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

November 27, 2013

Moving On

Moving On

An ATV accident changed this family farm forever.
How they learned to adapt.

By Betsy Freese; Photos by Caroline Freese

The Sawyer family includes (from left) Lorna, Norman, Ruben (4 days old in this picture), Neal, and Lucie.

On April 19, 2012, Neal Sawyer and his father, Norman, were checking cows and installing portable electric fence in a pasture on their farm near Princeton, Iowa. They were both riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), also known as four-wheelers. On their way back to the house, there was a stretch of high-tensile fence to go through. Instead of driving to the gate, both Neal and Norman used sticks they always carried with them to lift the thick wire and then to duck under. Neal went first – lift, duck, drive. Norman was next.

“I had done it before many times,” says Norman. This time, the wire popped off his stick and caught on the throttle of the ATV, causing the machine to go wide open, full throttle. The wire then snapped back and hit Norman in the chest, pulling him backwards off the vehicle.

The ATV went roaring ahead with no rider, startling Neal. “I saw the four-wheeler fly down the hill and tip over,” he says. He raced back and saw his father on the ground. When he asked, “Are you all right?” Norman said, “I can’t feel my legs.” Neal called 911.

An ambulance couldn’t maneuver the pasture, so a medevac helicopter was summoned, landing in the field. Norman’s breathing was unsteady. He was flown to the hospital in Rockford, Illinois.

“I could feel them cutting my clothes off, but I couldn’t move,” says Norman. “I don’t remember much after that.”

No going back

Many surgeries followed; Norman was in an induced coma on life support for almost a month. His wife of 40 years, Lorna, visited every day. With the help of friends, she commuted the two hours each way from the farm.

Neal had to run the 160-cow operation on his own.

“Through that spring and summer, I managed to feed and move the cattle, but the little projects didn’t get done,” he says. Neal’s wife, Lucie, and other family members pitched in, but the future was uncertain.

“The worst thing was knowing he wasn’t going to come buzzing over the hill on his four-wheeler ever again,” says Neal.

Norman’s recovery moved slowly. After six months, he was moved to a Veterans Affairs (VA) rehabilitation unit in Minneapolis. He was defined as quadriplegic, paralyzed from the stomach down with some use of his hands.

It was in the VA unit that Norman hit his “lowest times,” he says. He knew his life would never be the same.

A computer speech therapist helped pull him out of depression by training him to use a voice-activated speech program called Dragon. It allowed him to write emails. “That has been a real salvation for him,” says Lorna.

Back home, the family was converting the house for a wheelchair, adding a ramp and an elevator. A special bed was installed with a mattress that moves at night to relieve bedsores.

Going home

Finally on March 22, 2013, almost a year after his accident, Norman moved back to the farm where he has lived since 1950. “It’s a blessing to be home,” he says, “but the low times still come. I look out the windows and can’t be out there. I’m still trying to adjust to life in a wheelchair.”

The sweetest day of spring came on June 19, 2013, when Neal and Lucie’s first child, son Ruben, was born.

By that summer, Norman had taken a spin on the zero-turn lawn mower, mowing for 20 minutes. His next goal is to drive a utility vehicle. Twice a week he goes to outpatient rehabilitation.

Norman uses the voice-activated computer program to keep track of cows on the farm. He also uses Dragon to work on QuickBooks for farm bookkeeping.

“I do all the chores and Dad keeps track of all the data,” says Neal. “He analyzes how much hay we are buying and how fast we are moving cattle.”

When Neal sees a cow in the pasture with a new calf, he sends an email to Norman, who records it.

“Every time the cows go in a new paddock, I send that to Dad,” says Neal. “I know how long of a rest the pastures are getting.”

Lessons learned

Both Norman and Neal say they have no hard feeling toward ATVs because of what happened.

“It was just an accident,” says Neal. “When we went to a grazing system, we bought brand-new four-wheelers. We had to have them.”

Neal has put 9,000 miles on his ATV in four years. “I use it all the time. I still go under poly wire because they will break, but I don’t go under high-tensile wire now.”

Norman agrees. “It was no different than getting bucked off a horse,” he says. “It would have taken me another minute and a half to go round through the gate. I should have gone around through the gate.

“I told Neal that’s the number one change we will make for sure,” Norman says. “Nobody will ever again sneak under high-tensile wire.”

Learn More

Norman Sawyer:

Neal Sawyer:

Read about Sawyer Beef at


The Dragon voice-activated speech program helps Norman Sawyer write emails.

Neal shows a high-tensile fence similar to the one involved in Norman’s accident (which only had one wire, not three).

November 25, 2013

Cold fun

An Arctic blast dropped temps to 3 degrees over the weekend, but that didn't stop our fun. On Friday night, the Indianola Veterinary Clinic unveiled its fabulous float for the Jolly Holiday Lights parade around the town square, winning the Chamber's Choice award. It wasn't easy pulling costumes on over coveralls, but they did it.

Speaking of coveralls, those were needed again on Saturday night when we cheered on the Iowa State Cyclones football team. It was the coldest kickoff in school history, but worth the layers of clothing. Big win! Hope you can find some fun in the harsh weather this week.

Dr. Brennan found out it is hard to pull a costume on over coveralls.

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November 20, 2013

Chicken coops galore!

Last month my daughter, Caroline, gave me a tour of the Iowa State University Design College where she is a student. One wing houses the architecture department. There, teams of students were swarming around tiny houses.

I looked closer. "Are those chicken coops?" I asked Caroline. "Yes."

I went into overdrive. "Who is the professor in charge? What are these for? Can I photograph them?" I was embarrassing my daughter like old times. Caroline found the information I needed and I contacted the professor, who was happy to help. A week later we had a team of people back on campus to interview, photograph, and video for Living the Country Life.

This is one hot topic for our audience.

Here are links to stories and videos. A radio show will air in a few weeks. If you do nothing else, be sure to watch the video on the first link below. It's awesome.






November 18, 2013

Brussels sprouts never die

My Brussels sprouts are the only thing left standing in the garden. What a hearty crop. I roasted this basket of sprouts with olive oil and salt for an evening snack. Bob spent too long watching football before wandering to the kitchen. "Where are the sprouts?" Gone.

November 14, 2013

Thanksgiving postcards

I love these old postcards from 1908. These are two of hundreds I found in a box in Mom's attic. Enjoy!

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November 11, 2013

Building a shed

We turned the ram in with the ewes (he's happy) and tore out his old hut. Bob is building a sheep shed in that spot, using old boards he salvaged from another farm. He seems to know what he's doing. I don't ask too many questions. All I know is the two metal quonset huts with "Wide Load" painted on the ends that he's been using for 15 years are going to the dump. Yippee.

November 8, 2013


Caroline is a sophomore in the Design College at Iowa State University. Her paintings, including this self portrait, were selected to hang in the gallery of the Memorial Union on campus this fall. If you visit campus, stop by and take a look!

She is also taking a metal class. Her pendant of the back end of a pig is at the bottom. I love art!


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November 7, 2013

Throwback Thursday

Guess the year. I love the guy to the right with the unsnapped shirt. Classy.

I want to build a slideshow of your throwback photos to feature on our site. Send them to Thanks!

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November 4, 2013

Fall color

Fall color has peaked on our Iowa farm. I harvested the last few cabbages and made a giant bowl of cole slaw. In the front lawn, in a circle around our sign, I dug a trench and planted 140 tulip bulbs. I did not rake leaves; high winds on Sunday blew most of them into the ditch or across the road. Maybe next weekend I will rake what's left. Or not.

I planted tulips in the area that is torn up. This is the first time I've grown tulips, so we shall see what appears next spring.


November 1, 2013

One year later - Christensen Farms

By Betsy Freese

The story of Bob Christensen is tragic in many ways, as is the story of anyone who dies in the prime of life. How his family and his farm business, one of the largest pork production companies in the U.S., reacted to his abrupt passing is a lesson in moving on.

On November 3, 2012, Robert Christensen, 51, founder and CEO of Christensen Farms & Feedlots, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, died of a heart attack while hunting with friends and son, Cubby, 14.

“I got a phone call from Cubby. He said, ‘Dad’s had a stroke or heart attack. He was flown out and they are taking care of him,’ ” says Mary Ann Christensen, Bob’s widow and mother of their children, Robert, Jr., (Cubby) and Kellen, 11. She soon got another call that Bob had not survived.

 “He died doing something he loved, surrounded by people he loved,” says Mary Ann. His quick death was a blessing, she says, because, “Bob would have been a horrible patient if anything debilitating had happened.”

The viewing, funeral, and burial were attended by 800 people from across the country. Farm workers drove 10 hours to come to the wake and then drove back that night to start their next shift, say Mary Ann. “It was amazing. Bob would have been embarrassed. The church was overflowing.”

As funeral plans were being made, senior management and advisors met to determine what the family-owned company of 1,000 employees producing 3.5 million hogs a year should look like both short- and long-term. They knew they had to reassure employees, many hand picked and hand groomed by Bob, to move forward.

On Monday morning there were a lot of teary eyes and uncertainty, says his younger brother Lynn. “It was reassuring to see individuals rise up, strap their boots on, and show faith in the company. That was awe inspiring.”

Lynn Christensen, or Spike, as the family calls him, ran the construction side of the business until the late 1990s, and then got a degree in architecture and moved to Denver to work as a developer. The day Bob died, Lynn knew he needed to come back to Sleepy Eye to support the family and company. “I didn’t have a choice; after all it’s a family business.”

Bob left a solid succession plan for Christensen Farms. The company continues to be family owned by Mary Ann and Lynn, with support from a strong management team and board of directors.

“After the initial chaos around the funeral it became clear we would pull together as a team,” says Mary Ann. “Spike and the senior management meshed. I decided quickly my main focus had to be on the kids.” She attends board and advisory meetings, but lets Lynn and Glenn Stolt, who was the chief financial officer at the time of Bob’s death and is now CEO, run the business.

In addition, Bob’s long-time legal counsel and close friend Gary Koch provided stability and counsel, she says. “We owe a great deal of gratitude to Gary.” He continues on as Christensen Farms’ legal counsel in addition to sitting on the board of directors.

Ups and downs
The history of Bob and Mary Ann has as many peaks and valleys as the hog market. She grew up in South Carolina and was director of research for the agriculture construction company Hog Slat when she was asked to fly to Minnesota to meet a farmer who had issues with a sow unit.

“I broke that rule and went out with a customer for a beer,” says Mary Ann. Before long she was riding in the front seat of a red pickup between Bob and Spike on her way to a “hag and stag” in New Ulm. Welcome to Minnesota, you betcha.

“Twenty two years later and a lot of ups and downs and arounds, here I am,” says Mary Ann. When the kids came, Bob, who had started raising hogs at age 12, wanted to be at home more, “but the company needed him. He couldn’t stop,” she says. A typical day found Bob calling her mid-afternoon to ask if he could bring six people home for dinner. “Six would be 16,” says Mary Ann.

“He could sit around a bonfire with his staff and drink beer, and then chew them out at work the next day,” she says. “He expected excellence. It didn’t matter if someone was his friend – there was a job to do.”

Bob went to bat for some people, she says, and “for other people he had no mercy. Done. Fired.” At the funeral, one former employee told her, “I hated him for awhile until I realized he was right.”

Staffing decisions took a personal toll on him, she says. “Many nights he agonized over things. If someone wasn’t cutting it, it was very hard for him. Those are tough decisions. My father kept business and social very separate. Here it was pleasure and business, beer on the patio. Bob and I had heated arguments about it and he ignored what I said.”

The most stressful time, she says, was a decade ago when Bob was designing Triumph Foods, the first farmer-owned pork packing plant in the U.S. “Triumph was a struggle because nobody had done it,” says Mary Ann. “Bob did not want to be on the bleeding edge; he was a quick adopter, but didn’t want to be the first one. He analyzed it to the nth degree times 50,000, but once he made up his mind he moved forward and had fun. Getting to the point to push the go button -- that was the worst.”

The stress took its toll on their marriage. Bob and Mary Ann separated for three and a half years and then reconciled. “We got along much better when we were separated,” says Mary Ann. “He lived in New Ulm and I lived here with the kids.” They got back together, she says, “Once we figured out, as all couples do, how much information to share.” She didn’t want to hear about Christensen Farms 24-7 and it wasn’t healthy for him to work night and day.

Hard driving
Lynn Christensen remembers the hard-driving days when he and Bob were building Christensen Farms. “In the early days we frequently started at the crack of dawn and ended at midnight in the bank building [home of their first office], discussing ongoing activities and planning until 2 a.m., and then we got up at 6:00 and did it again.”

The goal was to build the best infrastructure for pork production in the industry, one that would remain long-term, says Lynn. “Everybody just fell into Bob’s vision. We all had an area of specialty. It was never about making money quickly and then departing the industry. The buildings, genetics, feed, and contract growers were all hand picked.”

Since Bob’s death, Lynn has visited the company farms, touring dozens of sites, some originals he helped build in the early 1990s. The company today is still “like a large family,” he says.

Mary Ann has stacks of letters sent to her after Bob’s death detailing the extent he went to help farmers. “The bottom line was it was not all about money for Bob,” she says. “We have fabulous growers who needed a hand and are good people. Bob did what it took to get buildings for them. They told us, ‘We were in low point in the farming cycle and Bob signed for us.’ We got letter after letter like that.”

Bob was the visionary, did most of the risk management work, and was chairman of the board at Triumph. Those roles are not easily replaced.

“With Bob being such an influential leader, how we bridge that gap is important,” says Stolt. “We want to continue to grow the family business. Bob operated on the premise that we can always do better. He tested every approach and looked at everything with a critical eye.”

It’s inbred in the culture of Christensen Farms to strive for excellence, says Stolt. “Even though Bob is no longer with us, that will live on. This industry will continue to change. We must be nimble and flexible.” Challenges, he says, include:

1. Diseases such as porcine epidemic diarrhea. Biosecurity has to be tight on farms.
2. Animal activists trying to harm the industry.
3. Decreasing labor pool.
4. Trade issues and pork consumption. “We need to produce a quality, safe pork product that’s in demand.”
5. Regulations that make production more expensive.
6. Age of barns and assets.

Mary Ann and Lynn are focused on retaining Christensen Farms as a family-owned business. “We have a great deal of confidence in the management team to continue to grow and expand the business for future generations,” says Lynn. His two children are too young to be involved. Mary Ann’s children are still getting over the loss of their father.

“It’s hard on the kids,” she says. “They hear the door open and think Dad’s home. Cubby says he misses seeing Dad coming over the hill in his white truck – fast, late, and on his phone.”

She cries. “We’ve had overwhelming support. The saddest thing for me is that Bob isn’t getting to watch it happen. He’s probably up there laughing.” More tears.

“You either get stuck in sad or get stuck in glad,” says Mary Ann. “We are moving forward, but I’d give anything to have him back.”

More Info
Write to Mary Ann at

To read, “A Farmer with Big Ideas: How Bob Christensen Changed the Pork Industry,” go to:

To download the 2013 Pork Powerhouses, go to:

The Christensen family includes (from left) Kellen, 11, Mary Ann, Cubby, 14, Laura, Emma, 3, Lynn (Spike), and Joshua, 5.

Bob Christensen 1961-2012