Marble Rock, Iowa

Driving into Iowa came with a sudden downpour. First light, then heavy, then very heavy. Then it was gone. But something about being among miles and miles of cornfields made the usual chaos of rain seem serene and uncomplicated, even in its force. With no cars around to suddenly freeze into a traffic jam or city streets to flash flood or even people to scatter toward shelter, it just felt like what it was; the passing of clouds.

Meeting Philip Parker, a corn and soybean farmer with 1700 acres of farmland that he tends to with his wife and, when necessary, a hand from his retired uncle, had a similar serenity to it. Philip is the epitome of the long view. Farming goes as far back in his family as he can remember. He lives and works on the farm he was born on. And while he reads the news everyday, he only reads agricultural news. The bigger political issues of our time, to Philip, is just a passing cloud. This is life on the farm.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Josh Rose: Tell me about yourself and what you do for a living.

My name is Philip Parker, I’m 59, and I’m a grain farmer. I raise corn and soybeans in Rockford, northern Iowa.

My parents moved here March of 1960, from a little town called Cartersville. It’s about five miles due west. They were renting a farm there.

They gave up the lease on that farm and leased this one. That’s how farming deals work, or used to. You always got possession the first of March. So they moved here in March when they got possession of this farm.

Before that, my family on the Parker side came from New Berlin, Illinois. I really don’t know where my mom’s side came from.

My grandpa was a farmer too.

What was it like growing up here?

It was fantastic. Just being free to do what you wanted. Always had something to do. I had a sister and cousins that only lived a couple miles away. We had bikes and would ride back and forth. We spent a lot of time together.

When I got a little bigger, I had friends that lived in Rockford and we’d ride bikes back and forth from there as well.

When did you start farming?

Oh, I would say 12 or 13. You know, just walking beans, or driving the tractor with my dad. Actually, I was driving stuff long before that.

I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. We had an old truck and sometimes needed to get it back to the house along with another piece of equipment. My dad would put the truck in low gear, set me in the driver’s seat, and say, “Take it to the house. When you get there, shut it off.” Then he’d get out and drive the other.

So that’s what I did. I couldn’t reach the pedals, but I could shut it off with the key. You wouldn’t do that with the machinery we got nowadays, that was just a little single axle truck.

What’s the biggest change in the way farming is done now?

I’d say it’s just the fact that the machinery has gotten so much bigger and herbicides have gotten so much better. We used to walk beans in the summer, but you don’t have any weeds to pull now because herbicide works so well.

Walking beans, can you explain that?

Walk up and down the rows, rooting weeds out with a weed hook, you know?

How does your farm compare to the parcel of land your dad had?

I probably have three or four times as much land. He had this main part here, where we live. It’s about 480 acres, that he farmed. We’ve got about four times that much now.

It’s more competitive, now. I’ve been lucky because the people that own this farmland, own a few others not too far away. The guys that ran them retired, so I picked up the leases on those farms too.

Like they say, “It’s who you know, not what you know.” That’s a lot of it.

How long did it take to become an “expert”, in farming?

I still don’t think I’m an expert. It’s just when you think you’ve got it figured out that Mother Nature takes control. You can try to do everything right, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate or something, you just never know.

That sweet corn patch out there. It was planted a little later than it should have been because I was busy planting the other crops. That’s the last thing we do, is plant the sweet corn. Well, we finally got it planted and then it rained and it rained and it rained some more, and it just never got a chance to get started.

When it’s small, it’s better if it’s dry. You want just enough moisture to get it going, that’s all you need.

What are some of the challenges of the business?

Other then predicting the weather, timing the market is always a challenge.

You do the best you can and then you get things like the tariffs that hit you out of nowhere. If you’ve been waiting, thinking the prices are gonna come up and all of a sudden they don’t, because of a tariff or something, then you’re really out of luck.

I would say that’s the biggest challenge.The timing.

What’s a typical day like?

Well, it just depends on the time of year.

Right now, I’m hauling grain. So, I left home a little before 6:00 a.m. this morning, went to the ethanol plant and got in line, then hauled about three loads to the plant before they closed at 2:00 p.m.. Then I came back here and got one load into the co-op at Marble Rock before they closed at 4:00 p.m.. Then came home, washed the tractor, and noticed it was getting a flat tire. So I took the tire off to get fixed, and by then it was about 5:30 p.m..

Can you tell me about your crops?

Corn and soybeans. A majority of the corn that I grow and everybody else grows in this area goes to the ethanol plants to make ethanol. There they blend it with gasoline and use the by-product as cattle and hog feed. I think they extract some corn oil and stuff like that out of it too. But the majority of it is 10% ethanol-blend, and distilled grains to feed cattle.

Most of the soybeans are either taken to the Mississippi River to be exported, or they go to the bean meal plants. A Lot of the soybeans around here go to the bean meal plants in Mason City or Eagle Grove. They crush them and make soybean meal for hog feed.

How do politics, policy, and economics affect you?

Well, I’m pretty worried about the fact that the Brazilians might take over our soybean market. They say that they can’t grow enough right now, but I’ll bet the bulldozers are running 24 hours a day down there to pick up the slack.

Is this directly related to the recent tariffs?

Yep... China has placed a 25% tariff on every bushel of beans. That equates to roughly $2.50 a bushel. If we’re selling them for $10, that adds up real quick.

I don’t get too worked up about it though, it’ll all work out. I had most of my grain sold before this all came about. When it comes time to sell next year’s crop, I might start getting worked up about it though. Hopefully sometime in the next year, or so before I have to sell, they’ll get it worked out.

Do you pay attention to the daily news?

I do, yeah. I read the Agweb, Agriculture.com, all the market comments, the overnight, and what the early morning comments are saying.

I don’t follow the regular news that much per se. Like your CNN, or your Fox News, or whatever. I don’t hardly ever watch that.

Mostly I just concentrate on what affects me.

Can you give me a sense of the economics of this business?

I rent a crop share, so all the expenses are split 50/50 with the people that own the ground. They also get half the crop.

The secret is to sell your crop near the top of the market. There’s no way you’re going to ever hit the very top. Sometimes you try and the next thing you know, it’s gone down. If you can get it in the top third or so of the price range for the year, you’ve done real well. It’s fluctuating every day.

The corn I’m hauling now, I already have contracts on. They just need to be delivered. Once they’re delivered, they’ll make me out a check for it.

An average size farm like me can make between $30,000 and $80,000, after buying equipment and expenses and stuff.

How big is your farm compared to those around?

I’d say I’m average size with 1,700 acres. There’s larger ones and smaller ones.

Are you able to save?

Yep. That’s been a priority since we were first married, is to make sure we’re depositing to our individual SEP accounts, simplified employee pension.

We’ll be able to retire in maybe 10 years or so.

Then what?

That’s a good question. Don’t know. I figure I’ll just sell the farm and walk away because neither one of my sons have any interest in farming.

I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I don’t look forward to retiring, because then I’ll have all this idle time on my hands.

I like to stay busy.

Is there job satisfaction in doing this?

Absolutely, yes. It’s not even like working. I just love it. You can go and drive up the road and look at them nice, perfectly clean even fields of beans.

There’s different challenges every year. This year it was too much rain in the spring. Figure out how to overcome those.

That’s satisfaction.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

I’d be a carpenter. I used to spend my winters and a few weeks in the summer working for a friend that was a carpenter. I enjoyed that, but always looked forward to being done with it and getting back to farming.

What would it be like to start a new farm?

It’s nearly impossible. You’ve got to have a family member or someone to get you started, because it takes so much capital and land is so hard to come by. So, it’s kind of exclusive.

Can you talk about the shift in technology ?

Yep. The auto steer has made it possible to farm a lot more acres. It runs off satellites — old military satellites, I think.

The equipment I have was retrofitted with the new technology. It didn’t come with it, but you can also get it installed by the manufacturer.

How does it work?

It’s just like snapping a line… like a carpenter does. You go to each end and you snap a straight line. A controller in the cabin knows how wide your implement is and configures a straight line every 60 feet, or whatever you set it to. Then, all you’ve gotta do is engage on to that line and it takes you perfectly straight across the field.

It’s all automated and uses satellites to stay on route and in a straight line.

When I plant I’ve got all my coordinates and lines saved from previous years. I just load them in there, get to the edge of the field and when it’s lined up, you engage the auto steer. And your first pass will be straight as the fence.

What are the main pieces of equipment you’ve got?

I’ve got three front wheeled tractors, a combine, a sprayer and a 24 row corn planter. And I rent a machinery storage that’s got my heads for the combine, and I’ve got four big wagons.

Are you able to travel when you have the farm to tend to every day?

It’s pretty slow around here in the winter time. We can get away for a month if we want to.

My wife’s sister has a condo in Florida. We go down there and stay with them for a week. This winter, we plan on going to California. We’ll probably go to Albuquerque, New Mexico too because that’s where our son is stationed.

We’ll probably fly to Florida. I’m not crazy about that. I’d sooner drive, but Darla likes to fly because you get there quicker. I kind of like to drive.

What do you do for entertainment?

I don’t have much time to watch TV or movies.

I like to fish. I love to hunt coyotes. We go to Clear Lake. We’ve got a pontoon boat. We putter around the lake and go out for supper and stuff.

We go to Canada the first week in August on a fly fishing trip too. That’s my big rush, to get all my grain delivered by then, and spray the beans with fungicide and insecticide. Gotta get that done in the next two weeks so I don’t have any worries, and then I’m off to Canada to go fishing for a week, in Pickle Lake, Ontario.

If you cross the border at International Falls, it’s north east. It’s past the end of the paved road. Then we get on an airplane and fly into a lake back up in there. It’s almost straight north of here.

We fish Walleyes and Northerns. Mostly Walleyes. All we do other than fish, is eat fish. I don’t even want to think about eating fish when we get home.

Nothing compares to it though, to catch them. Typically they’re 18 to 22 inches, two, three pounds. Once in a while you catch a bigger one.

Everything we need is up there, the boats and everything. We use a 16 foot Lund boat with a 35 horse motor on it.

I use the Berkley gulps, that seems to be the best. They come in a little tub of oil and look very similar to a minnow. They won’t let you take live bait though, or minnows anyhow because they don’t want the lake contaminated.

We’ve had some adventures up there too. Like getting stalled out in the middle of an 80,000 acre lake with a broken down motor at night, and we only had one paddle in the boat.

It was the first day we got there. Kayla, my youngest son, my nephew, and a friend of mine went up there. Our boat was a lot faster than theirs, so we went way out there the first day, and I told all the kids, they were together, I said “You guys go ahead and take off and we’ll catch up with you”.

So, they took off and then a few minutes later I took off, except I didn’t go very far before the motor broke down. It started slowing down and then the thing just went… It was completely broken. Nothing would happen.

It was getting late, the sun was starting to go down and I was worried, I said “They’ll get up there and they won’t know which way to go.”

We figured they’d turn around and come back, so we just sat there and sat there and sat there and eventually Mark said “You know what, they’re not coming back, they must be lost”.

So then we’re thinking “Oh my god, they’ll be lost, they’ll be out of gas.” So we said we gotta get back to the cabin. It got dark on us, so we pulled up to an island because you couldn’t see nothing, it was pitch dark. Didn’t know where to go, no lights.

We ended up being out there all night. Early the next morning, as we were trying to make our way back with the paddle and the plane came. The kids found their way back to the cabin and found the satellite phone there. There’s no way to get ahold of anybody, except for these satellite phones. They figured out how to use the phone and called the outfitter to come pick us up.

Were you ever really worried?

Yea, we were. If we had known the kids made it back to the cabin, we’d have just sat there and fished til morning, but we thought “Gosh, they’re gonna run out of gas. We better get back there and find them.”

It was a little tense there for awhile.