Weeds: A time to sow, and a time to hope for profits

Here we go. It will soon be a time to plant, according to the calendar and Ecclesiastes. Farmers are greasing, fixing, and praying for cooperating weather. It is only one step on the way to growing a crop. But you can’t get to Z (harvest) without starting at A.

It’s exciting to use the skills we have acquired to get seeds in the ground. There is no better feeling than being bone-tired after a day of planting. After forty-some years of these, I have had near-perfect springs and dreadful ones. My wife will vouch that I am as happy or as grumpy as soil conditions dictate.

All of us farmers share this work. We cross paths at the parts counter, our seed dealer’s warehouse, and the line fence. There is natural optimism that comes with planting a new crop. We gladly talk about receding snow banks and drying fields.

If conversation goes deeper though, it gets less cheery. Spring-planting sunshine clouds over. The facts: net farm income has been halved since 2013. Farming returns are at their lowest level since the Eighties. Costs trickle down; meanwhile commodity prices fell off a cliff. Markets were already weak; tariffs put on by trading partners pounded them further. Farm foreclosures are rising.

Behind facts and numbers are real people, people you and I know. Some farmers are renting out the land, not seeing a reason for putting such time and money into iffy returns. Others who hoped to bring a kid into the operation are encouraging them to get a job where they know they’ll get paid at the end of the pay-period.

The last few years have been particularly difficult for dairy farmers. The use of the word “crisis” is not hyperbole. Minnesota and Wisconsin were the center of the dairy industry for decades. Last year, a thousand dairy farmers quit in those two states. Several friends sold their cows.

In The World That I Grew Up In, our farm, like most farms, had chickens, pigs, and cows. Poultry became concentrated in large facilities in the 1960’s and 70’s. Pork production followed in the 80’s and 90’s. And now dairy. It doesn’t seem to make much sense when returns are negative, but several giant dairy farms are being built in Minnesota. There will be cows in Minnesota. Only most will be in CAFO’s — concentrated animal feeding operations — not “barns.”

Dairy farming is still the best way to treat the land. Field to feed to cow to manure to field is a perfect loop. The rotation can be other than corn and soybeans. There has been attrition of dairy farms since my dad sold his cows in 1975. The ones that remained in this century were the best, the most committed. The crazy thing is, there are people who enjoy that work and lifestyle. If there were profits, dairy farmers’ kids would be taking over.

Crop farming has remained widely dispersed. Around Sleepy Eye and New Ulm that has been especially true, as families with deep roots worked the fields. There are a number like me who farm some land, maybe have off-farm work, maybe have some livestock. Many are on the farms we grew up on.

I look around and a lot are my age, or older. What does this look like in 20 years? I’ve had this conversation with a couple farmers this winter. There are a few sons coming home to farm, but not many. I enjoy talking with the young people who are. They are enthusiastic and smart. They even know how to program a planter monitor, which I struggle with.

But there are fewer sons entering than fathers leaving. That has been the trend my whole life. Every time we have one of these downturns, it means fewer farmers. Ten jump off the boat, for every eight who climb back on.

Ag technology continues its march from horses to hydraulics to auto-steer to self-driving tractors. One sees a future with fewer people. These remarkable machines aren’t and won’t be cheap. It makes sense to run them over more acres. Take down line fences, pattern tile fields, bulldoze groves, suddenly there’s a lot fewer people in the picture.

In previous eras when low prices prevailed there were protests. During the Depression, the Farmer’s Holiday Association rose up to demand help from newly-elected President Roosevelt. The American Agriculture Movement organized a tractorcade on Washington. In Minnesota, Groundswell held rallies at the Capitol in the Eighties.

You don’t hear much now. No one is driving a tractor to Washington. Looking back on earlier hard times, there were more of us out here, more of us to care. In the Thirties, a majority of Americans were tied to farms. Even into the Eighties, most maintained a familial connection to a piece of land, grandparents to visit, maybe a cousin on the home place. Readers who have such ties now are in a minority.

I hate to say this, but there is a sense of resignation I don’t remember when I was younger. Back then, there were questions whether pigs in confinement or hens in cages would work. For sure, cows needed too much attention to be raised in large herds. Fields needed someone to go out and hoe the cockleburs. Now there are 48-row planters and robot milkers. Robots don’t need a coffee/doughnut break at 10 a.m.

I want to say here, I know people who own and work for the large livestock operations. They are good people, responsible employers, and important drivers to our rural economy. They took advantage of what was given in a changing agriculture, when many of us would have been frightened to take such risks. It has never been useful to pit small farmers against large farmers.

But I think it is fair to ask, could things have been different? You look at the Farm Bill and see that has done more to promote consolidation than prevent it. There have never been effective limits on subsidies, so it reduced risk for expansion. Maybe our land grant colleges could have focused research on farms of a moderate size. Maybe politicians could have enforced anti-trust laws that were on the books but largely ignored.

I love this job. The work is a blend of physical and smarts. I know these acres like family. Some are easy to get along with, others are difficult. If it were up to me, I’d do this forever: planting seeds each spring, watching them grow, caring for plants, bringing the harvest six months from now. A Krzmarzick has been doing something like that for 120 years on this place. It begins to look possible that will end. That makes me a little sad.

It’s a little sad to see less of us sharing in this ancient art of growing things. When I’m done writing, I’m going to go outside and try not to think about any of this. There’s a crop to plant.