Listening to the Heartland

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The shades of grey belonging to dusk matured with each mile we drove through the gentle rolling hills.  The huge expanses of cornfields on either side of the two-lane road darkened quickly.  According to the navigation system on my car we had five miles to go. I hate to arrive anywhere in the dark with the kids, so I hoped the sky would hold the last bit of light until we got there.

Drizzle dotted the windshield. A turn, and the paved road became dirt. My heart quickened when the navigation system screen displayed an announcement – something about the road not being recognized.

My nervousness was immediately replaced with relief when I saw the antique orange tractor that Dwight told us to look for.

Months ago, I began looking for a family farm stay somewhere in the Midwest. I visited websites, read reviews of different farms, narrowed down the choices and finally selected Spring Valley Bed and Breakfast in Knoxville, Iowa, owned by Dwight and Arlene …

… Who immediately came and introduced themselves. They invited us into their house for cookies. I felt like I walked onto the set of a TV show – we were in a tidy, yet homey kitchen, sitting at the table covered by a floral tablecloth with a plate of cookies in the middle.  Still warm from the oven – chocolate with thin coat of sugar on the outside, peanut butter inside.

After a great night’s sleep, I awoke to the sound of cows mooing, goats bleating, roosters crowing and the sight of a bright blue Iowa sky.  It was like the Playskool toy come to life; an arrow in the center spins and stops – pointing to a farm animal. You pull the string and the toy makes the noise of the designated animal as the arrow spins again.

I stayed in bed, amused for some time identifying which animal made which sound.  I woke the kids up, telling them to listen.

Sally, wild tangle of bed head and big braces smile, said, “Cows!”

After a eating the huge breakfast Arlene made, Dwight led us outside so the kids could tear up the two extra pancakes and feed them to eager goats.

Dwight had grown up on this farm as a boy and knows every inch of the spread.  He took us for a tour of the farm, in a 4-wheel-drive, rugged, Jeep-type vehicle.  Stopping to pick pink clovers for us to eat, explaining how he makes the huge bales of hay for the animals, and giving us a lesson in Corn 101.

We learned that Iowans call what we eat off a cob, sweet corn, and much of what we saw growing is not sweet corn, but corn used for ethanol or corn syrup.

We picked an ear of corn and Dwight explained how all that silky stuff we shuck away is vital. Each individual thread is connected to a kernel and is the direct line, like an umbilical cord, for bringing nutrients from the pollen which comes from the top of the stalk.

We also learned that every cob has an even number of rows on it – never odd.

As we drove on Wyatt, sitting in the front next to Dwight, said, “Is this science today mom?”

“Yes” I answered.

In the afternoon, Dwight took us fishing on a pond on the farm property.  He patiently helped put worms on hooks, untangle lines, and give gentle pointers. Janey caught the first fish! A bass.

We headed back, with Dwight making a quick stop to let the miniature donkey, Sierra, out of the barn on the way to feed the goats, and collect eggs in the chicken coop.

For dinner, Payton built a fire in the fire pit. The kids and I roasted hot dogs and made s’mores. Something we’ve done in Newport Beach countless times. But here, in rural Iowa, there was no salty ocean air mixed in with the crackling of the flames.  No sand between our toes, no sound of waves crashing on the shore.

Instead, beyond the glowing flames was the heart of America. Acres of corn and soybeans; sycamore, walnut, and oak trees. Ponds, fields of clover, open prairie, wooded areas filled with wild deer and turkey.

We were happy to share the smell of the campfire with the roosters, goats, peacocks, cows, donkeys, cows, llama and farm cats.

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  1. Great description of a farm stay! You mentioned you researched your farm. For others interested in staying on a working farm or ranch, we launched a website a year ago called Farm Stay U.S. ( now there are over 900 of us on it, and the number is growing. We cover all 50 states and even the U.S. Territories. It is our desire to host guests as a way to educate about what we do, at the same time providing a fun-filled family vacation. The food never tasted so good and the stars never shined so brightly as a trip to the country to stay on a farm!