Dengler’s other domain
Local newspaper columnist drafts new chapter on the farm
As much of Tama County’s tapestry of fields begins to turn green this week with young shoots of recently planted corn and beans and oats, a few of those fields were planted by none other than Tama-Grundy Publishing’s own newspaper columnist Sean Dengler who is drafting a new chapter this year as a beginning young farmer.
For the last several years, Dengler, 31, has written for the North Tama Telegraph’s opinion page through his column Dengler’s Domain which chronicles both the local lore of northern Tama County and issues that affect rural, small town Iowans from the perspective of someone who grew up on a farm – specifically on a farm in rural Dysart although Dengler and his brother and sister all attended and graduated from North Tama.
After being laid off during the pandemic, Dengler – a UNI graduate with degrees in finance and electronic media who now lives in Urbandale with his wife Kim – began to find his thoughts more and more turning to his parents’ farm. And as he began to help his dad out more, he realized farming might actually be where his next chapter begins.
“Well, I figured I might as well try to farm than to not try at all,” Dengler explained when asked recently why he made the pivot back to the farm. “Obviously, the whole ‘running your own operation’ is very daunting but having my dad there is a nice safety net.”
Dengler’s parents Mark and Sandy Dengler farm mostly in Clark Township between Clutier and Dysart but have recently begun to move toward retirement from both full-time farming and the North Tama School District where Sandy still works one day a week.
While Mark is no longer at the decision-making helm when it comes to the farming operation, he’s never been more than a helping hand away this season – even to his own detriment at times, as Dengler explained of a recent injury Mark sustained after his son plugged up the planter.
“He was helping me clean out the mud from the plugged planter and sliced himself on a planter disc. I also have a selection of cuts,” Dengler admitted when describing his dad’s injury which took place a few weeks ago.
“He had to go to the ER for stitches for a nasty cut so that was rough. But we got back at it the next day, and it went off without a hitch. Not a mistake I hope to ever make again.”
With the average age of farmers in Iowa skewing older and older – the latest USDA farm survey places the average age of all producers in Iowa at just over 57 years – farmers like Dengler are certainly needed if small family farms are to remain viable and not consolidate into larger operations, a fact which Dengler writes about frequently in his column.
“My aunt doesn’t have any kids,” Dengler explained, “so I assume eventually after she and my parents pass, it will be us three children who will have [the farm]. As long as we get along, I hope to keep it running. But I am trying to figure out ways to reduce costs or find new markets because it is very hard to compete on the scale of operation we have. Lots of people run thousands of acres and we run less than 500.”
“It will be a challenge, but one I want to try than not try at all.”
Dengler said planting has gone quicker this year for him than last year – but slower than the two previous years.
He finished up planting last Wednesday.
“[I’ve been] experimenting [this season] with different nitrogen rates as well as other practices to see what I can use in the future. I love the creativity of [farming] to an extent and the ‘no day or no field’ is the same,” Dengler said before then admitting farming can also be a stressful vocation.
“It is stressful, for sure. I’m thankful for my therapist but the challenge is what makes it worth it. And I’m lucky to do be doing this and have family to help support me achieve this goal. I’m very lucky to have this opportunity – I try to remind myself of that when there are tough days.”
As the fifth generation farming on Dengler land – his grandfather was Vernon Dengler – Dengler feels the pressure to succeed, to keep the farm intact and productive for not only his family and their legacy but for the wider community.
“Traer and Dysart hold a special place in my heart,” Dengler said.
While Dengler continues to take on freelance audio/visual work, write for both the Telegraph and several other media outlets, and perform comedy, he is a farmer first and foremost now, he said – “that’s the breadwinner.”
“I thought sports and entertainment were my ticket [out],” Dengler confessed before adding, “[But] the need for family farms brought me back to wanting to do it.”
Some domains, it seems, are not so easily forgotten.
The May 26 United States Dept. of Agriculture Crop Progress and Condition Report finds Iowa farmers were still planting corn, soybeans, and oats during the past week although planting activities were nearing completion for all three crops.