Flags on Farms: Three vignettes of rural patriotism
Editor's note: Agweek reporter Mikkel Pates often sees patriotic displays as he travels throughout the Upper Midwest. He collected these and offers them as Independence Day approaches.
Pulling for America: Iowa farmers stop traffic with their star-spangle shed
ORANGE CITY, Iowa—Ronald J. DeJong and his wife, Ardith, of Orange City, Iowa, raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and draft horses. But they also raise a fair amount of national pride for motorists who pass on Iowa Highway 10, west of town.
Everyone can see the flag of United States, emblazoned in a tin-roof hog barn that was built in 1920.
In 2011, the DeJongs decided the structure needed a new roof, and decided it would be a flag. It was no small task.
"They had to do a little special measuring with the computer to get the right width on the stripes and the stars right," Ronald says, adding, "With the computer they can do marvelous things these days."
Ronald knew it had to be accurate. He knew people from town would be counting those the stripes and watching how those 50 were arranged. "Within three or five days after it was put up, one guy (stops me' and says, 'Hey, there's 13 stripes on there, just the right amount!' And another guy says, 'Hey I saw the stars as I was going by, and the stars were right!"
The DeJongs say their expression is simply the result of gratitude.
Ronald joined the Air National Guard at Sioux City, Iowa, in 1962. One brother was in the military during the Korean conflict and another was in the Secret Service.
In 1963, Ronald and Ardith were married. Ronald started working the farm of a cousin. After six years, he bought the machinery and took charge of the farm. Ardith focused on raising the kids, helping them show sheep and be active in 4-H. As they grew, she raised St. Bernard dogs and worked in child care and various maintenance jobs in town.
In May 1968, Ronald's Guard unit was activated.
Some 350 soldiers from the unit went to Vietnam, but Ronald had only six months on active duty so soon was back at the farm. His brief active duty allowed him to be in the local American Legion Post 329. He volunteers his team of Belgian draft horses to pull the group's float in parades. He'll likely be there at the 80th Orange Tulip Festival May 14-16, 2020.
Each of the horses weigh a ton and are 18 hands tall, or about 6 feet. "I give rides. I don't do any showing. That's too much work," he chuckles.
Ardith says she's amazed at how many people will get out on the road and stand and take pictures with the red-white-and-blue backdrop
One pair of newlyweds wanted their wedding party to be photographed in front of the barn. Another group wanted to come and take a photo that would include some vintage tractors. "We never imagined," Ardith says, of the ongoing response. "We did it because we were so thankful to be living in a free country."
Old glory, all year round: Despite politics, division, there's love of country and 'It'll all work out'
LAKOTA, N.D.—Brent's Service and Repair stands like a beacon of patriotism on the flat landscape on the east side of North Dakota Highway 1, about two miles south of Lakota.
Even on a dreary January day, the display is obvious. There are three large flags attached to the building, visible from the highway, and several inside the shop, which has patriotic sentiments here and there on the doors and walls.
No snarky put-downs. All upbeat.
Owner Brent Borland's shop specializes in farm equipment and truck repair. Borland had worked at implement dealers before starting his own shop. His parking place has a John Deere deer, but he's quick to say he'll work on all colors of farm equipment
"We're not prejudice," he says, with a smile. "Since the beginning, always had flags up to support our country, the military—everything that it has to do with.
Motorists who pass by often will later offer Borland a compliment when they realize he's responsible for the display. (There's also a tower of deer antlers, strung up on a communications tower.)
The main focus is the flags. Even his snow-removal equipment that carries the red-white-and-blue. "Always positive," he says. It's a year-round message, but he acknowledges there may be a bit more notice around the Fourth of July.
Borland grew up on a farmstead just across the road to the west. He thinks patriotism is pretty widespread in the neighborhood.
He's had friends and relatives that have been in the military. He's moved by "the whole thing about being an American," he says, beyond the military. He realizes there are concerns about the political state of the country. "There are ups and downs but it's good to have a little change in it to mix it up," he says. When you live in a free country it doesn't do any good to be down, he says, concluding: "Everything is going to work out."
A farmer, a Marine: Statue of soldier stands as sentinel in farm courtyard
LAKE PRESTON, S.D.—Frank Virchow Few have personally witnessed the cost of American freedom and the joys of coming home.
A Vietnam veteran, Virchow, 74, of Lake Preston, S.D., is the leader of a diversified family crop and agribusiness enterprise. His daughter, Paige, 29, has a crop insurance license and works in the office with Virchow Insurance & Seed. A second daughter, Brooke, 25, has an insurance license, works primarily with the cow-calf and feedlot operation. They're supported by a loyal staff.
The Virchows fly three flags at the farm - a large flag on a flagpole by the road and one back on the shed, but the most personal and unusual display is in a courtyard outside his home office complex.
About 20 years ago Virchow installed a concrete statue of a Vietnam soldier, standing at the base of a flag measuring 3 feet by 5 feet. The combat soldier in the statue is accurate, he says, putting his hand on its backpack, and saying it appears smaller than the real thing.
"Ours weighed 100 pounds," Frank remembers.
Virchow's mother and father died in 1952 and 1956, respectively. That left three Virchow brothers at home in their 20s, running the farm.
The Vietnam conflict came along and the young trio made a deal with the draft board: William, Frank and David, would take turns in the military. "We all did go in," Frank says. "I was the only one that went to Vietnam."
Frank says military service was not an option. He grew up believing it was his duty to serve the country if called upon. "Right or wrong, it was our obligation."
He was in the U.S. Marines from 1968 to 1969—Company H, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. He served in numerous combat campaigns. The most famous were Operation Dewey Canyon, Maine Craig and Virginia Ridge. He opted to extend his time in Vietnam so he could get an "early-out" and come back to the farm.
Frank acknowledges that Vietnam veterans were sometimes treated with disrespect when they came home through California. "In the state of South Dakota, I don't feel like I was really ever put down by anybody for serving," he says.
While in Vietnam, Frank and his buddies talked farming goals and plans. He followed through on that, too.
A turning point came in 1976, the biggest drought since the 1930s. A federal crop insurance supervisor was impressed with Frank's ability to accurately measure grain in bins, so he hired him. He kept farming, and in 1980 he started his own crop insurance business. The side enterprise has grown into a major part of the Virchow program.
Every two years, in July or August, his business puts on a customer appreciation party. There are prizes, inflatable games, a band, and a beef supper. It all happens in that courtyard, under that flag, next to that statue.
Franks says he is proud of the opportunities America offers to farmers, and others. "Where else could I possibly live where I could have the freedom that we have here in the United States?" To him, the flag stands for all of that.