodbye on an iPad like so many families during the pandemic.

A few months earlier, with the TV on, tuned to football, I had counter-programmed: “I love you, Dad.”

He winked and said, “I don’t blame you.”

The sound of a football game is the white noise of my childhood, and I learned to tune it out. Maybe I’ll turn on a game this year and just listen.

Kerry Madden-Lunsford divides her time between Los Angeles and Alabama, where she is a professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her latest book is “Ernestine’s Milky Way.”

Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

Caitlin Flanagan penned a thought-provoking essay for The Atlantic about some things she’s learned as a long-time breast cancer survivor now living with stage IV metastatic disease: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/08/caitlin-flanagan-secret-of-surviving-cancer/619844/

I must admit that I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I saw Flanagan’s byline. The author has been widely criticized for espousing anti-feminist views over the years, for instance, the belief that women need to find and embrace their “inner housewife” and that child care by anyone other than a mother will lead to poor bonding–forget about love–between a mom and her offspring.

This particular piece, on the other hand, was empowering for women facing cancer (and all those who love to share advice about what to do and what not to do in the face of the dreaded diagnosis). Flanagan asserts that cancer survival isn’t tied to the niceties/upbeat attitudes displayed by survivors considered worthy of salvation according to society’s traditional code of female behavior.

Flanagan writes that she’s admittedly a bit of a bitch (versus a glass half full kind of gal when it comes to many of life’s graver challenges). That said, she no longer worries that her tell-it-like-it-is style will decrease her odds of survival.

Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

A plea to the unvaccinated

I have read widespread coverage of the pandemic, but the following essay by Dr. Anita Sirear is among the most powerful. She employs a no-nonsense approach to express the illogical reasoning among the unvaccinated. Wake up, deniers!

As a doctor in a COVID-19 unit, I’m running low on compassion. Please, get the shot.
A letter to the unvaccinated

By Anita Sircar

My patient sat at the edge of his bed gasping for air while he tried to tell me his story, pausing to catch his breath after each word. The plastic tubes delivering oxygen through his nose hardly seemed adequate to stop his chest from heaving. He looked exhausted.

He had tested positive for the coronavirus 10 days ago. He was under 50, mildly hypertensive but otherwise in good health. Eight days earlier he started coughing and having severe fatigue. His doctor started him on antibiotics. It did not work.

Fearing his symptoms were worsening, he started taking some hydroxychloroquine he had found on the internet. It did not work.

He was now experiencing shortness of breath while doing routine daily activities such as walking from his bedroom to the bathroom or putting on his shoes. He was a shell of his former self. He eventually made his way to a facility where he could receive monoclonal antibodies , a lab- produced transfusion that substitutes for the body’s own antibodies. It did not work.

He finally ended up in the ER with dangerously low oxygen levels, exceedingly high inflammatory markers and patchy areas of infection all over his lungs. Nothing had helped. He was getting worse. He could not breathe. His wife and two young children were at home, all infected with the virus. He and his wife had decided not to get vaccinated.

Last year, a case like this would have flattened me. I would have wrestled with the sadness and how unfair life was. Battled with the angst of how unlucky he was. This year, I struggled to find sympathy. It was August 2021, not 2020. The vaccine had been widely available for months in the U.S., free to anyone who wanted it, even offered in drugstores and supermarkets. Cutting-edge, revolutionary, mind-blowing, lifesaving vaccines were available where people shopped for groceries, and they still didn’t want them.

Outside his hospital door, I took a deep breath — battening down my anger and frustration — and went in. I had been working the COVID-19 units for 17 months straight, all day, every day. I had cared for hundreds of COVID patients. We all had, without being able to take breaks long enough to help us recover from this unending ordeal. Compassion fatigue was setting in. For those of us who hadn’t left after the hardest year of our professional lives, even hope was now in short supply.

Shouting through my N95 mask and the noise of the HEPA filter, I introduced myself. I calmly asked him why he decided not to get vaccinated.

“Well, I’m not an anti-vaxxer or anything. I was just waiting for the FDA to approve the vaccine first. I didn’t want to take anything experimental. I didn’t want to be the government’s guinea pig, and I don’t trust that it’s safe,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I can pretty much guarantee we would have never met had you gotten vaccinated, because you would have never been hospitalized. All of our COVID units are full and every single patient in them is unvaccinated. Numbers don’t lie. The vaccines work.”

This was a common excuse people gave for not getting vaccinated, fearing the vaccine because the Food and Drug Administration had granted it only emergency use authorization so far, not permanent approval. Yet the treatments he had turned to — antibiotics, monoclonal antibodies and hydroxychloroquine — were considered experimental, with mixed evidence to support their use.

The only proven lifesaver we’ve had in this pandemic is a vaccine that many people don’t want. A vaccine we give away to other countries because supply overwhelms demand in the U.S. A vaccine people in other countries stand in line for hours to receive, if they can get it at all.

“Well,” I said, “I am going to treat you with remdesivir, which only recently received FDA approval.” I explained that it had been under an EUA for most of last year and had not been studied or administered as widely as COVID-19 vaccines. That more than 353 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in the U.S. along with more than 4.7 billion doses worldwide without any overwhelming, catastrophic side effects. “Not nearly as many doses of remdesivir have been given or studied in people and its long-term side effects are still unknown,” I said. “Do you still want me to give it to you?”

“Yes” he responded, “Whatever it takes to save my life.”

It did not work.

My patient died nine days later of a stroke. We, the care team, reconciled this loss by telling ourselves: He made a personal choice not to get vaccinated, not to protect himself or his family. We did everything we could with what we had to save him. This year, this tragedy, this unnecessary, entirely preventable loss, was on him.

The burden of this pandemic now rests on the shoulders of the unvaccinated. On those who are eligible to get vaccinated but choose not to, a decision they defend by declaring, “Vaccination is a deeply personal choice.” But perhaps never in history has anyone’s personal choice affected the world as a whole as it does right now. When hundreds and thousands of people continue to die — when the most vulnerable members of society, our children, cannot be vaccinated — the luxury of choice ceases to exist.

If you believe the pandemic is almost over and I can ride it out, without getting vaccinated, you could not be more wrong. This virus will find you.

If you believe I’ll just wait until the FDA approves the vaccine first , you may not live to see the day.

If you believe if I get infected I’ll just go to the hospital and get treated, there is no guarantee we can save your life, nor even a promise we’ll have a bed for you.

If you believe I’m pregnant and I don’t want the vaccine to affect me, my baby or my future fertility, it matters little if you’re not alive to see your newborn.

If you believe I won’t get my children vaccinated because I don’t know what the long-term effects will be , it matters little if they don’t live long enough for you to find out.

If you believe I’ll just let everyone else get vaccinated around me so I don’t have to, there are 93 million eligible, unvaccinated people in the “herd” who think the same way you do and are getting in the way of ending this pandemic.

If you believe vaccinated people are getting infected anyway, so what’s the point? , the vaccine was built to prevent hospitalizations and deaths from severe illness. Instead of fatal pneumonia, those with breakthrough infections have a short, bad cold, so the vaccine has already proved itself. The vaccinated are not dying of COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has mutated countless times during this pandemic, adapting to survive. Stacked up against a human race that has resisted change every step of the way — including wearing masks, social distancing, quarantining and now refusing lifesaving vaccines — it is easy to see who will win this war if human behavior fails to change quickly.

The most effective thing you can do to protect yourself, your loved ones and the world is to GET VACCINATED.

And it will work.

Anita Sircar is an infectious-disease physician and clinical instructor of health sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Taking a stab at grain marketing

Since taking on our family farm, I’ve heard many a farmer lament the marketing of grain. It’s the process that a farmer can never really get “right” since the markets for commodities, in my case, soybeans and corn, are constantly in fluctuation. Plus, there’s so much unpredictability. An unexpected crisis in Asia or a sudden onslaught of pests in Brazil can turn prices upside down in minutes.

As I head back to the university classroom on Monday (f2f or over zoom–let’s face it, no one knows for sure what will unfold with the delta variant), I’m also brushing up on what can be known about grain marketing.

You can likely tell from the look on my face how confident I am about figuring out all this stuff. But hey, at least I’m trying!

Being a woman in America

In recent days, I’ve come across two especially poignant essays written by women about women.

First, there’s Kathleen Parker’s musings on Barbie: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/13/like-any-woman-over-60-barbie-has-some-life-lessons-share/

And then, there’s Monica Hesse’s thoughts on why America isn’t necessarily the best place to be a mother: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/birth-rate-american-mothers/2021/06/14/045c4684-c950-11eb-81b1-34796c7393af_story.html

Both writers reveal the complexity of being a woman in America. While aspiring to new heights is a wonderful sign that women’s roles don’t have to remain complacent–see Parker’s laundry list of the many roles Barbie has assumed over the years, from astronaut to Olympian–we have so, so far to go. Despite our reputation as a world leader, America still lags behind when it comes to caring for the mothers who mother our nation’s children.

And the shortcomings extend well beyond the early stages of motherhood. I can’t count the number of female colleagues and friends who have expressed a desire to have someone by their side, both/either in the workplace and/or household who takes up the slack in so many ways that traditionally men haven’t had to. There’s a classic 70s feminist essay written by Judy (Syfers) Brady that attests to all the things coupled women once were (and sometimes, still are) expected to do: https://www.wsfcs.k12.nc.us/cms/lib/NC01001395/Centricity/Domain/10659/I%20Want%20a%20Wife.pdf

Don’t get me wrong: While we pale in comparison to many other progressive countries in caring for women (and children) through our failure to put much-needed policies in place, we’re a whole lot more protected than women in less-developed countries, nations torn apart by war, communities without enough food or other basic necessities to go around.

Still, we’ve strides to make. While we are arguably seeing slow progress in how we label and define individuals and communities in this country, the roles to which we assign them and our expectations for them have a ways to go.

Prioritizing individual rights over global health

In today’s Washington Post, author Barkha Dutt expresses anger over many Americans’ refusal to receive the COVID vaccine, as well as their accompanying claims of individual freedoms our citizens are promised: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/05/barkha-dutt-india-america-vaccine-mandates/

Dutt calls these Americans’ inexcusable actions (or rather, inactions) “the worst sort of White privilege and unacceptable self-indulgence,” a display that rightly stirs the author to “rage, disgust and bewilderment” that anyone could be so tone-deaf when it comes to the health and safety of others. Those others include neighbors in the US and global populations that are perishing from COVID given too few vaccines to go around and too little access to resources.

The author is correct on every count.

Despite the availability of vaccines in this country and encouragement from health experts to roll up our sleeves, too many Americans have to be cajoled (cash incentives, lottery tickets, and so on) to even consider getting a jab that could save their lives as well as the lives of others. It makes more sense to these individuals, it seems, to listen to shoddy advice offered by misguided far-right political pundits or Tik-Tok celebs who warn of associated threats to fertility and insertion of surveillance chips. A global pandemic is a great time to call in the conspiracy theorists!

During visits to several regions of India, the country from which Dutt hails, I saw firsthand the dire poverty of many. In the most impoverished families, health care is simply not an option. Or, families are forced to choose which of their members will receive care and which will go without. Unsurprisingly, women and children are often those who lose out on life-saving measures.

Dutt’s essay is powerful. I’d like to suggest that any vaccine naysayers take the time to read and reflect on the piece. On the other hand, I doubt some would be swayed given the “White privilege and . . . self-indulgence” driving their behaviors.