Farmers walk a delicate tightrope


“There were times we wondered how we kept from starving to death, but as long as mama had eggs from our laying hens after she had sold enough to fill orders, we knew we would survive. We felt lucky when papa brought rabbit home from the woods, and if there were still carrots and onions left from the garden, we were a happy bunch.”

— Ralph Moody

My dad used to say that farmers were the only group that bought retail and sold wholesale, and he spent his life trying to figure out how to balance the scales of justice in the farmers’ favor.

I was chatting with my boss recently who spent time with a nice farm family years ago out West while on a hunting trip. The family raised potatoes, and he wondered how they survived. The potato market was a tough market in which to come out ahead, because the size of each potato had to be fairly uniform when marketed. Too many small potatoes or misshapen ones meant that the whole delivered lot was scratched as worthless.

Thinking back

This reminded me of the year our corn crop looked spectacular. Rains had come in a nice, even manner all through the growing season. There was great weed control, no sign of any bug battles going on. The corn tasseled out right on schedule, the ears filling out beautifully.

Dad would ride from farm to farm, checking on each field with a glimmer of self-satisfaction and accomplishment. He felt, for once, there would be no cuts taken at market on this nearly perfect crop.

I was in high school by this time, my older sisters grown, married and starting families, two of them also building farms of their own. I had come to realize for the first time in my life, really, the terrible high-stakes gamble of farming. I had a basic understanding of how high all of the inputs of crop farming tally up to. I was the one doing the milking and barn chores when Dad was out working ground, spraying, planting, which was no different than years passed.

But, I now was old enough to ask how the spring planting was going, and to ask specific questions about costs.

Breathing room

We had just come through the mid-70s, and farmers were prospering. Finally.

It looked as though things were going to turn around for so many, and some farmers were buying up land just because they could. Some actually took vacations for the first time in their lives, because there was finally a little spending money left over when the crops came in.

My father remained guarded and skeptical, diversifying his investments, keeping his land equity strong.

Fuel increase

Then came the later ’70s, and fuel prices started to rise. As fuel prices jumped, so did so many other inputs. The balance sheet started to lean too heavily in the wrong direction for so many.

This is the year we had the great corn crop. It was a very fruitful crop, the Gleaner combine barely moving across the field far at all until it was time to unload the combine in to the waiting gravity wagon.

Not good

I saw the look of sheer joy for a short time before a veil of concern seemed to fall. The moisture content on this huge crop was high, meaning it was going to cost more than ever to dry it down enough to sell or even to safely store it.

Every farmer in the region had a bumper crop, which inevitably was bad news for all of them. There is always a fly in the ointment for farmers.

I finished milking one night, walked up to the dryer bins, and realized immediately by the look on Dad’s face something was very wrong.

Corn prices had plummeted to a mere 80 cents a bushel that day, a blow nearly as crushing as the crash of 1929 for grain farmers. The energy required to dry down this bumper crop had spiked to unprecedented levels. Suddenly, this great crop was a liability.

$300 bag of seed

Fast forward to present day. The cost of one bag of seed corn is now roughly $300 and will plant 2 1/2 acres. That is only the seed. Add in the cost of planting and harvesting equipment, fertilizer, weed-control, pest control, plus the high cost of the fuel to get it all done. The farmer who orchestrates all of this operates at his own risk.

What will it cost to harvest the crop, to dry it down, to sell it at an unknown price?

For the farmer, the motto remains: work hard, work smart, proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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