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 18, 2014

Filming a birth

We captured some nice video last night, mainly by chance. David Ekstrom, a video producer for Living the Country Life and Successful Farming, came down to our farm to take video of our lambs. Two of the final six ewes yet to give birth decided to go into labor while David was there. He filmed Bob pulling a lamb, milking the ewe, and tubing lambs. Sweet.

We also tagged some lambs, gave vaccinations, banded tails, and trimmed hooves. Look for David's videos on next week.

April 15, 2014

Sowing oats (not wild)

We had torrents of rain over the weekend, but not before Bob sowed the oats (cultivated, not wild) and tilled my garden. YAY. We needed the rain.

I planted carrots, endive, and spinach. (It might be too early for spinach.) This weekend I am planting potatoes and onions.

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April 10, 2014

The harsh reality of raising livestock

When I got home from work last night, my husband, Bob, and son, Warren, were heading to the barn with grim expressions. A ewe was down behind the barn. She was hugely pregnant and lying on her side, moaning and straining. This was no normal labor. I can't exaggerate the distension of her body.

Bob, who is a veterinarian, prepped for an immediate c-section. One, two, three, four big lambs, all healthy, were pulled from her uterus. I cleaned off the lambs while Bob euthanized the ewe. She had ruptured her abdominal cavity hours before. Carrying quads of that size to term was too much.

We got the lambs under a heat lamb and used a stomach tube to fill their bellies with colostrum mixed from a powder. I tried to teach them how to suck a bottle.

Bob sees these kinds of things daily in his job as a vet. I am more traumatized by them. I couldn't fall asleep last night, thinking of that good ewe. We raise all of our ewes, so she had been in our herd her whole life. She was certainly one of our best ewes, carrying big quads who were kicking and squirming to be born.

Now I have four bottle lambs. We may sell them on Saturday at the local livestock auction.

You don't know what is involved in raising livestock until you do it. Just like giving birth, I guess.

Three males and one female in this set of orphaned quads.

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April 8, 2014

Compost It

The work around our small farm this time of year may look nasty and smell nasty, but it's all good. Actually, I was standing on the top of the compost pile to take some of the photos and the smell was mild. Once that stuff cooks for a year it's no different that the bagged compost you find at the garden store. Our fields love it.

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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