Q&A: Darcy Maulsby, fifth-generation farmer and Iowa storyteller
If you have any doubt what a skinned-knuckle farmer Darcy Maulsby is, flash back to her teen years.
“I was feeding corn to hogs from a 5-gallon bucket, and rain had turned the hog lot to mud,” says the Lake City, Iowa, farmer. “It was the kind of mud that when you go forward, your boot stays behind. I tripped, and mud, manure, and corn went all over the place while the hogs trampled me. My dad heard me cry and ran over to take a look. He was from a family of three boys, so when he saw his crying daughter covered in mud with one boot on, he shouted, ‘Be a man!’
Fortunately, time has a way of morphing painful moments into humorous ones.
“Sometimes you literally do have to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and overcome obstacles,” she says.
Today, Maulsby helps her brother, Jason, on the family farm. She’s branched out from her farming roots through reams of books and articles she’s written under the mantle of Iowa’s storyteller.
“It’s an honor to preserve our history and tell these stories of rural America,” she says.
SF: What’s your background?
DM: I grew up on a Century Farm in Calhoun County [in northwestern Iowa] where we grew corn and soybeans and had a farrow-to-finish hog operation. I was a child of the 1980s farm crisis and was floundering about what to do. I started at Central College [in Pella, Iowa] with a general communications major. My dad told me I might want to consider going to Iowa State [University] and study agriculture to fine-tune a journalism major because there aren’t many kids who still grow up on farms. He had also just won a pork production award, and a journalist from one of the ag magazines featured him. That was my first introduction to people who did that type of work. I transferred to Iowa State, and that’s what set me on my path.
SF: How did you become Iowa’s storyteller?
DM: I thought I had found my niche as an agricultural online editor, but this was in the days of the dot.com crash [the early 2000s], and I was laid off. I’d always had the idea that I should go back to the farm and hang out my own shingle. I was featured several years ago in a book called The Well-Fed Writer: Back for Seconds by Peter Bowerman. He called me a writer in “the land of drive-by tractors.” I live just a mile from our family farm, so I’m surrounded by farming and can also lend a hand to my brother when he needs it.
On a given day, I might be writing a newsletter for a client or helping with an ad campaign. On other days, I could be working on my next book or writing for a farm newspaper. People would just mainly see my name in farm newspapers, so there was the perception I was only a newspaper writer. At that time, the business world realized that strategic storytelling is a valuable marketing tool. I thought, “Why not call myself Iowa’s Storyteller?”
SF: What's your most memorable interview?
DM: I'm working on a book about the Lincoln Highway in Iowa, and have been captivated by what was an old grain elevator in Woodbine, Iowa. It was built in 1948 and used to help produce livestock feed, but fell into disrepair. Around 2005, the city council wanted to tear it down. However, the wife of the new general manager of the local coop is an economic development director and marketing specialist. As they were driving home from church, she said to her husband, “You can’t tear that elevator down. There's too much potential there.”
Of course, he knew the battle was lost right there!
This dynamic lady and a lot of folks around Woodbine received funding to transform this old wooden, milk carton-style grain elevator into a remarkable piece of art that lights up at night with beautiful LED lights. It’s symbolic of the rebirth of Woodbine. I love telling stories like that because I hope they inspire other people to revitalize their own rural communities.
SF: What’s the best lesson you learned as a writer?
DM: In college, I wrote what I thought was a really good story about modern pork production. My advisor just tore it apart. “That is not journalism,” she said. “It’s an opinion piece.”
I was so upset because I thought I'd done such a good job, but I stepped back and assessed what she said. There’s a big difference between telling the facts and injecting your opinion.
SF: Critics often beat up on agriculture. What can turn the tide?
DM: I wrote a story called “Salad for Cows” about farmers by Chariton, Iowa, who work with the Hy-Vee grocery chain to feed fresh produce scraps to their cows. These are fun ways to catch people's attention and get them thinking about agriculture in a different way.
SF: What's your favorite things about farming?
DM: I love seeing calves running around, and kittens being born. There’s something about the beginning of life that is profound. I also love the end of a season when it's time to harvest a crop. It’s the end of one part of farming, but just the beginning of the journey for the corn and soybeans that will provide feed and fuel for the world.
SF: Who is your mentor?
DM: I don’t have one particular mentor, but I have had several good influences. My dad [Jim Dougherty] inspired me just by the way he lived his life. Another is Dr. Paul Armbrecht, a longtime area swine veterinarian. I recently had the chance to interview him, as he received the Distinguished Service to Agriculture award from the Iowa Farm Bureau. He talked about bucket time. That’s when you’re in the barn, flip a bucket upside down, sit, and observe the animals in their environment. That's how he comes up with a lot of his answers to help farmers raise healthy animals.
It's the same with storytelling. Videos, social media, and technology are great, but you still have to be curious, observant, and understand and use the fundamentals of effective storytelling to convey clear, concise and compelling messages that influence hearts and minds.
SF: Finish this sentence: Farming is …
DM: The essential profession. What made me think of that is when I interviewed Baxter Black, the cowboy poet and storyteller. What he had written in a column a long time ago always stuck with me.
“The list of essential professions is a short one,” he wrote. “That’s the reality of life. Our culture extends a great deal of effort on future NBA stars, astronauts, environmental lawyers, doctors, and political science majors. But for every 100 rock stars, Rhodes scholars, and Heisman Trophy winners our country produces, we better make sure we spend enough to train at least two future farmers so the rest of them can eat."
To me, that encapsulates why farming is an essential profession.
SF: What are you doing now?
DM: I’m working on a book about Iowa’s lost history on the Titanic. There were 20 people on the Titanic with ties to Iowa, including one farmer.
Darcy Maulsby has dual bachelor’s degrees in journalism/mass communication and history and a master’s in business administration from Iowa State University.
“Writing is hard work,” Maulsby says. “That’s why it’s almost relaxing to get in the combine or the tractor and just go up and down the rows. At the end of the day, if you do your job as a writer right, you are exhausted, but it’s a good kind of tired.”