Rural Roots, World Views
By: Jason Jenkins, Mill Creek Communications
For most of his 70 years, Rex Wood essentially has lived in the same place. He and his wife, Pat, make their home outside of Meadville in north Missouri’s Linn County, residing just a mile and a half west of the farmstead where Rex spent the majority of his childhood. Today, they farm nearly 1,600 acres, including some of the same ground that both his father and grandfather worked. Rex figures his family has been on this land for at least 120 years — yet it’s a year spent in another land some 8,600 miles away that left a most indelible impression.
“My year in Vietnam influenced my whole philosophy on life,” Rex says. “Many times, we just forget what we’ve really got here in this country.”
Drafted into the U.S. Army in August 1970, Rex was assigned to an armored personnel carrier crew. He spent 12 months in Vietnam, mostly providing troop security. “We were in the field practically all the time,” he recalls. “You didn’t have hot meals or hot showers. Wherever you could find water, you’d try to clean up a little bit.”
Rex returned to the farm with a different perspective and a renewed appreciation for hard work and helping others. He says the farm of his youth was vastly different than the farm of today.
“Dad had a few dairy cows. We milked them by hand, of course,” he recalls. “We picked corn in the ear and put it up in cribs. From there, we’d shovel it into a sheller, then into a bin. When it was time to feed the cows, you’d scoop the corn into a grinder, then into the feed wagon and out to the feedlot. You’d handle that corn five or six times from when you harvested it until it finally got to the cattle.”
The Wood family operated a pull-type Allis combine to harvest soybeans planted in 40-inch rows. If the beans were standing, you could take two rows at a time, Rex explains. If they were tangled and fallen, however, only one row could be harvested. The hoppers on the combine held just 15 bushels.
Planting decisions weren’t made using soil temperatures and weather forecasts. Instead, Rex recalls being told not to start planting his corn until “the leaves on a hedge tree are as big as a squirrel’s ear.”
“I had a hedge tree up by the hog buildings, so I waited and waited for it to leaf out,” he says. “Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to plant. Come to find out, that old tree had died over the winter.
“Everybody says those were the good old days. Well, they might have been, but I kind of enjoy the way it is now,” Rex continues. “Today, it’s more mental than physical. That’s really the joy of having the younger generation involved, too, because they enjoy the technology.”
Corn and soybeans are still grown in rotation today, albeit with larger and more advanced equipment. Their acreage includes both upland and bottom ground, which Rex counts as a blessing.
“You know if you get a dry year, you’re still going to raise something in the bottom, and if you get a wet year, you appreciate the hills,” he says.
Livestock have been a fixture on the Wood farm for decades as well. For 44 years, the family operated a farrow-to-finish hog confinement operation, farrowing as many as 120 sows. Rex says that a few years ago, it was time to either expand the operation or get out of the hog business altogether. They chose the latter.
“People have asked, ‘Don’t you miss the hogs?’ and my answer is ‘Nope,’” Rex says. “There was always something that had to be done on a regular basis — farrowing, castrating, weaning or something. Just like dairy cows, you’d get tied down. Farming is a whole lot more fun without the hogs.”
The family currently maintains a cow/ calf herd with about 120 momma cows. They primarily raise Angus and Gelbvieh, Rex says. Typically, they save 15 to 20 Balancer bulls to develop each year for Seedstock Plus headquartered at nearby Brookfield.
Both cows and heifers are bred to calve in the fall using timed artificial insemination.
“We try to have a 60-day calving period,” Rex adds. “You would think they’d all calve the same day, but they don’t.”
Additionally, the Woods raise alfalfa, keeping the first cutting for themselves then putting subsequent cuttings in small square bales.
“We have a lot of customers in the area with sheep and goats for 4-H projects,” Rex says. “A lot of the hay is sold right out of the field.”
This past fall, Rex planted 300 acres of annual ryegrass and triticale as cover crop. In May, he baled and wrapped 120 big round bales to ensile for feed.
“I think a cover crop will work about anywhere, but if you’ve got cattle, it’s a no-brainer,” Rex says. “From a soil health and erosion perspective, there wasn’t an ounce of soil that left any of those fields. And the cows just loved it. It just makes you feel good, too, to see something green out there all winter long.”
Along with corn and soybeans, cattle and hogs, Rex and Pat raised four daughters on the farm, and today, they are blessed with 11 grandchildren, three of which live just a stone’s throw down the road. The couple’s support for engaging youth in agriculture began with their own children and led to a career for Pat.
“I grew up in Columbia, so my farm experience was two weeks each summer when I would come visit my grandmother on the farm,” she explains. “So, when we moved in here, I felt like I needed to experience all farm life.”
Pat began with gardening, and when the Woods’ oldest daughter turned 8, she joined 4-H. Pat became a club leader.
“Then the county opened up an assistant 4-H position,” she says. “I applied for it and got it. And that started 33 years working for MU Extension with the 4-H program.”
The Wood girls participated in both 4-H and FFA. They showed just about every animal they could — from sheep and horses to cattle and hogs. Today, seven of Rex and Pat’s 11 grandchildren continue the tradition.
Their youngest daughter and her husband, Laurie and Seth Link, built a home just down the road from Rex and Pat. While Laurie works at the local electric cooperative and Seth is a Pioneer seed dealer, both they and their three children — 15-year-old Wyatt, 12-year-old Kendall and 10-year-old Tessa — actively participate in the family’s farming operation.
“Those three kids represent the fifth generation that’s been involved with the farm,” Rex says. “Part of the cows are theirs. We’ve really been fortunate.”
While Rex enjoys the advancements in modern agriculture, some of the changes he’s seen in rural Missouri concern him, beginning with the loss of a sense of community.
“When I was growing up, you went to town on Saturday night and visited with your neighbors and friends, did your grocery shopping and maybe watched a movie,” he says. “Now, you’ve got neighbors a mile away that you don’t ever talk to. You just wave at them going down the road.”
To combat this, the folks from Meadville began organizing a community wild game supper. -“Everybody brings something — ducks or geese, turkey or quail or whatever they have — for an evening of fellowship and food,” Rex says. “It’s good to get everyone together.”
The loss of rural families also concerns Rex. He recounts the school bus being full of kids by the time it got to the edge of Meadville. Now, when it rolls by, there’s not more than half a dozen.
“Bigger isn’t always better,” he says. “We worked hard back then, but we didn’t farm but 130 acres. We were poor, and everybody else was, too. And if somebody needed help, boy, you just dropped everything. It’s different now.
“The consumer dictates what you grow and how you grow it. I think the small farmer can still compete with anybody as long as they produce what the consumer wants,” he continues.
“If you get in that rut where you’re not going to change, that you’ve been doing it this way for 40 years and you’re doing to keep on doing it that way, you’ll be in trouble then.”
In 2004, Rex was asked to run for a seat on the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council Board of Directors. He won that election and was re-elected twice, serving on the council for 12 years, then adding two more as a member of the Research Committee. He says the experience was great.
“If I had a chance to do it over again, I wouldn’t think twice,” he says. “I met some guys that I’m now good friends with who I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
Rex says he’s proud of the many accomplishments made during his tenure, especially the relaunch of the North Missouri Soybean Breeding Program, the expansion of biodiesel and the development of the first non- GMO high-oleic oil trait now known as SOYLEICTM.
“I think we’re really indebted to the research community for their efforts,” he says. “We plant a crop, and in six to eight months, we know what we’re going to have. But when these researchers start a project, it may be a five or 10-year deal. That’s dedication.”
The opportunity to serve Missouri’s soybean producers also afforded Rex a unique opportunity to connect past and present. In 2013, he represented the Council on an eight- day trip to check on the progress of winter nursery propagation research. The destination? Vietnam.
“I’ve heard soldiers say that they had no inkling to go back, but I really enjoyed it,” Rex recalls.
Returning to Vietnam after more than 40 years reminded Rex of all the blessings in his life. “We farmers tend to complain about too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry,” Rex says. “Well, I get up every morning. I walk out my back door, and I’m at work. In the whole scheme of things, it couldn’t be much better than it is in rural Missouri.”