A fifth-generation farmer brings in the last crop
The time for sowing had long since passed. Spring rains had faded into summer sun. In its turn, autumn had arrived and turned the colors of nature from green to gold. It was time to reap, time to harvest, one last crop for a family with deep roots in the rich black soil of this Hamilton County farm.
The decision to retire is perhaps one of the toughest decisions a farm family has to make at some point. How to do it? When is it too late, too soon? Who will be the next steward of the soil?
“I’ve been thinking about it for about three years,” says Richard Mason. “We started thinking about who is going to take over the farm. Two years ago we talked to my wife Karen’s nephew about getting ready to take over the farm in two years. The two years is up now and things went fast.”
The now-completed harvest of 2022 is the last for the Masons. They will auction their equipment in December. They will stay on the farm, have more time to travel and spend with their family, but it will be someone else sowing and reaping next year.
Nephew Zach Williams already farms with his father-in-law, Keith Holdgrafer. While the Mason’s two sons did not choose to follow in their father’s footsteps on the farm, the family is pleased that a young, local farmer is able to take up the reins.
“I’m glad it’s him,” Mason says. “We are glad that it’s in his hands and he will be the steward of the land now. I’ve had enough time at it. He’s got different ways of farming than what I’ve done, but that’s the way life is.”
Change is a constant in life and Mason has always been ready to make way for new ideas. He can barely believe the change he has witnessed in a farming career that seemed to pass so quickly. Mason says his stories about a lifetime of farming make him sound older than his 75 years.
“My grandfather believed that when you put oats in the ground, you had to put them in with horses,” Mason recalls.
Mason was about five or six years old, and the farm had long since transitioned to more modern forms of horsepower, but a tractor just wouldn’t cut it when it came to sowing oats. He can remember riding along as his grandfather planted, and quickly falling asleep to the rhythm of the horse and planter putting another crop in the ground.
Country schools were in the autumn of their lives when Mason began his own education. He attended first grade at Union School in Freedom Township. It would close at the end of that summer and Mason would enroll at Webster City Community Schools for second grade.
“That was quite different, having a classroom of your peers,” he recalls. “When I went to country school there were four of us in my class and we had all the way up to eighth grade in there.”
Mason graduated from Webster City with the Class of 1965. He went on to Junior College and then earned a degree in history from the University of Northern Iowa. Looking for a way to make a difference in the world, he signed up and was accepted into the Peace Corps. But, as Mason recalls, a new administration wasn’t giving the Peace Corps all of the tools that it needed. After a brief stint in Nepal, he returned home to see where life would take him next.
“Probably six weeks after coming home I got my draft notice,” Mason recalls. “It was just before Thanksgiving in 1969.”
The war in Vietnam was raging, but Mason says he was fortunate to serve stateside before his honorable discharge in 1971.
“After the service, I came home and started working my way into the farming operation,” he recalls.
Over the years, Richard and Karen would raise a family and grow the farm.
He jokes that he had to marry a “city girl” because farm girls already knew how much work farming really is.
“There isn’t a paycheck every week,” he says with a knowing laugh.
The Mason farm is nearly as old as the state of Iowa. Richard’s great-great-grandparents, William and Ann Silvers, established the farm in 1854 and first homesteaded across the road in a log cabin they had built when they got married.
“The story is that their crop they stored under the bed in the log cabin,” Mason notes.
After all, that first harvest was their treasure, and they wanted to keep it safe. Work on the cabin likely came second to farming, as they didn’t have time to chink the logs before the first winter and his great-great-grandmother ended up with frostbite on her heels from the cold floor.
Richard and Karen Mason enjoy a more comfy and toasty home, but still honor and remember those humble beginnings. They are wishing Zach and his wife well as they take over the farm, but worry about where farming is going as the cost of production soars.
“I see farms being owned by major, major businesses and individuals who have a lot, a lot of money,” Mason says. “The people doing the farming will get an hourly wage, but it will be hard to keep them.”
Good stewards of the land rise early and work late, but will paid employees have that same commitment for land that is owned by someone else, somewhere else? As for consumers, consolidation of land ownership may bring shocking changes to grocery bills.
“With more and more consolidation, the price of food is really going to skyrocket because it will be in the hands of just a few people,” he notes.
For the Masons, being good stewards of the land has always been a priority. And choosing a young farmer to take over is part of that stewardship. Of course, there will be things they miss, like the first day of planting in the spring.
“I always loved the smell of new soil being turned over,” Richard Mason recalls. “I’ve been no-till for 20 years, so I don’t have that smell anymore,” but the memory stays with him.
“When you put seed in the ground you don’t really know for sure, we have monitors that tell you a lot, but you don’t really know until it sprouts up out of the ground. I love that anticipation in the spring, watching everything turn green.”
Their son Thomas and his daughter, Ivy, came to help bring in the final harvest, but it was Karen Mason who had the last ride in the combine with her husband. And she was the emotional one, and yet it is a decision in which they are both confident.
“We are truly at peace with this,” Karen says. “The time is right.”