Iowa farmer Taylor Johnson is able to give his grandfather, Norman Johnson, 93, a ride in their combine during the fall harvest season. Their Facebook video of the helping lift went viral. Rodney White/The Register
LE GRAND, Ia. — Norman Johnson peered through the large window inside the garage-turned-guest home he and his father built on their family farm.
Sitting in his green-colored recliner, his weary eyes gazed at a new bird feeder placed nearby the farmhouse where he was born in 1924.
A grin cracked the face of the longtime farmer — who is also the star of what’s now a viral video, involving a combine, a forklift and some ingenuity, that demonstrates his closeness to his family and to the land.
“He hopes to die here,” Johnson’s son, Steven, 59, said in the gravel driveway early Thursday, leading the way toward the front door of where his dad resides. “It’s full circle.
“He’s ready to die — he’s had a full life. He’s not wanting to die, but … he’s almost 94. “
Norman Johnson, 93, lives with dementia, Steven said. His wife passed away in 1993. And since her death Norman has lived by himself here in Marshall County.
Relatives have noticed his memory and mobility worsening. For about a month now, Norman has been living on the 120-acre property with Steven and his wife, Barb.
“He was stubborn, didn’t want to move down here,” Steven said. “But he’s loved it ever since.”
When Norman was growing up, his parents raised turkeys, which helped them get through the Great Depression. They would even send turkeys to presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, Steven said.
After high school, Norman joined the U.S. Navy and fought during World War II. He has been farming full time near Le Grand since 1951.
For the past few harvest seasons, Norman has joined his grandson, Taylor, 25, in the combine picking crops. It’s become a special time for the pair to bond as they make their way across the property.
Taylor refers to his grandfather as his “shotgun rider.”
“It’s my favorite day of the year when he comes out and rides,” Taylor said. “He tells me the stories about when he was farming on this same ground, and we rehash all the old stories.”
He credits Norman for being the one who “planted the seed” for his own farming passion.
“He was the first one that showed me how to drive a tractor,” Taylor said. “When I was in junior high and started helping in the fall, he was the one that taught me how to run the auger wagons.
“He means a lot to me. He’s my role model.”
On Oct. 23, Taylor’s younger brother, Zack, 21, recorded video of how Norman is able to climb and enter the combine at his age. Utilizing a forklift, as seen in the 2-minute clip, Norman and Taylor stand together in the basket as Steven drives toward the combine.
Once the platform is raised and leveled with the combine’s walkway, Taylor carefully and gradually helps his grandfather step up and into the cab.
“When we were out here picking the other day, Dad went and got him and put him in the truck and drove him along the side so he can see. And that’s when I told Dad: ‘I bet we can get him up here using the forklift,’ ” Taylor explained. “Dad thought that was a good idea and we did it.
“I’m so thankful that we did because we got a couple more rides out of it.”
Pretty creative, right? Norman has told the family multiple times that he could have stuck to just using the stairs, however.
Taylor posted the video on his Facebook page later that evening. As of 11 a.m. Monday, it has more than 325,000 views and 2,500 shares.
There have also been hundreds of comments from Facebook users in Iowa and across the country, many praising how wonderful it was to witness the kind act and love Taylor has for his grandfather.
“They must all really like you, Grandpa,” Taylor said. “The whole world wants to see you riding in the combine.”
Norman said riding in the combine nowadays with his grandson is “a real honor.”
“I enjoy that a lot because it was riding in the modern way of farming now,” he said. “That was so much different than when I was just a kid learning to farm.”
He continuously tells Steven and Taylor after their trips together that this is going to be his last time joining them.
“He said: ‘This is the last time I’m ever going to bother you to do this.’ And I said: ‘Well, it’s no bother, but you’ve been saying that for years,’ ” Steven explained as everyone laughed inside Norman’s residence. “We’ll see what next year brings.”
Norman will turn 94 in February. In 2022, it will be the Johnson family farm’s centennial. Keeping it under the family name — and continuing to do so — has long been a goal of Taylor’s.
“The family farms (in Iowa) are dwindling,” he said. “People get older and a lot of the time that next generation doesn’t want to keep doing it, so then they rent it out to other people or sell it out or something to bigger farms.
“It means a lot to have that heritage here and stay with the family.”
And the foundation the entire Johnson family has created and sustained since the 1920s is built upon three components:
“We all put God first, don’t we?” Taylor asks Norman. “God’s really blessed us over the years, hasn’t he?”
Norman replies: “Yes, absolutely.”
“The second thing is all three of us have good, godly, supporting wives,” Taylor continues. “You did, till she passed away.”
The soft-spoken Norman nods his head in agreement: “Yep.”
“And we all three learned how to work really hard, didn’t we?” Taylor finishes.
Norman acknowledges: “We work awfully hard.
” … And I still like farming. … The best part … is living on a farm.”
Aaron Young is a reporter at The Des Moines Register, focusing on what Iowans are talking about on the internet and on social media. Follow @AaYoung15 on Twitter and on Facebook: Facebook.com/AaronYoung28.
Roger Zylstra harvest soybeans on his farm near Kellogg, Iowa, working into the night to catch up after a wet week prior. Rodney White and Michael Zamora/The Register