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323742

Born-again farm kid

Finding my footing as the new products editor at Successful Farming.

I have to admit: Growing up in Iowa gave me a slight resentment for farming. Recently, however, I’ve found a lot more pride for my state’s heritage.

This is not to say I don’t respect farming. Farmers are the backbone of our country, and I always felt a little torn between that resentment and the pride I felt for how integral my home state is to feeding America. 

But no matter where you were from — whether it’s urban Des Moines or rural Decatur County — any outsiders will assume you know everything about farming. To many people outside the Midwest, corn, pigs, and soybeans are all we are. It’s almost like if you fly into Iowa, the very first thing you’ll see are the pitchforked farmer and his stone-faced daughter from Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

To a certain extent, those people are almost correct to make those assumptions. Farming is everywhere here. Of the 36,016,500 acres of total land in Iowa, 33,359,000 of those acres are devoted to farming. If you drive more than a couple minutes outside of any city, you’re bound to run into a cornfield or a livestock pasture. 

Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic" depicts a farmer and his daughter standing in front of their farmhouse.
Photo credit: GraphicaArtis, Getty Images

Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa? That simply wasn’t me. Since I was young, I’ve always been passionate about music and the entertainment industry. I love writing about new albums and artists, and finding all the ways their art weaves itself into the greater tapestry of music history. Unfortunately, living in Iowa means we’re seen as “flyover country” for most artists and it’s difficult to witness that tapestry in person without driving five or six hours. 

READ MORE: NASCAR great loves being behind the wheel again

I imagined many bands flying from Chicago to Denver, glancing down at a couple cornfields and thanking their booking agents for skipping the “backwoods country” shows. Even in Cedar Rapids, a growing city with a thriving local arts scene, we’re a third-rate spot at best — an unlikely stop for anyone but the bands of yesteryear, barely capable as tribute acts to their own discography.

Like many people with roots in the Midwest, I have distant generational family who were subsistence farmers, but it was never a part of my childhood. I have no strong personal ties to farming, so it was like I was experiencing all the drawbacks of Iowa with none of the benefits. It felt diminishing to be reduced to some ridiculous caricature of a farmer with sun-faded overalls and a straw hat. 

It may be hard to believe, but I haven’t met too many people around here who dress like Tom Sawyer. 

A selfie of Alex Gray, new products editor for Successful Farming
Alex Gray, new products editor

I’ve had a passion for writing for as long as I can remember. Really, it’s one of the only things I’ve ever felt good at. When I had the opportunity to apply for a job at a publication as prestigious as Successful Farming, I made the leap. Not only would I have the chance to get back to writing, but I’d also have a whole new well of knowledge to dip into and become an expert on. 

It’s been a whirlwind couple of months since I started with SF as the new products editor. I published my very first article the second day on the job. A few days later I’m conducting interviews with multiple farmers for a feature story. (Stay tuned, it’s coming soon.) The next month I’m flying to multiple press events across the country in the same week. I’d only taken a flight once before this job! Just a few weeks here and I’m on track to see more of the country in one year than I have in my whole life. 

Before working with SF, my machinery experience had been pretty limited. My grandpa has owned a couple of compact John Deere tractors on his acreage in Benton County that he let me mow the lawn with a couple of times. But that’s about it. I knew when I started this job I’d have the chance to get into some of the machinery I would be covering in stories, but it wasn’t until I got to drive a combine at a recent press event for Case IH in Arizona that I really got it.

A Case combine and grain cart combo during harvest.

When I let it slip that I hadn’t driven one before, nearly everyone at the event told me the same thing: “We gotta get you behind the wheel of a combine.”

Up to that point, the biggest vehicle I had driven was my grandpa’s F-250 – once. This was a bit of a step up from my dinky little sedan, to say the least. Nathan, one of the marketing managers for Case IH, kept reassuring me that it would be easy and not much different from driving a car. OK, I thought, it’s a half-million-dollar vehicle that also has a giant header lined with a row of metal teeth on the front — exactly like my car. 

READ MORE: The John Deere Gator to replace your car

To my surprise, the company managed to grow a field of corn in the middle of January, in Arizona of all places. It was a little disconcerting to see cornstalks in the middle of the desert, like some sort of defiance against the rules set out by Mother Nature. While they weren’t the prettiest stalks ever, the corn certainly stood as testament to human determination. 

Nathan took me into the cab, where I sat in the passenger seat as he explained different parts of the combine. In a few minutes I feel like I tripled my knowledge of combines. He then took me through a pass, showed me how to get it started, and gave me the keys. 

Surprising me, Nathan was right. Finally in control of the combine, that’s where I really started to see it. Seeing all of the complex machinery in the header reap through the dry desert corn, which was threshed and deposited into the grain tank — in person — was eye-opening for me. I recognize I only sampled a very small part of the hard work America’s farmers carry out every single day, but what I did experience was totally awesome. 

After all these years, what little resentment still remained was washed away after just a few minutes in the cab. I’ve always respected farmers, but, you know what? Now I wouldn’t mind if I spent the rest of my life writing about or working in this industry. 

I’m already finding a new love for farming, especially in my news section with new machinery. What’s cooler than writing about the newest tractor, combine, or sprayer? So hey, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear from you. I’m here to learn everything and anything I can about my new home. If you’ve got a story to share, drop me a line at my email: Alex.Gray@meredith.com. And if you ever need an extra farmhand, just let me know.

Grant Wood painted many landscapes of Iowa's countryside full of rolling hills and cornfields.
Photo credit: Print Collector, Getty Images

I’m still reminded of Grant Wood when I think about farming and Iowa. But now I can see the beauty he saw in those rolling hills and sun-drenched cornfields that make up so many of his landscapes. And now I can only imagine how fun it would be to tear through one of those paintings behind the wheel of a combine harvester. 

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