• U.S.

FARMERS: Man against Hunger

14 minute read

(See Cover)

Where was the food for the” hungry world (see above) coming from? Most of it would come from the U.S. heartland, the valley of the 2,000-mile-long Mississippi River and its tremendous tributaries, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Arkansas, the Red River of the North, the Red River of the South.

This was the main battleground of U.S. food production—enormous plains stretching without a relieving ripple beyond vision; rolling prairies, like the heaving surface of the ocean congealed to earth; vast uplands lifting slowly with no barrier but a barbed-wire fence to the terminal barrier of the Rocky Mountains. In good years, this vast food factory poured out some 800 million bu. of wheat, some 2,800 million bu. of corn, 1,200 million bu. of oats, 63 million hogs, 33 million beef cattle, 36 million sheep, 82 million lbs. of milk, 3,200 million lbs. of butterfat.

This week, as it would be for months to come, the mind of the world was on wheat —bread for the hungry, from the Rhine to the Yangtze. But in the great U.S. food factory, corn-and-hog farmers did not change over their fields to wheat production, nor did cattlemen plow up their rich pastures. Each in his individualistic way was tooled for his specialty and subject only to the weather and the vagaries of a controlled economy. Each knew that if he did his part, and if the other farmers of the world could once again do theirs, the world would be properly fed once more—and that it would take much more than wheat to feed it properly.

Man against the Sky. Against the vast arable U.S. earth and the vaster sky over it, one man might stand as an epitome of the task and the hopes which the hungry world has placed upon some six million U.S. farmers, the great mass of whom, like him, live between the Rocky and the Appalachian Mountains. He is Gustav Theodore Kuester (rhymes with Easter), 58.

Gus Kuester is a corn, oats and hog farmer, and has been for 42 years. These days, while the battle for food thunders loudest on the wheat sector, he fights on his own position in the line, confident in his farmer’s knowledge that the battle must be fought on many fields, with many crops. The field that Gus Kuester and his slight, tough-fibered son Dale, 28, hold against hunger is 240 acres of fat, black Iowa earth. Their citadels are two farmhouses and their outworks—barns, farrowing sheds, chicken houses and consumptively coughing windmills.

Dale’s house, on the back 80, is a prosperous middle-western farm home with all possible conveniences. Gus’s house, like a thousand Cass County farmhouses, is a seven-room frame structure weathered to a faded ocher with trim the color of last year’s canned peas. (Like thousands of Iowa farmers, the Kuesters are patiently waiting for supplies to repaint the house and to put in a bathroom.) A mile away the world goes by on busy Highway U.S. 71 (Canadian border to Baton Rouge). That mile is a dirt road which spring thaws or rains soften to a greasy gumbo navigable only by Dale Kuester’s “mud-whoopee,” a 1929 Ford roadster that he has cut down into a pick-up truck.

To sidewalk farmers, who suppose that a ridgeling is the peak in a barn roof and a freemartin a species of swallow,*some of Gus’s outbuildings and his hog runs might well give the jimjams. But Gus and Dale Kuester are among the best and most prosperous of Cass County farmers. Gus’s homely barns and sheds are decisive outworks in the battle for food.

Last week, at Gus Kuester’s, that battle was in full swing and its center was the farrowing shed. For food comes off Gus Kuester’s farm on four trotters and squealing like a buzz saw. Poland China and Spotted Poland China hogs are the crop to which his whole farm economy is geared. The acres of corn, the acres of oats, the acres of hay exist chiefly to cram the maws of pigs and finish about 200 hogs a year as efficiently (that is, as quickly and cheaply) as possible to meet the exigencies of marketing and the OPA.

Every winter the Kuesters carry over as breeders about 40 of .the likeliest looking gilts (young females) and sows. Some are at Dale’s, more than half at Gus’s. In early April, at evening feeding, the Kuesters begin to sidle up to these elite pigs and delicately strip their swelling teats. If a drop of milk shows, the sow will probably farrow during the night. So she is rushed into the farrowing barn, which, jauntily topped by a weather vane in the form of a pig, has pens for 16 expectant gilts and sows.

Maternity Ward. There begin long, sleepless nights during which Gus Kuester may pace the center aisle of the farrowing barn like an expectant father. Often he beds down wakefully in an unoccupied farrowing pen. Most pig births are normal, but sometimes a little pig needs to be helped into the hungry world. Sometimes one is born in a covering caul which has to be ripped off by a profit-motivated finger. Sometimes the heaving, grunting sows, from weakness, clumsiness or distress, lie or roll on their farrow. Sometimes they try to eat them. Sweeter to a pig farmer’s ear than the ethereal fluting of the prairie lark is a sow’s “pumping,” the regular ugh, ugh, ugh, which means that the litter has discovered how to suckle and that the sow, heaving over with a sigh to expose her batteries of teats, has taken on the thankless task. In a fortnight the pig population on the Kuester farm may bounce from about 40 to something like 320.

The ardors and hazards of pig farming do not end in the maternity ward in April. At first sows and piglets have to be hand-fed with ground feed (chop) prepared according to a dietary formula as carefully worked out as a human baby’s. At present, when the protein ingredients (chiefly soy and linseed meal) are often practically impossible to get, pig-feeding is not only an endless labor but a perpetual headache.

It is also an art and a mystery. The art consists chiefly in knowing what to do and how much; the mystery, in knowing when. That knowledge, largely intuitive, can be acquired only by a lifetime of handling animals. But Gus Kuester claims, and few pig farmers would deny, that a pig’s future depends chiefly on how he is brought up in the first months.

The Battle of the Fields. This is the battle of the pig barns. The battle of the fields begins earlier, lasts longer, is muscularly tougher. If it is lost the battle of the pigs cannot be won.

The first crop in is oats. Oats cannot tolerate hot weather. As fast as the ground dries in March, it must be ploughed—usually in a race between rains. Up at 4 or half-past, Dale Kuester turns on the lights of his Massey-Harris “101” Senior tractor, rockets out to the gang plough and buzzes off for a working day that often ends, as it began, in darkness. Last March Dale Kuester ploughed 20 acres of oat land in 18 hours—something like making a 500-mile automobile trip in ten hours. By the second week in April the Kuesters’ 47 acres of oats were green and blowing, an inch or so high, in a wind that made people pile on jackets.

After the oats are in, there is time out for the farrowing. Then it is high time to plough for corn. On the Kuester farm every kernel of corn is used for feed. Of the thousands of bushels he has grown over the years, Gus claims that he has marketed not more than 150 bushels. He has sometimes had to buy more corn.

Corn is planted (with a horse-drawn planter) about the second week in May. As soon as the green spikes pierce the black soil, it is cultivated with a rotary hoe. Dale Kuester claims that, when in form, he can hoe 80 acres between sunup and sundown. After three hoeings, there are two more complete cultivations with regular corn cultivators.

After corn-cultivating comes hay harvest and oat harvest (oats are threshed). Corn harvest begins in October with a mechanical picker owned in common by Dale and two of Gus’s brothers. The Kuesters heave the corn from the first ripe field into Gus’s barnlike crib, the next field into Dale’s, and turn & turn about until the job is done. It is usually done in time for the strenuous work of loading the first finished pigs for market.

Meanwhile, 365 days a year, twice a day, morning & night, the Kuesters put in an hour or two doing chores—feeding the hogs, feeding, watering and bedding the horses, feeding and watering the 20-odd beef cattle, feeding, watering, bedding and milking the three cows. The farm day is not done until Gus ties back the vane of the windmill, pulls off his overshoes and sets them neatly in a little casement near the back steps, washes (after pumping water in a basin at the kitchen sink), and sits down at the kitchen table to one of his wife’s suppers—a county byword for good cooking.

The Gus Kuesters have a small flock of chickens which are part of Mrs. Kuester’s job. The Dale Kuesters are raising several hundred chicks (an Australorp-Leghorn cross). Dale’s wife, Ilene, a pretty, lively farm girl, who is as up-to-the-minute as if she had just stepped off Michigan Avenue, “has a hand with chickens,” often has a box of underprivileged “peeps” warming over the register in her parlor.

Sometimes, between the great actions in the yearly battle for food, Gus will putter about his fruit trees. He likes to look off east toward the Evangelical church, where, as a boy, during the interminable sermons, he traded jackknives behind the pews, and where rain, snow or shine the Kuesters still worship every Sunday. He likes to see the pine-and cedar-sheltered church graveyard, a tranquil reminder that the life which the earth gives must in the end return to the earth. There two generations of his neighbors and family are buried.

The Record of the Line. At such times, Gus, if he has a listener, will discuss in a low, softspoken, drawling voice and with a sudden illuminating smile and chuckle when he makes a good point, the things that interest him. They are his family, farming, politics (as with many farmers, his second love), the evils of drinking, the record of his line.

In the second year of the American Civil War, Christopher Kuester and his family fled to the U.S. from the hardship and ever-menacing hunger of peasant life in Germany. The year the Franco-Prussian War broke out (1870), they reached Cass County, where a heavily, German population had begun to put down American roots.

With three horses, a 14-in. plough, an ingrained fear of debt, and an ingrained faith in God, old Christopher’s son Charles began to break the tough prairie sod for his well-to-do neighbors. In time he became such an artist with the plough that he earned as much as $1 an acre. When not ploughing, Charles Kuester worked out for $15 a month in summer, for his board & keep in the stiff Iowa winters. Before he had saved enough to buy land, he married. By the time Gus, his seventh child, was born (1888), Charles and his wife owned 80 acres and were adding every year to their holdings. The Kuesters were becoming, like their land, American. Gus was the first child to learn English first, German (which he seldom speaks) second. From his father, whom he worshipped, Gus learned his basic view of life: “He taught us to be thrifty, to believe in God and not to shoot our mouths off unless we had something to say.”

Boy & Man. Farming began for Gus Kuester when he was eight. At eleven he was doing a man’s job day in & day out with the threshing gang. School (he attended only the winter terms) ended for Gus with the eighth grade when his father died (1904). Gus, then 16, managed and farmed 400 acres for his mother.

At 27, Gus asked Elda Weaver to marry him. Like the Kuesters, the Weavers were of German stock. Says Elda’s mother who, though eightyish, is still rugged, still speaks with a German accent: “God guided every step of our way to this blessed country.”

Gus and Elda bought the old Weaver homestead, which had passed out of the family. The early years were hard, but the Kuesters pulled through, says Gus, “by chickens, hogs and going without.” They pulled through also thanks to the patient devotion of Elda Kuester. Over the years hogs paid the mortgage (today the land is worth $225 an acre), and the Kuesters received the final patent of ownership: the neighbors began to call the old Weaver place the Kuester farm. There were born Dale and a pretty daughter, Shirley, now 19, who sometimes acts as her father’s official secretary, now lives and works in Atlantic, twelve miles away, as an operator for the telephone company.

Gus achieved the greatest success a farmer can have: he kept his son on the farm. He did it by letting Dale earn his own money from boyhood on. A few years ago Gus cut Dale in on the hogs. Now they are in partnership, 50-50 on costs and profits. When Dale married, Gus sold him the back 80 and the house on it. This year Dale will finish paying his father the mortgage.

The Legislator. In 1932 the neighbors claimed Gus Kuester for politics. Gus is a politician’s dream. He is a big (6 ft. 4 in.), impressive, grey-haired man, stooped with outdoor labor and powerful with outdoor strength. He feels most at ease in overalls but looks just as much at home in city clothes. Integrity and gravity are written in the character lines of his face. He is deeply religious. He does not swear, but, no prude, he does not hesitate to quote other men’s oaths. His fiercest epithet, uttered with terrifying inflection about people who drink too much, is: “Dirty bats!” Gus has never tasted liquor.

Gus, a Republican, was first asked to run for the legislature against a Democrat named Charley Malone. Gus was horrified. Says he: “Charley was a good friend of mine. As far as I could see, he was doing a good job.” But two years later he ran, was elected, has spent 100 days a year in the Iowa legislature ever since. Part of that time he has been chairman of the powerful appropriations committee and has been a member of 15 committees at once.

Last year Republicans wanted to elect him speaker of the house. Gus refused. He has been loudly mentioned for governor. He is widely believed to be absolutely lobby-and pressure-proof. One powerful lobbyist was so confident that a bill he wanted would pass the house that he showed up for the final action. Just before the vote, Gus unwound his 6 ft. 4, and drawled into the microphone: “Boys, this ain’t such a good bill. …” The lobbyist walked out, wringing his hands. The bill was voted down.

Enlightened Republican. Kuester is an enlightened Republican. In 1932, he voted for Franklin Roosevelt, in protest against the Republican farm program “or lack of one.” He is afraid of a runaway market, and his most outspoken beef against OPA is the inability of the Washington planners to understand some of the difficulties of farming. He is friendly to labor. But he is an implacable foe of promiscuous spending of public funds. Gus wants the state’s finances run as efficiently as he runs his farm. When legislators start throwing money around, he unfailingly gets up and drawls: “I want the taxpayers at the crossroads to know that the state’s fiscal affairs are being developed in an unsound condition.”

Gus is well aware of the” basic issues in the world today and thinks long and doggedly, as only a farmer can, about them. He knows that one of them is food. But he knows his land, he knows his kind of people. Says Gus Kuester: “I know that a lot of folks are counting on the American farmer. I don’t think folks got nawthin’ to worry about.”

*A ridgeling is a cryptorchid or a half-castrated animal; a freemartin is a sexually imperfect heifer.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com