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

September 9, 2014

Tillage radishes are growing

I challenged readers to a "Biggest Tillage Radish" contest this fall. I planted a few seeds in my garden in August. The plants are up and growing. I'll wait until November to pull them for measuring. The goal of tillage radishes really isn't to grow the biggest, but to grow a uniform cover crop. They break up soil compaction. You can see more info here:

We grew a whole field of radishes and turnips last fall. (That field is in alfalfa this fall.) Our sheep grazed there in November and December. They ate so many they were burping radishes. They also got a little fat on them.

If you grow a big radish or other cover crop this fall, send a photo to



September 2, 2014

Harvest time

Janis Gandy, our copy editor, made these delicious apple desserts for the office. Yummy.

My harvest this week was butternut squash. Some of them aren't fully ripe, but the squash beetles killed the vines. I will cut them in half, clean out the seeds, bake them and fill with brown sugar and butter.

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August 28, 2014

Straighten a tree, farmer style

My peach tree fell over two months ago during a storm, but didn't die. I propped it up on portable fence panels. The tree was heavy with fruit, so I waited until after peach season and after we got several inches of rain to straighten it altogether. Nowlan pushed it up and Bob used steel posts, rubber panels from an old hog barn, and cable to hold it in place.

How to straighten a tree using random farm material:


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August 26, 2014

Seeding alfalfa and oats

Bob seeded alfalfa with a nurse crop of oats on Aug 14th. It only took a few days, thanks to rain, for the crop to emerge. You can see the difference a few days makes in the photos below.

Why the oats? Grasses provide better snow catch and insulation than alfalfa stubble alone, so alfalfa crowns are better protected from winter injury. See more here:

These photos were taken just a few days apart.

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August 18, 2014

Fresh Produce Tour

Last week I visited research farms in Woodland, California, as part of Seminis (Monsanto) Vegetable Seeds Field Days. It was fascinating to learn how seeds are bred, grown, processed, and marketed. I'll share my photos with some veggie and fruit tips.

We tasted dozens of tomatoes in a quest for the perfect variety, which turns out is a matter of taste. Some are sweeter, some firmer, and some have more acidity.

In general, cherry tomatoes have the most flavor punch.

These tangerine-colored tomatoes were my favorites in the field.

We tasted several types of watermelon picked fresh from the field. The melon on the right is an Extended Quality Watermelon, grown for the "cut market" and food service industry. It has less leakage than the traditional seedless variety on the left.

In the U.S., 80% of the watermelons sold are seedless varieties (being cut in the photo). However, Central and South America still prefers seeded (left). Some people swear that the old-fashioned seeded watermelons have more flavor. To see if a melon is ripe, look at the bare spot on the rind where there are no stripes. That spot should be yellow, not white. However, it could be overripe if it's yellow.

Melon breeder Jeff Mills is holding an Orange Beauty personal-sized melon, traditionally grown for the French market. It's being introduced to the U.S. in Sam's Club as melorange. Delicious.

Cucumber breeder Nischit Shetty is holding the ideal size pickling cucumber, a 3A, grown mainly in the Midwest U.S. It can be machine sliced and diced, or pickled whole. They are harvested by machine. Smaller "gherkin" cucumbers have to be harvested by hand every day, and are too labor intensive for U.S. growers. They are mainly grown in South America and Asia.

These are sweet banana peppers in a research field. They are great for frying, pickling and cutting into pepper rings for salads and sandwiches.

If you wonder why red tomatoes in the store taste bland, it's because they are picked at this ripeness for shipping.

This was a small part of the fabulous vegetable aisle at the Nugget grocery store we toured in Davis, CA.

Squash breeder Bill Johnson confirmed what I feared: "Zucchini are not vitamin packed. They are really just bags of water." Pick them every day and don't let any get too large or the plant will stop producing new squash.

For more information on vegetable and fruit varieties, go here:





August 11, 2014

State Fair!

I took a tour around the ag side of the Iowa State Fair on Friday and then worked with Caroline in the Iowa Sheep Industry Association food stand. Food options included a Greek sandwich with seasoned lamb on warm pita bread, a lamb kabob with onions and peppers, and a leg-of-lamb sandwich with thin slices of fresh grilled lamb. Everything was delicious. I was surprised at how many people came up to the stand to ask for a sample of lamb. They had never tasted the meat.

If you get a chance, visit a fair near you and eat some local lamb, pork, beef, or poultry. Support your farmers!

I checked out the new machinery from the sky ride.

These FFA kids had their muscle-bound pigs trained well. I've never seen wider swine.

The attentive audience for this dairy show was behind the camera. These cows were perfectly trained.

Caroline gets a close look at the second biggest boar at the fair.

Give fresh lamb a try!


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August 5, 2014

Keeping Up Appearances

The last time we painted our house, Bob rented a cherry-picker and hired a neighbor to help him. That was probably 10 years ago. It's a big job -- we have a tall house with 100 years of paint to scrape. This time we hired a crew of college kids. They are on day four with another to go. I think it was more house than they originally expected.

We feel the pressure to keep up appearances with all of the new construction around us. At the bottom is a photo of our neighborhood taken by James McConnell from a hot air balloon. We are the 36-acre farm (red barn) in the middle. We used to be surrounded by corn fields and pasture.


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July 31, 2014

Hay, hay, hay

We've had no rain in three weeks, so Bob has been Crazy Hay Man. He even baled alfalfa at two neighboring acreages.

Warren and Caroline are stacking grass hay in our pasture above. Here are some other photos of the action.

The old rake still does the job, although it broke one busy day and Bob had to stop and weld it back together. Insert choice words.

Strong women at the Indianola Vet Clinic helped Crazy Hay Man get the crop in the barn.

This is second cutting of alfalfa. Prime stuff.

Can you tell how late in the day he was playing with his hay? Hay, that rhymes.


July 25, 2014

County Fair!

Our wonderful Warren County Fair (Iowa), now in its 158th year, is underway and I entered vegetables and flowers this year. I was most nervous about the flowers, because I had never entered before. Here are photos and captions with some tips.

This was my assortment of flower entries, plus basil. The fair provides the glass vases, so you just have to get the flowers to the fair without crushing or breaking them.

The pink phlox won; the medium dahlias and basil were second.

Competition was tough in the daylilies, and my entries did not place. I learned good tips (you really need two flowers blooming on the day of judging, plus lots of unopened buds).

Three of my glads got blue ribbons and one got a red. Only one other person entered, which was disappointing. We had a champion glad grower in the county, but he moved to Colorado. Glads should have at least seven blooms and one-third of the plant unopened.

These were my vegetable and fruit entries. The butternut squash are not totally ripe, but you take the produce at the stage it's in. I will still eat these.

My entry in the Largest Cabbage category is weighed (12 pounds). I placed second out of three, and might have won the class if I hadn't trimmed the outer leaves. Even if they are full of insect holes, it doesn't matter in this class.

There were 10 entries in the Giant Squash competition. My zucchini was third.

The judge took the longest time deciding the red potato winner (my husband, Bob). I placed second. Bob tills the garden and provides all the sheep compost, so he enters a few things.

I won the white onion class, but did not place in yellow onions. The key with onions is DRYNESS, not size. Pull them weeks before the fair so they can dry out completely. The judge eliminates any onions that have even a tiny bit of moisture in the tops.

The Largest Potato contest was stiff. My red potato is being weighed (17 ounces). Bob's white potato (directly above) won at 17.2 ounces.

It was another great year at the fair!


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July 21, 2014

Yukon Gold

Potatoes! Who wants potatoes? Come get your potatoes!

What possessed me to plant so many? Actually, I didn't plant any more hills than in past years, but we got so much rain, and added so much sheep compost to the soil, each hill produced half a basket of spuds.

I grew the Yukon Gold variety for the first time this year and they are huge. Below is the crop I dug yesterday before the heat wave hit. I have three times that many red potatoes. Crazy. Tonight I'm sorting by size to find five of each variety to take to the county fair.