Corn this 4th of July? Three times knee-high! Good crops, bad prices, but Lawtons’ life: Great!

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

COOPER, Iowa, July 4, 2024 – My 4th of July check on the Lawton family’s corn crop – a tradition of more than 20 years for us – revealed that the corn is at least three times knee-high and now growing rapidly.

Oh, the soybeans are lagging a bit. But up close, they look plenty healthy.  They’re just shorter than usual at this time of summer.

The best news, agriculturally speaking here in west central Iowa is that a drought cycle that had stretched maybe five years across much of this region, seems to have been snapped.

Except for about 10 days in mid-June, rains have been plentiful. And now, warmer and dryer weather predicted for the next couple of weeks should make both crops really pop here in southern Greene County.  Hopefully their Hoegemeyer Hybrids will come in as productive as the crop did a year ago, when the Lawton corn yield was about 230 bushels per acre and soybeans made about 65 bushels per acre.

The Lawtons in one of their fields on July 2. Almost none of us alive can now remember when the measure of a good corn crop was “knee-high by the 4th of July.”

But how do grain prices look now at the elevators?

“Bad,” said Doug Lawton.  Corn this Independence Day is $3.90 per bushel; a year ago right now it was $5.53.  Soybeans now are $10.60 per bushel; a year ago they were $14.65.

However, by nearly every other measure, life is very good this summer for my friends the Lawtons, who are the fifth generation on the farm, which this year includes 1,200 acres they own or are renting.  Doug, 69, and Karen Wilcox Lawton, 66, are raising their 47th crop.

Of course, they’re crazy busy beyond the actual farmwork, but that’s hardly news to all who know them.  They’re attending as many of the ball games, swimming meets and dance recitals of their six grandkids as possible, “four or more nights a week,” Doug says.  Next week, there’ll be all the 4H activities at the Greene County Fair.  He continues in side businesses selling insurance and real estate.  Karen, who formerly worked off-farm in a local floral business, is now one of the county’s leading volunteers.

Closer-up with Doug and Karen Lawton.

And the Lawtons’ biggest event comes in late summer.  For the first time, as far as they know, the farm will be the site of a wedding.

On Sept. 1, their son Lance Lawton and fiancée Lindsay Trabing, both of whom work and live in the Des Moines area, will marry here under a beautiful canopy of shade trees on the west lawn of the farmhouse.

“So far, I’m right on schedule of completing one wedding-related project per day,” Doug said.

Karen said preparations are indeed going well, except “if Lance had gotten married 20 years ago, it sure would’ve been easier for me to buy a new dress and fitting into it.”  But he would’ve only been 18 years old then, I reminded her. “O.K., if he’d gotten married 15 years ago…”  But then she showed me a gorgeous new dress she has home on trial.

There’s also animal news at the Lawtons’ farm.

Forty years ago, they were big into cattle production, marketing up to 10,000 head per year – until the market crashed around them in the late 1970s.  Now, there are just two 4H calves, which grandson Nathan Towers, 16, has grown to 1,200 or more pounds each, and the bottle-fed calf this his brother Noah Towers, 7, will show at the fair.

But there is also a new litter of kittens, highly unusual because Doug thinks he may be allergic to cats and generally doesn’t like ’em.  Karen has overruled him on these.

Karen Lawton with one of the new kittens.

“This spring, there was this female black cat that showed up here,” she said. “When we’ve had strays show up here in the past, most of them have been so feral you can’t get near them.  But this one seemed a lot friendlier.  So I started feeding her, and she’d sit right outside the door of the family room.”

In mid-May, the cat disappeared.

“About two weeks later, about June 1, all the grandkids were here and were out around the yard and out-buildings,” Karen continued. “Nathan came in and said, ‘Nana, you’ve got kittens!’ Six of them!  But the mother hasn’t been back with them at all.  She wasn’t as nice as I’d thought – so I’ve been taking care of them.”!

Did she name them?

“Yes, I did,” she answered.  “Caitlin, Kate, Gabbie, Molly, Hannah and Sydney – after the Iowa Hawkeyes women’s basketball team.”

Everybody but Doug has enjoyed the kittens.

“Nana, those kittens are really getting cute!” grandson Nathan said the other day.

That prompted this keen observation by Noah, the ever-attentive little brother. “Whoa!” he said. “I’ve never heard you use the word ‘cute’ before, except to describe your girlfriend!”

This is a time of big questions in farming.

Doug Lawton walking the soybeans.

Is ethanol – which consumes about 60 percent of Iowa’s total corn crop – going to continue to be a viable fuel for vehicles?  If not, what are we going to do with all the corn we’re accustomed to growing? Are electric vehicles going to take over transportation?  Will production agriculture move away from chemical nutrients, herbicides and insecticides?  What can we do to improve soil health? Is Congress ever going to complete work on a new Farm Bill?

“I think ethanol is still going to be O.K., isn’t it?” Doug Lawton said.  “And I don’t hear much about the Farm Bill.  I doubt it’s going to be much change for us on the farm.”

He notes that a proposed new pipeline to move carbon dioxide from ethanol plants to sequestration in deep caverns in North Dakota may cross, or come close, to Lawton land if it’s built in Greene County, as now planned by Summit Carbon Solutions.  “I’d rather not have that,” he said.  “I hear the same from others (farmers) I have talked to.”

Both Lawtons doubt electric vehicles are going to become as popular with the public as was first thought.  As much as they drive, often long trips across rural areas, “I just don’t think EVs are going to fit our Midwestern lifestyle,” said Karen Lawton.  “I can’t imagine we’re going to want to stop for an hour and re-charge.”

Conservation is indeed happening.  “It seems like there’s more no-till farming than ever, and more cover crops being used, too,” Doug said.

And who’ll be doing the farming of the Lawton land in years to come?

At their ages – 69 and 66 – is there any chance this 47th crop could be the last for Doug and Karen?

“No,” said Doug.

“Well, I have suggested that he slow down,” said Karen. “And we’ve actually had a couple of discussions about it,” meaning farm succession.

“That 47 is an interesting number,” Doug continued. “Three years more would be 50, right? That might be a nice round number for a career.”

He said that as they have repaired extensive damage on the farm from a derecho that swept across Iowa in August, 2020, and with all the preparations for the wedding this year, he’s thought of the future.  “I’ve wanted to make it a little easier for somebody else.”

The successors, he believes “will still be family.”

The Lawtons’ daughters Kati Nailor, of Indianola, and Diana Towers, of Jefferson, as well as son Lance, and all their spouses, have substantial careers in other professions.  They’re unlikely to want to become full-time farmers.

It’s the seventh generation, the Lawtons’ grandkids, that has the most likely candidates.

They’ve got a long, strong heritage – that’s for sure.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

3 thoughts on “Corn this 4th of July? Three times knee-high! Good crops, bad prices, but Lawtons’ life: Great!

  1. Chuck…I always love reading what you write. Great article. Felt like I was right there!

    • City - McMinnville
    • State - OR
  2. Always enjoy reading your articles, especially liked this one. We almost feel like we know the Lawtons from the articles you have talked about them, and we did meet them many years ago.

    • City - Audubon
    • State - IA
  3. Living just 3 miles south of Doug and Karen, it would be a sad day for our community if some Lawton doesn’t continue on with the farm operation. Over many generations, the Lawton families have been very important because of their service to and support of our community. So, keep farming Doug until one of your grandchildren is ready!

    • City - Jamaica
    • State - IA

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