Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Momentarily Runnin' Out of Steam...

No, this isn't the end of the line, but I'm going to take a brief break from 'Fresh Air Life' to do a little 'deep breathing' on my own... With Thanksgiving and Christmas on the horizon, I've a million tasks to take care of, leaving me little time to invest in some quality interviews. But don't run off... even at this moment, I have in mind two individuals who I am wanting to visit with before the year is out. So, enjoy your time with family and friends, eat heart-healthy, and check in here for your much-needed dose of good ol' Fresh Air Life. As always, you can contact me through e-mail, and you can still see what I'm up to @

Oh, and BTW, check out my story that's been recently e-published in the on-line magazine, 'Nebraska Rural Living'. Under 'Also Featured This Month', you'll find my literary contribution entitled, 'Flowers From Mom'. You'll enjoy the rest of the magazine also!

Now, I need to get crackin' on making those hand made Christmas gifts...


Thursday, November 12, 2009


During the late 1990's, while living at my in-law's farm, I had many occasions to observe my father-in-law, Marvin Richter, toil for hours, even in his advancing years. He would arrive from town (he and the family had moved to O'Neill in the 1960's, but they kept the farm) early in the morning to disc, plant, combine, work cattle, fix machinery, cut musk thistle, fix fence, bale hay, or any other chore that was necessary to keep the farm running and producing. After sliding out of his Ford Bronco, he'd step into the house to say a "Howdy-do" and briefly discuss what he had planned for the day. I would top off his coffee (he had a McDonald's breakfast McMuffin on the front seat of his car), and after a bit of mild arguing with my husband (the really loud stuff came later), he'd be out the door and off to the task at hand.

Marvin purchased a secondhand combine, which had been manufactured in the 1940's, from a farmer in Ewing, Nebraska. I'll never forget the day I saw it come lumbering up the drive...going full bore at around 3 miles an hour...he claimed he had put the pedal to the metal and it had topped out at a breezy 13 MPH on the highway from Ewing to the farm. I was positive that it wouldn't make it half way through the next harvest. I was wrong.

This particular morning, I looked out the kitchen window to see him driving up the lane in his light blue, Chevy 'LUV' pick-up, the bed loaded with plastic trash cans and lids, stacked within each other. (Husband and I always enjoyed shouting, "Don't take your LUV to town!") Now, Marvin is a spontaneous sort of fellow...he'll come up with an idea and be ready to jump right on it, so I just settled back and thought I'd see what he was up to this day. I think, amongst others, one of his slogans should be, 'Where there's a will, there's a way...' and this morning, despite his storage and equipment limitations, Marvin was going to fan some alfalfa seed---130 acres of it--give or take an acre or two.

That fall, he had let his alfalfa crop go to seed, wind rowed it, and then combined the seed. He purchased an old fanning mill---from an even older friend---and was determined to separate the 'seed from the chaff'. Various weed seeds needed to be removed; sand drop seed, foxtail, sunflower, and a bit of brome grass. This fanning mill had originated from between the 1920's to the 1930's, and Marvin had to craft and replace a few pieces so the mill would operate. This would not be a difficult task, as he has not only been a farmer in his life, but also an excellent carpenter.

He set up shop in the 'garage', which had been built in the early 1900's by his father as the original home. It was "the first house on the place". The 'place' had been homesteaded during the Kincaid Act when Marvin's forebears had arrived from Germany in search of 'greener pastures'. Marvin's older half-sister, Thelma, who died in 2004 at the age of 100, had lived in this house with Ernest her father, and her mother Addie, Ernest's first wife. Addie later died after childbirth, and Ernest then married Barbara, Marvin's mother. After building the present house on the property, this building was converted into a two-car garage for the family's Ford Model T car.

Now, I don't pretend to understand how machinery works, and especially this particular expertise was in taking the photos and visiting with Marvin at the same time... However, it appeared to me that he would dump the alfalfa 'horns' (and other weed seed) in the top of the mill, a belt would turn a wheel which in turn, moved or shook a tray, which I believe had a screen on the bottom, that somehow separated the alfalfa seed from the chaff. Please excuse my use of technical jargon.

The chaff would fly out of the chute and onto the ground, leaving the finished product---the minute alfalfa seed--ready to go back into the plastic trash cans for storage. This clean seed, of course, was sold for an enormous profit...

"And then the cow says to the farmer..." (some light bantering while working...)

Marvin labored for two days until his project was completed, only stopping for a bite of lunch on our screened-in porch and a bit of a snooze (while sitting in a chair) afterwards. Then, as the afternoon turned to evening, and as Marvin's strength and energy played out, I would see him slowly walk to his pick-up and drive away into the sunset.
Marvin turned 86 years old this past October. He is the father of 6 children, 13 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, and 3 more on the way---if my figures are correct. He's a West Nile Virus survivor, 'Energizer Bunny', wonderful Father-in-law, and his current hobby is wine making. He still does some occasional farming and within the past couple of days, he assisted in moving cattle out of his pastures. With deer hunting season upon us, he'll most likely be out to get a deer also.
Photo credit, top photo of combine: Maria Rath 2007

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tompkins Corner

In the year of 1883, Archibald Tompkins, Neil Tompkins' Great-Grandfather (of English descent) arrived from New York State to homestead a parcel of land in Inman, Nebraska where today, Neil and his wife Ruth, a nurse, now live. Neil was born and raised here and he and Ruth, have in turn raised four children here; two sons and two daughters, now grown with lives of their own.

Neil is the fourth generation on the 'home place', where he operates a dairy and is a member of the Dairy Farmers of America. Neil says, "The place has always had milk cows and beef cows..." This is evidenced by the existence of the large red barn built in 1913 by Neil's grandfather, Leon. The sturdy barn, now used for hay storage and an occasional newborn calf, also has a rope swing in the hay loft that the Tompkins children spent hours playing on. There is also the requisite farm pet...a very friendly cow dog name 'Spicey'. And upon hearing the gentle mooing of a cow, the complete mental picture of 'farm' and all that represents, comes into focus.

Neil's dairy herd consists of a mix of 80 Holstein and Jersey cows. Each breed has it's advantages and disadvantages in relation to milk quality and production. The Holstein is the widely recognized black and white spotted cow that we usually envision when thinking of a dairy cow. The Holstein produces more pounds of milk, but has lower milk butterfat components. (Milk is made up of three components: butterfat, protein, and other solids.) The brown Jersey cow is a smaller breed, with less milk production, but a higher percentage of butterfat. Neil says, "Higher butterfat is affected by genetics and feed. I work with a nutritionist that recommends a balance of protein; so much corn, so much hay..."

At two years of age, and after a cow has had her first calf, she is then classified as a milk cow. "At any given time, 80% of the cows are being milked, and 20% are dry". An 'ideal' situation is a cow that is producing milk for 10-11 months. Since constant milk production is stressful, a cow is given a two month rest period to build up it's health before having another calf.

The cows are milked twice a day---at four o'clock in the morning and four o' clock in the afternoon. Neil has one full time and one part time employee who, along with himself, take turns with the milking. As there are 14 milkings a week, Neil is responsible for five of them. The cows are pastured and need to be rounded up and brought in each time, which takes about 15-30 minutes. "Cows are a creature of habit and they do like a routine". The milking parlor can accommodate eight cows at one time, four on each side. The equipment set-up takes from 30 to 40 minutes, and milking the entire herd takes a little over 3 hours. Neil states, "It takes ten man hours a day to run the operation." The raw milk is picked up every 2-3 days, and hauled to either South Dakota, Iowa, or Minnesota for processing and then, distribution. When Neil and Ruth's children were younger, they were 'forced' to help with the milking. Neil joked, "That's probably why none of them are talking of coming back home..."
I asked Neil about the 'Good, the Bad and the Ugly' of a dairy operation... The 'good' is, "A regular cash get a check twice a month, and even though the amount varies (depending on the price of milk), it gives some stability". "And milk cows and stock cows compliment each other in terms of equipment, machinery, and facilities". He adds, "It's a way to be in agriculture, to 'be your own boss'".

The 'bad' is "Mastitis"---a bacterial infection. "It can be treated, but it is hard to get rid of". "Feed is the #1 cost, in addition to the on-going expenses of labor, equipment, upkeep, and replacing animals". And, "if a cow won't breed back, they have to be sold for slaughter".

The 'ugly' is, "No days off". "Milking has to be done whether it's a sunny day, a blizzard, or a holiday". Even worse is when a good production cow is down and can't get up. The day I was visiting, a Holstein had given birth the day before and had become weakened and unable to get up. Neil and his crew were trying to get the cow on it's feet, and would be trying for another few days. Hopefully, the cow would not have to be euthanized.

Neil says he has always been interested in agriculture, and when in college, he had briefly considered becoming an agriculture missionary. However, he felt that God showed him that in His plans, he should continue the dairy business with his parents. Overall, Neil loves the lifestyle of the country and the physical work, and he is convinced that the fresh, country air and the sparse population density has kept him healthy. Besides, there's that undeniable and indescribable heart connection to the land and the history and heritage of the Tompkins family.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I've recently visited with Inman resident Neil Tompkins about his dairy operation. The story will be posted soon!