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Published September 03, 2013, 10:14 AM

Let her eat cake

In an April column I mentioned I’d sung in First Lutheran Church choir in Worthington, Minn., when I was starting my journalism career. Agweek reader Jane Lukens of Aneta, N.D., saw this column and wondered if I remembered her aunt, Iris Westman, who had grown up in Aneta and sang in that same choir. Iris remembered me.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

Two interactions have me reminiscing about the 1980s.

In an April column I mentioned I’d sung in First Lutheran Church choir in Worthington, Minn., when I was starting my journalism career. Agweek reader Jane Lukens of Aneta, N.D., saw this column and wondered if I remembered her aunt, Iris Westman, who had grown up in Aneta and sang in that same choir. Iris remembered me.

Iris had never married but worked in the education field — finally as a school librarian in Worthington, Minn. After her retirement, Iris settled back in Grand Forks, N.D., and finally to Northwood, N.D. I was acquainted with her from 1979 to 1983.

I recently stopped to visit with Iris and Jane at the Northwood Deaconess Health Center. We talked about the personalities in Worthington some 30 years ago, and about the farm crisis that spawned such local stories as the big Jerusalem artichoke scam and the murder of bank loan officers in Ruthton, Minn.

On Aug. 18, I returned with the “In God We Trust” gospel quartet. We sang at the center, and finished with Happy Birthday. She soon would turn 108 — born on Aug. 28, 1905.

For her age, Iris is mentally quite sharp — humble, and of good humor. I asked Iris about her favorite birthdays. She told me about one memorable birthday on the farm back home when she was young. It was harvest time for wheat and her mother was busy cooking for harvesters. Iris admits she was “whining.” She’d started going to school in town and discovered that people there had “big parties” for their birthdays.

“I liked chocolate cake,” Iris says. “I didn’t like angel food but I liked the shape of angel food cake. Wouldn’t she make a chocolate cake in an angel food pan?”

Initially, her mother said no, but finally “decided she was going to make me be quiet” and made Iris a chocolate cake — with nuts in it, in the angel food cake pan — and filled the hole in the middle with fudge. “That was the best birthday, I guess I’d ever had,” Iris says, as though that cake was still melting in her mouth a century later.

Another blast from the farm-crisis past: I was on a CropStop trip and happened upon custom harvester Toni Rattei at 5 a.m. at a C-store farmers’ coffee klatch in Terry, Mont. Rattei operates American Corp. Harvesting and Hauling and operates out of Seminole, Texas. He spent five years on the board of U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc.

Rattei was born in Jamestown, N.D., in 1947 and graduated high school in Napoleon, N.D. He earned an agriculture degree at North Dakota State University and started custom harvesting. Initially in Texas, he worked for an ag lender.

Rattei said his ag lending career only lasted three months. He became sickened by the duty of being sent to inventory farmers who were being foreclosed upon, even though they had strong balance sheets. It turned out the lending manager was conspiring with a local auctioneer to sell out farms that still had equity to survive.

One that had a warehouse full of cotton challenged the system. An investigation determined the manager was in cahoots with an auctioneer, deliberately under-advertising the sales and buy assets below their market value — pocketing the difference. The auctioneer squealed and the lender went to jail.

I hope Iris, Tony and I never see a repeat of the 1980s. I’d rather write about today’s farm economy — better crop insurance protections, a stronger world food demand and healthy bottom lines. It’s more fun to write about farm kids, moms and birthday cakes.

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