Young Iowa Farmers: James Frantzen

We got up with the sun. It was well below zero, and with the whipping wind, all you could do while outside was think about the cold, and about when you were going to get inside. After letting the engine run, we drove North and East, turning left and right again and again on the grid of dirt roads.

James Frantzen met us at the door of his new home, which sits atop a hill. He’s got a thick what seems to be Wisconsin accent. The first chores of the day were checking on the pregnant sows. Sows are female pigs. James told us one of the sows was due to give birth today, and if we were lucky there would be piglets.

In the toasty warm farrowing unit- farrowing is the word used for birthing pigs- we found twelve newborns hovered together, each trying to get a turn on mom’s teat. James yanked some youngsters that were sitting on mom’s snout and tossed them back onto the teat. This is essential because those that don’t get well fed in the first couple of days- die. Of the twelve, it’s almost assured that a couple won’t make it.

From there we went to a larger, much colder barn where James fed the slightly older, much larger piglets that were grouped with lactating moms. We met his energetic black dog, a friendly beast who seemed to always go for the crotch.

Andy, the immensely talented and equally patient videojournalist I’ve been traveling with, had been shooting for close to a half-hour with exposed fingers in the unspeakable cold. I took a turn with the camera and lasted only a few minutes before my hands started to go numb. Not fun-numb, but the kind of numb that makes you sprint back to the car and press your hands against the air vents. Finished with chores at his house, James jumped in the truck and we followed him down to his parents farm.

There we followed along as he fed hay to steers, gave feed to finishing hogs- these are hogs that are about to be slaughtered- and fed gestating- pregnant- sows.

James’ parents were out of town for the weekend, and instead of throwing a party like some 23 year-olds might, he was doing the chores that had to be done. The chores that have to get done, every day, regardless of whether it is -5 degrees, or 87, christmas break, or saturday night. Raising animals means work.

After chores, we shot an interview in the Frantzen family kitchen. James is the fourth generation to live in the town, and the third generation to farm the land where he lives. There’s a deep pride in his name, and his land. Of his graduating high-school class- ’07 or ’08- he is the only one who is currently a farmer. That might seem normal at most high-schools, but New Hampton High School- where he graduated from- is in our nation’s heartland of farming. Why only one? There’s a lot of reasons for this, of course the cost of land being a big one. But also the lack of interest. He estimated only about 10 or so from his class want to become farmers. There’s an undeniable pull from urban areas that promise easier jobs, more pay and in the social realm- more people and more forms of entertainment. James himself tried working in an office for a couple years in Wisconsin- and enjoyed the time there- but something kept pulling him back to the farm. It’s in his blood. He’s hoping that a similar pull will drive more of his classmates- and other young people- back to farming. And of course, he hopes that land prices drop so that his friends that are already interested can get in. These friends interested in farming have had to take part-time jobs in town- they weren’t able to work on the family farm like James is.

Grateful for the indoor interview, we said goodbyes and headed back West.

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