Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is an Executive Editor for Meredith Agrimedia, including Living the Country Life and Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and has an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, live on a farm in Iowa where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.


Twitter: betsyfreese

April 4, 2014

New baby lambs!

Lambing is underway at our place this week. So far so good, although Bob did have to perform a c-section on one young ewe. She accepted the babies after the surgery, which is always the tricky part. We have several sets of triplets already, including this cute set. That ewe did not take her eyes off me the whole time I was in the barn.

April 2, 2014

Step by Step

I had a good visit with my parents last week, as Dad continues to recover from a fall. He and Mom take daily walks up and down the lane. (Read more about Dad's farm shop brain injury here.)

It snowed twice while I was there, the last time as I drove to the airport. But the daffodils at the end of the lane are up, so spring will march forward.

Dad gets a haircut in Oxford, PA. Love those small-town barber shops, Bill (the barber) came to the farm to cut Dad's hair twice this winter.

Pets are great stress relief for caregivers. Mom and Maisie.

I met Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, in an Oxford, PA, bookstore. That is one of my favorite books and movies, so it was a pleasant surprise. Turns out he lives just a few miles from Dad.

New life at the end of the lane.


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March 25, 2014

What National Ag Day Means to Me

National Ag Day is being celebrated today, and it is a poignant celebration for my family this year. Dad suffered a brain injury when he fell in his farm shop in Maryland in January. After a month in hospitals, he is recovering steadily at home under the watchful care of my mother, but the future of the farm is uncertain.

Dad, 76, was farming full time when he had his accident, raising pick-your-own strawberries and raspberries ( He was in the fields at dawn every day hoeing weeds, moving irrigation pipe, pruning, and doing all the chores necessary to produce a top quality crop.

Now he struggles to navigate the front porch steps, and uses a cane to walk slowly to the end of the lane to get the mail. As I walked with him up the lane on Saturday, I saw my sister working in her cherry trees on the hill. She produces pick-your-own sweet cherries under high tunnels. The job of managing Dad's farm, including the finances, has now been added to her duties (she also has a full-time career in ag lending).

I live 1,100 miles away on a small farm in Iowa. All I can do for my parents is fly in every few months for moral support. If you are the "far-away" child in your family, you know what I mean.

Spring is here, and there are a multitude of chores to be done to prepare the fields for the picking season. My sister was installing row covers on Saturday, with the help of a hired crew, to keep deer from eating the strawberries. Dad has been watching the deer out the living room window, and says they are extra thin and desperate after the hard winter.

The farm's standing order for new strawberry plants was cancelled last week. The field prep and other chores with new plants are more than my sister can manage. Dad hopes to plant another variety in the fall.

Yesterday in Washington D.C. I listened to Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden speak at the kickoff for National Ag Day. Her family farm in Georgia has similar transition challenges. "I'm faced with issues a lot of farmers and ranchers are faced with," she said. "I want to make sure the farm stays in the family and stays in agriculture."

Young farmers are her special focus at USDA. "We need to make sure we have a bench in agriculture," said Harden. "It's personal for me."

Farming is personal. Celebrate National Ag Day. Hug a farmer.

March 20, 2014

Celebrating spring and farmers

Our dear copy editor, Janis Gandy, gave everyone two daffodils for their desks. It's been a long winter and we are all happy to finally see spring arrive.

Many coworkers came in my office with their flowers so we could post a thank-you photo for Janis. I took the photo from behind my desk. I won't name everyone from Successful Farming, but the woman in the middle is Diana Weesner, who is the person you will talk to on the phone if you call Living the Country Life. Next to her in purple is our apprentice, Anna McConnell, who wrote the cover story for our Early Spring issue.

Below the daffodil photo is an old photo of the Successful Farming magazine staff (no internet back then) in March 1985, celebrating Ag Day with a full table of food. I am in the middle. I notice that I didn't get a glass of milk to hold, and I don't remember eating the food.

Celebrate farmers and enjoy spring!

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March 17, 2014

How Did This All Happen?

On Saturday I gave a talk to 500 farmers entitled, "How Did This All Happen?" I didn't choose the title, but it's a good question for almost anything.

In this case, the audience was made up of pork producers in the Murphy-Brown (Smithfield Foods) contract hog growing program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. I was the first to write about the program all those years ago, back when contract feeding in Iowa was rare and highly controversial.

The headline for the story in Successful Farming (the first part is below) has haunted Conley Nelson, who still runs the program today, since it was published. He still gets teased for having the "toughest" job.

Rick McCormick, shown at left in his barn, continues to feed hogs for Murphy. The initial fears people had that the barns wouldn't survive 10 years in Iowa winters have not held true.

Contract feeding is now common across the Midwest. It's not a perfect system for everyone, but it has proven its worth to thousands of farmers.

It's not that tough of a job now, Conley. Relax.

March 12, 2014

Planting itch

Bob took this photo of me in early April last year. I was planting cabbages and kohlrabi. I can't wait to dig into our good soil again, but I think it may be delayed this spring. We had the coldest winter in 35 years in Iowa and frost is deep.

I bought my seed potatoes last week and have them in the garage. Last year I waited too long and the Yukon Gold variety was sold out in my area. I have never grown those, but people rave about them.

What are you planting this year that you have never grown before? Believe it or not, I've never grown tulips. I planted 200 bulbs last fall in the front yard. Waiting...

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March 5, 2014

Wool Removal Day

I don't care how cold it is today, that wool is coming off. I'm not sure our ewes were too happy, but how would you know? We always shear a few weeks before lambing, so the ewes come in the barn at night to give birth. The new babies don't have to fight all that dirty wool to find the udder.

David Ekstrom with Successful Farming took this shot of me in the wool bag. David was taking video of the shearing process.


March 3, 2014

What I'm giving up for Lent

"Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?... Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself."

When I was talking to Mom on Saturday she brought up this Bible verse. At church yesterday, the same scripture was the Gospel reading. I decided that was a sign.

The lesson is from Matthew 6:24-34. Jesus is speaking to his followers, who had basic necessities to worry about, like food and clothing.

I tend to worry about family. This has been a long winter of worrying. Dad spent weeks in hospitals with a brain injury from a fall, and is still recovering. Bob's dad has spent the past few weeks in hospitals with health issues. Big transitions are being required of them and of the rest of our family. I also worry about my three kids, their happiness and careers.

Here's what I'm giving up for Lent this year: Worry. I'm fasting from worry.

Care to join me?


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February 27, 2014

My Top 10 Films and Predictions

I am a movie buff, so here are my Oscar predictions just for the heck of it. I will make it a Top 10 list with the predictions inside.

10. Blue Jasmine -- Clever and depressing. I felt like I was there on screen with Cate Blanchett, living her crazy life. She wins Best Actress.

9. 12 Years a Slave -- I did not enjoy this movie (how could you?), but I was awed by the performances, so it makes my Top 10 list.

8. American Hustle -- The women (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence) were tremendous. The men, so so. The story didn't grab me as much as I hoped.

7. The Great Gatsby -- Weird, dreamy, mesmerizing. I fell for it.

6. Captain Phillips -- Tense. The last part in the lifeboat went on too long, but great acting and drama.

5. Gravity -- Loved the feeling of floating in space. The story and George Clooney were a bit looney.

4. Dallas Buyers Club -- I forgot people were acting in this movie it was so real. Jared Leto Best Supporting Actor.

3. Nebraska -- This movie nails small-town Midwest and the challenges of aging. Funny, sad. June Schibb wins Best Supporting Actress.

2. Philomena -- I loved this sweet movie. Loved Judi Dench's performance and her character's forgiving nature.

1. The Wolf of Wall Street -- I don't condone a thing in this movie, but what a wild ride. Leonardo DiCaprio wins Best Actor. Martin Scorsese is Best Director and this is my Best Picture. Judge away, but I was highly entertained.

Disclaimer: I did not see Her or August: Osage County

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February 24, 2014

5 Hot New Vet Products

I attended the Western Veterinary Conference last week with Bob and checked out the latest in new treatments for pets and livestock. This is one of the largest vet meetings in the world, with 15,000 attendees from 40 countries. Here are the most buzzed-about new products:

1. A new treatment for itching dogs. Apoquel by Zoetis will stop dogs from itching and scratching within hours. That is monumental, I was told. This product is on everyone's wish list and the company sold a year's worth of product in the first 10 days. If you have a dog that itches, get on the waiting list now.

2. A chewable that kills fleas and ticks. NexGard by Merial will kills fleas before they lay eggs and kill the disgusting American dog tick. YES. Give this soft beef-flavored chew once a month. How easy. This product is also back ordered.

3. A paint gun that shoots insectide for horn flies. VetGun by AgriLabs lets you apply a topical insecticide from as far away as 30 feet from cattle. Less stress for both man and beast. Can't wait to try this.

4. An alternative to iodine. Super 7 + Navel Dip by Vetericyn is is an umbilical cord dry-out and protective solution for newborn animals that is completely safe. Farmers and vets have long used 7% tincture of iodine as a navel dip, but it's now regulated and restricted due to its use in making meth.

5. An alternative to surgical castration. Zeuterin by Ark Sciences is made of zinc gluconate -- a natural ingredient in the body. It is delivered to dogs through an injection to the testis. Veterinarians can neuter male dogs without surgery. The result is permanent and irreversible fibrosis in the testicle rendering the dog sterile. A similar product, Testrin, is being tested by the largest pork producers as an alternative to surgical castration in pigs.