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

January 13, 2016

A trip to Africa

Caroline spent three weeks in Ghana, Africa, with Iowa State University over the holiday break. The small group of students studied Ghanaian indigenous arts and crafts, focusing on the production processes. They also visited historic landmarks and wildlife preserves. Below are a few of her photos with her descriptions. I think it is so important for young people to travel and see the world. I'm glad she chose this trip.

This is Cape Coast Castle, a slave castle on the coast of Ghana that has been there for around 500 years. The castle was a midway point for slaves to be held before getting on the boats for the Americas. The castle’s balcony looks out over the ocean and you can see fishing boats coming in and going out. The tour of the castle was very emotional; most of us stayed silent and respected the historical significance of the slave castle on society. The tour ended with everyone going out the “Door of no return” to the ocean. On the other side, the fishing village is full of life. People are patching netting, getting ready to push out, and bringing in the day's catch.

Today, we went to the Kente Village of Adanwomase. Kente is a royal and sacred cloth made of interwoven strips of cotton and silk fabric. We were told of kente's rich history in Ghana and given demonstrations of processes to start a weave. We toured their workshops where there were many looms and men working. They were so fast, and the sound of the shuttles was entrancing. Our guides taught us how to properly wear the kente cloth.

This is the Kumasi Central Market, the largest open-air market in all of west Africa. To make sure we didn't get lost in the carnage of people, a guide took us through the stalls. From a balcony, the market is a sea of rooftops to the edge of the horizon. It is divided into sections: fabrics, beads, foods, spices, and others (including voodoo items). We wove through the narrow lanes, between people carrying their purchases on their heads, and around a medley of aromas we were told not to mention.

[A week after they visited, the Kumasi market suffered a fire that burned about 400 shops. The yam-sellers portion of the market was the most affected.]

Dancing was a part of most visits to the villages in Ghana.

Caroline's post on December 25:

Merry Christmas from Ghana. I got attacked by a baboon! No injuries, but I lost my biscuits. After a lunch of pineapple, watermelon, and carrot soup, we were meandering back to our hotel room when a baboon came out of nowhere and ran straight for us. We all decided the safest thing to do was run back into the fenced area, but the barbed wire proved to be of little use against a hungry baboon. He jumped right between the wires and continued to run straight for us. At this point I went into primal mode and ditched the other girls and started to run for myself. Blindly running, I did not realize the baboon was coming after me the whole time. I felt a hard tug on the black bag I was carrying that had a package of biscuits. The baboon snatched up the package, shoved it in its mouth, and ran off into the bush. At this moment I realized, after years of working with animals on my parent's farm, I still didn't know everything, such as what to do when a baboon is chasing me. Lesson learned firsthand.

Even so, I did get to enjoy Christmas morning sitting by the poolside reading a book Grandma gave me for Christmas. Everyone joined (even some warthogs), and soaked up some Ghanian sun before our afternoon safari walk.

Mole National Park is the largest wildlife sanctuary in Ghana, and one of the best places anywhere in West Africa for game viewing. The park has two man-made “dumps” where there is water year-round, even during the dry season (October-March). This allows the animals to have access to water, and means they can be found by guides. Our guide led us down the steep hillside behind the motel into the savanna below. We walked for half and hour before we found a herd of five elephants (four large males and one small male). The elephants were so large and majestic, walking through the trees so graciously, hardly making a sound. It was really a spectacular Christmas, and I hope my family had a very Merry Christmas as well!

Caroline managed to find a pig farm in Ghana (she did not bring the shoes she was wearing back to the U.S.). These little guys look fairly modern.

Back home in our kitchen safe and sound.


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January 6, 2016

Iowa Caucus Time

Iowa is full of politicians leading up to our first-in-the-nation vote on February 1. If a candidate of either party comes to a coffee shop, pizza place, or pub near me I try to go.

Last week, my oldest son, Nowlan, his wife, Daniella, and two friends joined me to hear Chris Christie. He was speaking at an Irish pub, so we got there early, grabbed a corner booth, ordered some brews and nachos, and played cards while we waited. He packed in an overflow crowd and the event became a bit of a turning point for his campaign.

You can read the New York Times story about the stop here. There is a photo of us listening to Governor Christie's answer to my question on how to improve the economy.

I have also met Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. More to come before Iowa Caucus time. It's going to be interesting.

In Waukee, Daniella Freese, left, and Betsy Freese, second from left, listened as Mr. Christie responded to a question at a town-hall-style event. Mr. Christie’s meetings are stripped-down, unfussy affairs. Credit Mark Kauzlarich for The New York Times

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December 29, 2015

Spin Doctor

For Christmas, I gave Bob a turn table called the Spin Doctor, made by Sydell in South Dakota. It was really a present for both of us. In the past, while Bob trimmed feet on the sheep I had to hold their legs from kicking. The task was hard on his back and dangerous for me as the ewes thrashed around.

With this special chute, the ewe (or ram, in these photos) is squeezed and turned on its side for treatment.

Bob is grinding a bad foot on one of our Hampshire rams.

Rear view of the Spin Doctor. Or spin doctors.

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December 21, 2015

Citizens of the Year

(Photo by Lisa Tome, Rising Sun Herald)

Congratulations to my parents for being named Citizens of the Year by the Calvert (Maryland) Grange!

You can read the story here:

I look at this December photo and marvel at the green grass. The weather has been so warm this winter. I hope Dad's strawberries don't start blooming!

We dropped Caroline at the airport at 4:00 a.m for a trip to Ghana, Africa, with Iowa State University. She will be there for three weeks studying sustainable design techniques and more. Create your adventure!

Have a wonderful 2016, dear readers.

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December 16, 2015

Winter Work

So far, winter is a muddy mess. This photo was taken before we had 3 inches of rain in a day. Middle River by our farm is out of its banks and the main road I take into Des Moines is shut down all week due to Raccoon River flooding. I guess we should be happy the moisture isn't snow, although frozen ground and snow is better for livestock.

Meanwhile, Bob is working on projects in the shop. Here, he and his business partner, Brian, are sanding shelves for the veterinary clinic. The clinic is being remodeled and expanded, a huge job that seems to never end. Here's to a peaceful 2016!

Mowing the grass in Iowa on December 7. Weird. This was the view from my office before the big rains.

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December 7, 2015

Best Fruitcake Recipe

This moist fruitcake, made by Ruth Ann Johnson (my mom) in Maryland, is delicious. If you think you hate fruitcake, you may love this one. The recipe dates back to 1870 in Mom's family. Her mother and grandmother made fruitcakes each year, usually the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Mom ships them around the country to relatives and friends, including to me in Iowa.

Here is the recipe.

Grandma's Fruitcake

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 1/2 cups raisins

1 cup light raisins

1 cup currants

3/4 cup chopped figs

1 1/3 cups chopped dates

2 cups diced candied fruit

1/2 cup frozen pitted tart red cherries, thawed

1/2 pound butter (1 cup)

1 cup sugar

5 egg yolks

1 cup blackberry wine

1/2 cup backberry or raspberry jelly

1/4 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla

5 egg whites

Pecan halves and whole candied fruit for decorations


Step 1: Grease two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans. Line bottom and sides with brown paper (prevents overbrowning); grease paper.

Step 2: Stir together flour and cinnamon. Add fruits; mix till well coated.

Step 3: In a large mixer bowl, beat butter with electric mixer about 30 seconds. Add sugar and beat till fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat till combined. Add wine, jelly, orange juice, lemon juice, and vanilla. Beat on low speed till combined (batter will look curdled). Stir in flour and fruit mixture.

Step 4: In a small mixer bowl, beat egg whites till stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites into fruit mixture. Turn batter into prepared pans. Top with pecan halves and whole candied fruit, if desired.

Step 5: Bake in a 300° oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove from pans, cool completely. Wrap in clear plastic wrap and store in refrigerator for a day before serving. Makes 24 servings.

December 1, 2015

Getting Ready for Christmas

Caroline helped me string lights on the fence around the grove. It takes many, many strands. Most are in knots, even though I bundle them carefully after Christmas. A few strands are burned out each year, so I buy a few more. The lights are a welcome sight for me coming home from work in the dark.

Next job on the list: Cut the tree. Caroline did all the work, sawing and hauling. The tree farm is next door, so we get the fresh tree in the stand within 20 minutes of cutting it.

The tree looks simple and lovely. We decided to just decorate with a single, long string of lights this year. Our two young (half-wild) cats scattered ornaments across the living room last year.

Here is Mickey, waiting for his plate at Thanksgiving.

My favoritie holiday habitat.


November 23, 2015

Cold Weather Flocking

It sounded like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds. The morning before a winter storm blew in and dumped 4 inches of snow on our Iowa farm (a foot of snow in northern Iowa), blackbirds swarmed our place, moving from tree to tree. The racket was incredible and the droppings in the barnyard thick after they left.

Bob has been working cattle, vaccinating calves, pregnancy checking cows. He took these two photos. The first shows Wayne Hunerdosse, 90, in the center. He still helps move cattle through the chute on his farm by Medora, Iowa.

Below, farm dog Bennett keeps an eye on each calf coming through the chute for fall vaccinations.


November 18, 2015

Fall Festivities

Caroline came home from college to help me with the annual brunch and bingo to benefit Des Moines Metro Opera. It was a sold-out crowd and great fun. Our small Indianola guild raised more than $5,000 for the opera.

A few of my friends and family at the event.

This is not an endorsement. I'm not sure who I will support in the Iowa caucus from either party (I am a moderate and change parties now and then), but I try to see every candidate who visits our town. This time it was Bernie Sanders. He promised free college for all, which made the students in the crowd happy.

Bob hasn't made up his mind about the Iowa Caucus candidates, either. He listens to talk radio while fixing the old hay rake.

This newborn Zebu calf was in the hot box at the vet clinic.

"Hello, ladies." We turned the rams out with the ewes. Lambs due in April.

We've had such a mild fall I didn't pick the last of my tomatoes until this week. I guess I need to find a recipe for fried green tomatoes.

I just finished a three-year term on the public library friends board. Great group of people. Libraries are changing rapidly as technology changes. Keep reading!

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November 10, 2015

Storing up for winter

Bob is washing all the farm equipment and storing it in the big machine shed on our crop farm for winter. He has to drive the tractors down a stretch of the four-lane highway leading to Des Moines and I try to follow him closely with my hazard lights blinking. Commuters can be so rude and dangerous to farmers in slow-moving equipment.

That time you washed the manure spreader without a mask. And then wanted a ride in my car.

A bin-busting corn crop at the local co-op.

Soybeans on our farm near Middle River. These pods are on high ground, but some of the bottom acres flooded when the river went out of its banks last summer. USDA numbers show Iowa farmers smashed the soybean production record this year. The harvest of nearly 550 million bushels will beat 2005 by 25 million bu. Average yields were 56 bu/acre.

Caroline took this photo of a leucistic squirrel on the Iowa State University campus. It's not an albino squirrel, which would be entirely white with pink eyes. This one just has rare white fur.

I attended a swine disease seminar at Iowa State University. Here are my exciting updates on pig health!

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