Rediscovering my family farm

Oct 3, 2012

This past weekend, for the first time in 25 years, my dad and I visited our family’s farm in Woodhull, Ill.

By family, I mean extended family. Brothers Doug and Darwin Swanson — my dad’s first cousins — run the farm, which got its start with land bought in 1890 by my great-great grandfather, Swan Swanson, when he moved to Illinois from Sweden.

It wasn’t the easiest place to find. The Google directions from my central Missouri home to our cousins’ farm in northwestern Illinois worked like a charm on the state roads. But in Knox County, it was another story. The directions told us to turn onto Highway 6 but the county signs spelled out other road names, like 700 E. and 2700 N. Dad remembered two royal blue Harvestore silos stood behind the house so we searched for them on the horizon.

“Take a right,” Dad said, and we turned down another straight stretch of road divided by rows of corn and soybeans.

My cellphone rang as we slowed to inspect more silos. It was Darwin. Dad said we were lost and listed landmarks around us from which Darwin easily directed us to his attractive white American Four Square house (built by his grandfather in 1912) sitting on the edge of acres of corn. Two blue heeler dogs named Laverne and Shirley bounced up to greet us in the driveway followed by several family members.

Eventually we piled into Darwin’s silver Chevy truck and headed out to the fields to watch the soybean harvest. Dad and I even got to ride in their big red combine with Darwin. From our perch in the monster machine, I watched the blades cut thousands of brown soybean stalks close to the ground. The combine separated the small yellow beans from their shells and funneled them up to a container in the back of the machine. The combine practically ran by itself; the only time Darwin touched the wheel was to make a turn at the end of the row. The computer in the cab listed stats about the beans coming in, how much water they contained, how many bushels each acre would yield.

“Your granddad wouldn’t believe this,” Darwin said as the beans poured from the back of the combine into the trailer alongside us.

Darwin was right about that. My grandfather, Leroy, was born in 1915 and passed away four years ago. He left the farm for a career as a Navy aviator after he graduated from Bradley University but he used to tell us stories about the challenges of planting and harvesting crops with teams of horses and mules. No doubt the wind turbines blinking red on the Knox County horizon at night also would have been a shocker.

We ate a show-stopping dinner that evening, followed by another hearty meal the next afternoon. My great aunt Beth made the 45-minute trip from Moline, Ill., for that meal and it impressed me that she knew how to say thank you – Tack så mycket – in Swedish. After dinner, we talked about how the drought had affected the harvest this year. Doug said that thanks to the three inches of rain they’d gotten in June they were looking at surprisingly good yields of about 60 bushels of beans and 200 bushels of corn per acre. It would be a relief not to put in a crop insurance claim this year. Darwin added that they were especially lucky to be living in the particular part of Illinois that got the rain.

Now, back in Missouri, I’m thinking through story ideas from the Woodhull trip – like how high the prices of farmland have gotten, the pluses and minuses of driverless John Deere tractors and how much energy wind turbines create for rural communities. Yes, the trip put faces on the family members I hadn’t seen in years. But it also reminded me what our country’s farmers go through to produce our food. All in all, a weekend well spent. I won’t wait another 25 years for my next visit.