This was the fourth part of a four-day series in The Des Moines Register that examined how the decline in family farms frayed the fabric of rural life in Iowa. The series was awarded the 2000 Outstanding Achievement Award by Gannett. The award is given in recognition of the best writing in the annual competition.
March 29, 2000
A farmer dies, a widow copes
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
Manning, Ia. – In her first three hours as a farmer’s widow, Karen Christensen drew from a deep reservoir of strength.
It was the same strength that pulled her through the depths of farm life – the years when her despondent husband would barely speak, the day they remortgaged the farm, the weeks when she had no money for groceries.
Sitting in an Omaha hospital waiting room, shortly after midnight, Karen Christensen, 57, opened the front flap of a tiny Bible. Inside it, she wrote a note to a boy who will never know his grandfather.
“Your grandpa loves you more than you will ever know and so looked forward to doing things with you on the farm.”
Norman Christensen, an Iowa farmer, died in an accident while doing what he loved most: farming.
One man’s life – a complicated mix of defeat and hope, depression and resilience – symbolizes farming in Iowa.
So, too, does his death.
Life isn’t given to us all of a piece;
It’s more like a patchwork quilt.
Each hour and minute a patch to fit in
To the pattern that’s being built.
Her voice dancing lyrically, Karen Christensen begins reading the poem by Helen Lowrie Marshall to a group of sullen-faced farmers. She knows how they feel.
She survived farming’s most severe blows – including her husband’s death on Nov. 12.
On this night in February, her audience is a dozen financially strapped farmers. Karen finds strength to share her own Iowa story.
A woman from the Iowa State University Extension Service office asked Karen to speak to area farmers about how she and her husband survived the farm crisis.
Life on a farm, she tells the farmers, is like a quilt. Some colors are bright, like the joy of turning the soil in the spring, the happiness of a rain at just the right time. Other colors are dark and gray, like hail storms and drought, low prices and poor harvests.
“And it seems like when it can’t get any worse, it does,” she says.
With some patches gay – and some patches dark,
And some that seem ever so dull.
But if we were given to set some apart,
We’d hardly know which to cull.
A farm crisis that wiped out thousands of Iowa farmers in the 1980s also would prey on the Christensen farm, sitting on a hill west of Manning and nearby Manilla.
The Christensens were within one payment of paying off the farm, which they bought in 1959. With financial security cruelly within reach, cattle prices dropped. They lost$100,000 on their 1,200-head feeder cattle operation and were forced to remortgage the farm.
That was in 1981. The farm crisis would worsen. Interest rates skyrocketed. More money was lost. The Christensens canceled all their insurance, including medical, and prayed they would stay healthy.
“Those years were worse than tough. They were indescribable,” Karen recalls.
Her husband withdrew into a world of his own and spent days without uttering a word. Karen went to extremes to elicit even a smile from her husband. Several times, she wore a bright-red Bozo nose when she delivered lunch to the fields at noon.
“This is not funny. It’s a serious situation,” the ruddy-faced farmer would tell his wife. She persisted until the two ended up in laughter.
In the midst of a horrific farming economy, the family weathered another crisis: Their youngest son, Scot, died at age 24 in a motorcycle accident.
Leaning on one another, Karen says, she and her husband persevered.
“God showed us a way,” she says. “You can take the worst thing on this planet and turn it around if you just keep thinking you can.”
Karen took two jobs in town to help pay the bills. She found emotional support in a group called Compassionate Friends, which helps bereaved parents.
In Compassionate Friends, Karen began to understand the powerful emotion called grief. She would later come to learn how important those lessons were. Twelve years later, grief would wash over her again.
For it takes the dark patches to set off the light,
And the dull to show up the gay.
And somehow, the pattern just wouldn’t be right
If we took any part away.
Pheasant hunters found Norm Christensen, 59.
The farmer was conscious at the time. He had been changing a tire that afternoon, and the tractor must have slipped forward, running him over with a crushing weight.
The hunters, who were staying at the Christensens’ home, ran to the house. Karen was inside, peeling potatoes for supper. Her knife dropped to the floor when the news was delivered.
“Norm’s hurt really bad,” one hunter managed. “Dial 911. Dial 911.”
An ambulance took Norm to the Denison hospital, where a helicopter later flew him to a hospital in Omaha.
Before Karen left for Omaha, her pastor gave her a tiny Bible. She clutched it all the way there.
No, life isn’t given us all of a piece,
But in patches of hours to use,
That each can work out his pattern of life,
To whatever design he might choose.
Farmers from all over western Iowa came to the pay their respects. They came from Manning and Manilla, Denison and Defiance.
Each signed the guest book, which was actually an accounting ledger used by farmers to record things like mortgage payments, farm expenses and cattle sales.
Karen called the funeral a “celebration of life.” Vocalists sang uplifting songs.
At the end of the service, Karen felt joy. Karen, a woman who calls herself a back-pew person, stood and clapped. Everyone else did the same.
When word first spread about Norm’s accident, farmers and their wives showed up at the Christensen home within hours. They came with casseroles and salads. They offered prayers and words of comfort. They made sure the chores were done each day.
Many of the farmers will probably return in 10 days, when Karen will auction the farm machinery. She plans to stay on the farm and rent the land to other farmers.
At 7 p.m. the night before the auction, her neighbors and the auction workers will show up in her machine shed for a special church service, led by Pastor David Loeschen. Karen says the group will ask God to bless the sale.
“Everything I knew in my life is disappearing on me,” she says, then stops herself.
An eternal optimist, she wants to convey hope, not sadness. She quotes something she once read: “Life is a journey, not a warehouse.”
“These are really only things, right?” she says of the tractors, wagons and other machines parked in the field across the road from her farmhouse.
Her most treasured possessions are the simplest ones. Everywhere she goes, Karen carries them inside a small “bag of treasures.” In the bag are Norm’s eyeglasses, his comb and the last note he left her: “I’m over west moving hay.”
The tiny Bible, which one day she will give to her 20-month-old grandson, James, is in there, too. The Bible, and her inscription in it, will serve as a lasting reminder of a grandfather’s legacy on the land.
In Iowa, long known as “A Place to Grow,” James Christensen will grow up away from the farm. His parents live in eastern Iowa, where his father, Greg Christensen, is a bank vice president. Odds are that James Christensen, grandson of a farmer, will raise his children away from the farm, too.
Most Iowans are just like James – with a rural past and an urban future. In another generation, as fewer hands tend the Iowan soil, thousands more will join him.
With the passing of each generation, the memories of farm life will grow dimmer, the connection to the land weaker.
Every so often, Karen invites young children to her farm, where she still has chickens, pygmy goats and a potbelly pig. She invites the children to pet the animals and grab eggs from beneath the chickens.
“I want them to know wool comes from sheep, not from Wal-Mart. I want them to know what farmers do. I want them to know how hard farmers work to make food,” Karen says.
During their short visits to the farm, Karen knows she is passing on a legacy left by all farmers, not only by one Iowa couple.
But after the children leave, a more personal responsibility tugs at her. She wants little James to know, too.
A few days before Christmas, Karen cleaned out her husband’s closets and drawers. She pulled out dozens of work shirts, soft flannel fabric that protected her husband from the burning sun in the summer and from the bitter cold atop that hill in the winter.
She threw none of the shirts away. Instead, she stacked them in piles of mismatched colors -some of them dark, some of them gay – and carried them to the attic.
One day soon, the grandmother will take those work shirts down from the attic and make a gift for her grandson. She will cut the shirts into patches, stitch them together and make a beautiful patchwork quilt.