“Things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you become bitter and give up. Heartache happens to break you down and build you up so you can be all that you were intended to be.”
Life on dairy farms in the 1970s proved to be a very good time indeed. I was too young to know it, but I recall the feeling that things were going well. Salesmen who called on our family dairy farm seemed to have a skip in their step, even as my dad sent them on their way.
We had survived all that was thrown our way in 1969, including the flood that threatened everything. I recall the era of carousel dairies and the Harvestore silo. Those blue monsters appeared on the farm scene and scattered the horizon, prompting me to ask if we were ever going to get one. We didn’t.
My dad was a conservative sort. I was coming of age at a time when things were still going well, and I moved to North Carolina with the notion that I might never come back north except for an occasional visit.
I signed up for college classes, studying journalism, and landed a great job with the American National Red Cross. It was an incredibly exhilarating time.
Suddenly, gas prices started to rise, right along with consumer interest rates. Dad would call me to see how I was doing, and often we would end up discussing a changing economic and political climate. He felt that many area farmers were feeling an incredible pinch, and I will never forget one comment that he made.
“Even if some of these guys can hang on for now, I have to wonder how many will still be farming in 20 or 30 years.”
More export markets needed to be aggressively pursued, and no one seemed to be focusing on that in Washington.
It was homesickness and the desire to be part of the lives of my young nieces and nephews that ended up driving me north again in the early 1980s.
I eventually landed a job as editor of an agricultural newspaper and found myself covering some mighty tough news stories. I reported on the farmers’ walk down Main Street, ending at the farm credit office, with a small group of area farmers protesting high interest rates and an agonizingly high number of pending farm foreclosures.
One man who I interviewed in-depth that day is no longer here to tell his story. A few years after he had organized this walk, he took his own life.
The situation had become volatile, with commercial, short-term interest rates approaching and even reaching 20 percent. Farm foreclosures became so numerous that suddenly agricultural lenders were forced to take a second look at balance sheets of even the most solid loans.
Numbers were juggled, and those who had once held a high equity balance of assets in their overall portfolio were suddenly told things didn’t look quite so solid, though they had not done one thing different than they had one year earlier.
There is fear once again, as too many factors aligned at just the wrong time. Even though interest rates are low, inputs to produce a crop continue to rise, and export markets are threatened or gone for good due to political posturing at farmers’ expense, which does not bode well for long-term cash crop income.
A disastrous spring has only added to the strain. In past survival stories, progressive thinkers who were conservative operators, or those who found a way to expand in to new agricultural ventures without taking on debt, are the ones who survived.
I recall the story of one man who allowed me to interview him at length over the course of several months, even appearing on a telecast together. His entire life he had looked forward to farming.
He had been active in FFA all through school and found a way to go to college to study agri-business at a time when few did so. He returned to his family farm and put in an impressive dairy set-up and worked at building a high-producing Holstein herd.
He not only loved what he was doing, but said he could not comprehend doing anything else. He was one of those young men caught in the asset to debt ratio struggle of the 1980s.
I could see his fear and his pain. He was standing on shaky ground and he knew it. When the foreclosure notice appeared in the local newspaper, I choked back that lump in the throat and wondered how in the world he would survive this heartbreak.
The years rolled on, and some of the painful memories dimmed. I was at a basketball game and happened to run in to that farmer who had once been the hard-working FFA stalwart. He smiled and waved to me, then headed my way. We talked about the team and our families for a little while, and then the conversation came around to what he was doing now.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” he told me. His smile was so sincere that there was no room for doubt. It was music to the ears to learn that he had found an agriculturally-based profession that suited him to a tee.
After a nice conversation, as he began to turn to walk away, he said, “Wait. I have to say this: there are all sorts of ways to rebuild a life. There are all kinds of ways to be happy,” he shook my hand and walked away.
He turned and added with a smile, “And you can quote me on that!” His smile could have lit up an entire loafing shed. It is that smile I hold on to when challenging events threaten.
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