It was 14 degrees, nearly twice as cold as usual for a typical November in Iowa. But more than 5,800 people still showed up at Living History Farms at the break of dawn to run seven miles across the snow-covered farm fields, ice-caked streams and muddy ravines. As if the course wasn't challenging enough, many runners wore costumes. I skipped the costume, but I was still eager to join this crazy bunch as they stumbled across fields and climbed up creek banks.
"Why?" my friends and family are still asking, probably because none of them run. I guess the easiest answer is this: common values. Runners at the Living History Farms race come in every size, age and ability. They live in other cities, states, even countries. But on that day, in that event, we all had a common goal; to enjoy nature while having fun. To run. To breathe. To sweat. To help each other get across the finish line, no matter the obstacles.
At one particularly tough spot on the course, I found myself slipping, trying to climb out of a muddy ravine, unable to get a foothold, sweat from the previous four miles plastered hair to the side of my face and froze. Hardly attractive. Yet from out of nowhere, a hand from an older runner reached out to pull me up. "You got this," he said, then turned and kept running. When I cleared the edge, I turned around and helped a much-younger girl get out of the ravine. She helped a young boy clear the ravine. Over and over again, people worked together to climb out of the frozen ravine.
If only we could channel that same spirit, offer that same hand to reach across the divide that separates consumers from today's farmers. Having lived in Iowa for a half-century and grown up on a century hog farm, I know there is room for, and a need for, diversity; some farmers will raise animals on a pasture, others in a feedlot or hog barn. All are farmers.
Farmers like Andrew Pittz set their own pace. Pittz, who started the nation's first commercial aronia berry farm, talked about his business model during a recent Farm Bureau annual meeting education seminar.
What was most surprising wasn't just the marketing or production hurdles this young Loess Hills sixth-generation farmer has weathered, but the perspectives of some media folks he's encountered, who too often portray farming as a race for profit, rather than a journey that brings all Iowans together for a common goal. Pittz says folks are surprised to hear that Farm Bureau encourages organic farmers, niche businesses as well as conventional agriculture. To him, the end-goal is obvious: more choices at the grocery store. "Sometimes, it makes sense to be conventional (ag), and sometimes, it makes sense for your farm to be organic. For us, competing in this market, we are taking on multi-national corporations, so it really makes sense for us to be organic on the marketing side. And it really pays off in the market place," says Pittz.
Judging by the 'standing room only' crowd who came to Des Moines to hear Pittz and other innovative ag leaders, farmers are good at reaching out to others, supporting new ideas that come along. They're not 'in it to win it', but rather to learn from each other. To finish well. To find common ground along the way. To "run" with honor and embrace diversity.
So the big question is can you?
Laurie Johns is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.