Daring to do things differently in the Midwest
If you’re a farmer in Iowa, USA, there are certain expectations – business norms and cultural norms.
Farm-wise, you’ll probably grow corn and soybean. Life-wise, you’ll probably be married with kids by your mid-twenties.
Not Wade Dooley.
I met Wade for the first time in Fall 2018 when he was in the middle of harvest and I was travelling through Iowa recording a series for the BBC World Service.
I sat next to him in the combine with my microphone as he cut a 90-acre field of corn. As we rolled up and down the rows, dumping load after load into the grain cart which periodically pulled up alongside us, we talked about pretty much everything – life, business, the universe. In the cab of a combine, I felt like Louis Theroux.
I recorded so much material I’ve been able to produce another programme for BBC Radio 4, mined from the rich contents of the cutting room floor. The Covid-19 crisis, having grounded production teams, is encouraging broadcasters to revisit pre-loved material. For us as programme-makers, it’s a revelation to see how much amazing stuff never gets aired – and a joy to relive past adventures.
In 2018 Wade was about to make some big changes on the farm. I didn’t realise quite how much until I emailed him recently to catch up on developments in the last two years.
Doing things differently in rural Iowa, rejecting what’s expected and following your own path, is probably seen as being a bit weird.
It’s a place of agricultural uniformity. The fields look the same, the silos look the same, the truck stops look the same, the roads look the same. You can drive for hours and still survey an unbroken vista of corn and soybean. It’s a land of big skies and gorgeous sunsets – purple and golden hues reflected in steel grain bins, towering over gently rolling prairie.
There’s definitely a charm to it, but I suspect it can be suffocating too. Even wide open spaces can feel like a prison.
Many farmers have spoken of feeling trapped in unprofitable commodity cycles, increasingly crippled by appallingly low prices for corn and soybean. And the only way to survive, they say, is to expand and get bigger. Seek sanctuary in economy of scale.
Wade is railing against this mindset. He calls it a “psychological trap” that has imprisoned farmers in the belief that their only choice is to “get big or get out”.
Instead he’s decided to get smaller, and get into something else.
Since my visit in 2018 Wade has reduced his corn and soybean acreage from nearly 900 acres to just 30.
30 acres – in the largest corn producing state in the US.
He’s put hundreds of acres into pasture for custom grazing cattle and grows oats and rye grain to sell as cover crop seed to other farmers (he’s a big believer in the environmental and soil health benefits of no till and cover cropping). He even messes about with pumpkins, popcorn and butternut squash – dabbling in direct sales to attract cash and public curiosity to his ‘Century’ farming business, which has been in Wade’s family for six generations since the 1860s.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a farmer who’s swimming against the tide more than Wade. And with such gusto.
In this Sunday’s episode of On Your Farm, Wade opens up about being a bit different. He describes the “unique experience” of being a bachelor farmer in his late 30s and the prevailing local attitude that, “If you’re not married with kids by 25, there’s something wrong”.
Standing outside a small-town bar, listening to country and western music drifting over the distant whir of grain bins drying the day’s harvest, Wade shares his battle with depression and his personal mission to ‘reconstruct’ his mental health.
To think these conversations were destined for the cutting room floor – never aired and never shared. What a mistake that would have been. Thank you Covid-19.
To hear Wade’s story, tune into On Your Farm this Sunday at 6.35am on BBC Radio 4.