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

March 28, 2017

Good Neighbors

Our dear neighbor Bill Hulen died at age 82 last week. Bill and his wife, Sharon, lived next door for 30 years. We moved to our small farm in 1987 and realized quickly that we hit the jackpot. Bill and Sharon were kind, generous, and understanding.

Bill helped us get into the sheep business. When we went on vacation he fed our flock. When we were lambing he came over several times a day to assist the ewes while Bob and I worked. 

Bill and Sharon loved to garden and shared all their produce with us. Bill's gourds and tomatoes were tremendous. 

The best thing Bill and Sharon did for our family was spend time with our three children. Our kids knew they could walk over there if they wanted to talk. "I'm going over to Bill and Sharon's," they would say, often after they got into trouble or were frustrated. I'm not sure what they talked about over there, but it always helped. Bill was a retired high school teacher and coach. He knew what he was doing.

Our oldest son, Nowlan, summed it up best: "Bill was the nicest neighbor anyone could ask for. It meant a lot that he was always there for our family, whether that was to lend a hand with the sheep or listen to my stories - as a child and as an adult."

Good neighbors are better than gold.

Bill (right) and Bob walking through our alfalfa field a few years ago. 

Bill made us a birdhouse from a gourd.

Bill was a sheep whisperer.

Bill and Sharon (front) joined us for a picnic.


February 24, 2017

Moving a mailbox

For the first 20 years we lived on our small farm in Iowa it didn't bother me that our mailbox was on the other side of our road. The only thing across from us was a field of corn and the road wasn't busy. In fact, the area was wild enough that coyotes built dens in the field and woke us up at 3:00 a.m. feeding their yelping pups.

Eight years ago, the land was sold for development. Quickly, a huge retirement home went up directly across from our lane. Our mailbox looked like it was a part of the retirement complex and we often got their mail by mistake. Next, several medical clinics went up, followed by a giant YMCA. A hotel, gas station, and restaurant are being built now. So long, coyotes.

Traffic on our road is intense. Crossing to the mailbox during the evening commute was impossible. I started waiting until 8:00 at night to get a safe gap in the cars and trucks. Our older neighbors had it even worse, as their acreage is directly across from the medical clinic and YMCA. They were scared to get their mail, too. They had called the post office a year earlier and been told they couldn't move their mailbox. The route was set. 

A few weeks ago, I called and asked for the postmaster. I told him we were risking our lives to cross the road, and we must move the mailboxes to our side. He said he would check with the driver. The next day, he called to say we could make the move. Thank goodness. We didn't waste time. February has been so mild that the ground wasn't frozen and Bob could dig the hole. 

Life is full of small victories. Not having to cross the road to get the mail is one of mine. I wrote about it on Twitter and immediately heard from someone who said, "How do I get that done so my 87-year-old father doesn't have to cross the road?" Talk to the postmaster and insist, I said.

When Bob was digging the hole, the letter carrier pulled up with our mail. "I'm so glad you are doing this," he said. "I don't know why we didn't make this change five years ago."

Welcome to our side of the road, Mr. Mailbox.


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February 15, 2017

Demonstration Day

I was asked to send in a recipe to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Calvert (Maryland) Boys and Girls 4-H Club. They are creating a cookbook from past and present members. 

You can tell by my outfit and hair that this photo is from the 1970s. I made that recipe dozens of time in preparation for Demonstration Day. I dreaded that day every year, but it did give me wonderful practice at public speaking and I have used the experience in my career.

7 Layer Bars


1/4 cup butter

1 cup of graham cracker crumbs

1 cup shredded coconut

1 cup chopped nuts

1 6-ounce package chocolate chips

1 6-ounce package butterscotch chips

1 can sweetened condensed milk

  • Preheat oven to 350° degrees F.
  • Melt butter; pour into the bottom of a 9 x 12 baking pan.
  • Pour graham cracker crumbs over butter; pat down.
  • Add the coconut, nuts, chocolate chips, and butterscotch chips in layers.
  • Pour the can of sweetened condensed milk over the top.
  • Bake at 350 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes until top is golden.
  • Cool completely and cut into bars.

Speaking of public speaking, my husband, Bob, and I visited our oldest son, Nowlan, in North Carolina and sat in on his genetics demonstration to high school students.

I title the photo above, "When Mom makes you stand in front of your research poster for a picture."


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January 20, 2017

Shop work on special project

Our farm shop is home to an exciting project this month. We are providing work space for the Des Moines Metro Opera to paint the set for the opera Soldier Songs, to be performed at Camp Dodge on January 27, 28 and 29. This one-act opera by American composer David T. Little, is a multimedia event that combines elements of theater, opera, rock-infused concert music and videography to explore the loss of innocence and the difficulty of expressing the truth of war. 

Adam Crinson is the set designer, and he has been living in our shop and painting the set pieces. We have really enjoyed watching the process happen and getting to know Adam. 

Every spare inch of the shop is full of set pieces.

The final set will look something like this. (Illustration by Des Moines Metro Opera.) I can't wait to see the production!


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December 28, 2016

Field Work

I visited my parents on their Maryland farm at Christmas and helped Dad cover the strawberries for winter. First, he used his Haybuster to blow on old straw. 

Next, we covered the rows with white tarp and anchored with sand bags. This is done mainly for deer control. The deer were eating the leaves and punching holes in the black plastic.

A lifetime of farming shows in Dad's hands at the kitchen table.

Mom and Dad prepare a hearty breakfast.

Happy New Year to all! 


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December 14, 2016

Getting Cozy on the Farm

The first snow of winter is greeted with joy. The tenth snow not so much, but for now we enjoy. I bundled up and grabbed photos of the sheep, who were not fazed by the white stuff and looked at me as if to say, "Where's our fresh hay?"

My daughter, Caroline Freese, held a pop-up art sale in my dining room last weekend.

This is Caroline's latest piece of art -- a collage portrait of her best friend, Lauren, in a snow storm on Welch Avenue in Ames, Iowa, made entirely of pieces of costume jewelry.

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December 1, 2016

Bird's-Eye View

Drones are a wonderful technology for seeing your property. These drone photos (thanks to David Ekstrom at our sister publication Successful Farming) show the vast amount of water already backing up into our wetlands. 

Half of my family's 400-acre farm is enrolled in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program for the next 10 years. We haven't done any dirt work on berms yet, but beavers built a dam in the ditch and have backed up water in the wetlands. Here are before and after photos to compare the property in July and on November 30.

This is looking south. The area to the south of the east-west ditch will be wetlands in 2017. 

The beaver dam is on the left.

This is looking north. The field flooding north of the ditch is not all in the wetlands area, unfortunately.


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November 17, 2016

Wetlands Project: Busy as Beavers

Our family enrolled the most flood-prone 200 acres of our farm in the Wetland Restoration part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The project runs for 10 years. Work has begun to turn this area, which long ago was a natural wetlands before farmers settled the area, into a wetlands once again. The program allows us to seed native grasses and forbs until the ground is frozen this winter and up until July 1, 2017. It may take that long to find a dry spell in this naturally soggy area. The problem with doing any work on a wetlands is obvious – it’s often too wet to get in there. 

Some of the corn could not be harvested because the area is already too wet, thanks to a beaver family that built a dam on our property line. It's almost like they heard about our plans and said, "Let us do the work for you." 

This corn may not get harvested.

You can see the beaver dam in the middle of this photo. Water in the ditch has backed up into the field on both sides. We plan to leave the dam alone this winter.

The field from another angle, as it's being harvested. The combine in this photo is heading toward the beaver dam, which is on the east side of our property line.

The beavers are helping us remove scrub trees. We really need to put a trail camera on these guys.

This is why the deer are so fat in Iowa! The combine misses quite a bit. 


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November 10, 2016

Influencers Dinner

Saturday night I was honored to be a guest at an Influencers Dinner in New York City. The Influencers Dinner is a secret dining experience started in 2009 by behavior expert and social engineer Jon Levy. Twelve thought leaders, tastemakers, and influencers from various industries attend each dinner.

During the course of the experience they are not allowed to discuss their professional career or share their last name. The dinner has a community design where Jon guides all attendees through the preparation of the meal. Once seated and eating, guests take turns guessing what their fellow attendees do professionally.

The attendees at my meal included the CEOs of tech companies, writers, comedians, TV news anchors, doctors, and more. After dinner, additional guests, including Jenna Wolfe and Stephanie Gosk, joined us for networking, conversation, and a few presentations (one from comedian and TV producer, Larry Wilmore).

You can read about the dinner in the New York Times and Business Insider.

I was in charge of preparing and cooking the meat for the meal. My first helper was Pat Kiernan, morning anchor for NY1 News.

My second helper was Tim Hwang, founder and CEO of FiscalNote.

Our host, Jon Levy, is at the head of the table. Comedian and writer/producer Larry Wilmore is across from me. 

After dinner, more guests arrived to discuss issues ranging from health, food, art, and relationships. Jon told us all about his new book.

It was a fascinating experience!

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    October 31, 2016

    Autumn red and green

    That day of the year when your trees match your barn.

    The lawn has been green for so long this year, Bob had to upgrade his mower.

    Raccoons have invaded our barn, so Bob set a live trap. Gotcha.

    We took Mr. Coon to our corn farm and let him out in this field. 

    We've had a frost or two, so Bob let the ewes into the alfalfa.

    I'm getting my favorite room in the house, the cozy library, ready for winter projects (or just winter reading).



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