Has farming ever been more exciting and more nerve-wracking at the same time?
I had the opportunity to talk with a life-long farmer who I respect greatly one morning last week, and we discussed the ups and downs of this incredible agricultural scene. He was debating how much of his corn crop to contract, saying, “The prices are higher than I ever thought I would see them in my lifetime, but you also stand to lose more than ever, too.”
I know that here on our 70-acre farm, we feel the decisions weighing heavier than ever. We spent money we would have rather not shelled out on wildly expensive fertilizer in order to hopefully perk our stand of alfalfa to a crop that would help us pay the bills.
The fertilizer did the job, bringing on a first crop that looked like manna from heaven. The trouble was, in the end, it was so plentiful that once it was mowed and tedded, we held our breath hoping for it to dry before the rains moved in.
The day the rains were predicted to arrive, so did equipment trouble. That beautiful hay was lying in wait. While the heavy rain hit, I went to the mailbox, only to find that our second-half real estate taxes had arrived in the mail. It felt like some punk was delighting in our bad luck, holding bunny ears over our heads and laughing sarcastically.
The news media is carrying reports that lead the public to believe that the farmers of the world are getting rich and dancing in delight while the average joe suffers in the grocery store. One Associated Press headline in late May read, “As food prices spiral, farmers, others profit” and told that in Minnesota alone, the median income for crop farmers soared 80 percent in the past year to $95,000.
What this news does not spell out, and most outside of the circle of agricultural simply cannot begin to know, is that these same farmers who are selling corn and wheat for near-record highs, have suffered through many years of crushingly low prices, working hard while taking gambles with their money and the weather and existing at near-poverty levels.
They have invested in land and equipment that carries dollar figures that most city dwellers could not begin to guess or comprehend. These farmers have suffered in silence, wondering how they would keep up with rising input costs, while the public enjoyed steady prices in the grocery aisles.
Finally, some things have changed. The prices of corn, soybean and wheat have been pushed to new highs by a combination of high demand and sudden, new money from hedge fund traders who, for years, have shown little interest in those markets.
Grain farmers are suddenly going to improve their net worth this year, and there might be enough money to buy some badly needed new equipment, which is good for the implement dealers who have been hanging in there for all these years with the farmers, all just biding their time.
The good news, too, is that the farmer’s land is now worth more as a producing entity than as land to be lotted up for housing. That is a breath of fresh air. But, still, there is so much that the outsider does not see.
Fertilizer, seed, diesel fuel, propane, land debt, aging equipment — all of it is a huge weight in operating costs. The expense of powering the tractor just to move across the field is chokingly high. The cost of liquid propane to power a corn-drying bin is soaring right along with everything else.
As always, there is still so very much that is out of the farmer’s control. This, as always, includes the weather. Now I know why my dear dad was always a nervous wreck during hay-making season. We knew to grow suddenly silent for the noon weather report.
While we sell our hay from this farm as a cash crop to help pay the many bills that come along with owning a nice chunk of land, my dad was feeding his hay to a large herd of milk cows. The better the hay, the better the milk check.
A ruined hay crop would cost him in entirely too many ways to even contemplate.
As my stomach knotted while watching storm clouds gather to the west of our hay field, I wished, for the millionth time, that I could sit down with my dad and have a good, long talk. He would have loved this farm and delighted in our living here, but he would be stoking his pipe and worrying over the weather right along with us!