Growing, Owing, Gone

The farm crisis was supposed to be over a decade ago­when the TV crews packed up and the celebrities went home. But in places like Renville County, farmers have been harvesting hard times ever since.

Richard Serbus didn't pick up his "Century Farm" award plaque at the fair last month. He had work to get done in his fields, and besides, he told the Minnesota Farm Bureau in his R.S.V.P., he's never been one for "big city driving." Serbus's family has farmed the same land for 100 years--a distinction shared by 250 other honorees this year. He owns some 500 corn and soybean acres in Renville County, a couple of hours south and west of the Twin Cities. His father farmed the spread before him, and his grandfather before him. His great-grandfather homesteaded 160 acres across the road.

When Serbus and his wife Mary-Nina got word he'd won the award in the first week of August, corn was selling for around $1.80 a bushel, down 60 cents since the same time last summer. By the time it arrived in the mail three weeks ago, corn was down another 20 cents, making the harvest he's about to bring in worth less than he'd imagined possible--even during the 1980s farm crisis--and his "Century Farm" citation all the more ironic. His more pressing worry now is that by the turn of the century, the Serbus farm will be on its way out of the family--parceled up and rented, sold off to the highest bidder, as good as gone. He hasn't gotten around to it yet, but he's planning to nail the aluminum plaque to his pump house.

Serbus is proud of the four generations of farmers his award praises. But the recognition is bittersweet. The price of corn is the lowest it's been in nearly 15 years. Soybeans are down, too. Hogs, milk, beef--all priced like it's 1983 again. Serbus is not alone in knowing that Minnesota farmers are spending this fall season harvesting debt--by conservative estimates, an average of 70 to 80 dollars' worth for every acre of corn in Renville County.

When he was a young man, Serbus says, he could stand on his doorstep, look out in all directions, and see small farms like his stretching off to the horizon. Now his property is an island in a sea of land leased to large-scale operations. Eleven farmers on neighboring spreads have given up their businesses since the farm crisis of the 1980s--surrendered to heavy debt, retired under financial pressure and rented out their acres, sold off to the new breed of large-scale farmers. When he cares to talk about it, Serbus can name six other farmers within 10 miles of his home who've committed suicide rather than face bankruptcy or foreclosure.

Today big outfits surround him--2,000-, 3,000-, 6,000-acre spreads planted by a single farmer and his hired hands or by a farmers' cooperative. Huge, state-of-the-art combines work the fields like giants grown up to fit a new geography that's turned massive in scale and global in scope. Serbus is beginning to feel anachronistic, with his century-old barn, mere 500 acres, and all-purpose John Deere. This time around, with prices going only lower and the cost of running a viable operation skyrocketing, he's gotten to wondering if the family farm is about to go down in history.

Still, Serbus would like to pass the farm down to a fifth generation. He'd like to think the market will brighten, that a hardworking man, like his youngest son Galen, could pull a future out of the fields. "I turned 62 this spring," he says, gazing around the farm at the old, rust-colored outbuildings where he's spent his life working. "I'm trying to retire. But with these prices I can see there's no way Galen can buy it out. If he throws in the towel, there will be no point in my going on. I'll just have an auction sale and rent the farm off. And to whom? The small farmers will be gone, and you'll be renting to someone you don't want to--some big cooperative with thousands of acres. I don't know what it's coming to. All I know is it's coming fast."

Renville County lies north of the Minnesota River in the center of the southern half of Minnesota. Highway 212 intersects the county east to west, running alongside the old Twin City & Western Railroad track. Small towns are lined up along it like beads on a string, clusters of houses and shops grown up around railroad grain elevators in Buffalo Lake, Hector, Bird Island, Danube, Renville, Sacred Heart. Olivia, the county seat with a population of 2,500, sits dead center and boasts two motels, a stand of bars along the main strip, a canning factory, and an Old West hotel where immigrant farm laborers live.

The rest of Renville County is a grid of two-lane roads, with miles of fields on either side--corn and soybeans mostly, and sugar beets, sweet peas, alfalfa, hay--all platted into meticulous squares within the section boundaries. With beans on both sides, you can see the horizon blurred by haze that shimmers up out of the crops. With corn, the byways turn into flaxen tunnels.

This county isn't the worst-hit farm region in Minnesota. That distinction belongs to the Red River Valley in the state's northwest corner, where five years of wheat scab and floods have taken turns wiping out crops and compounding stagnant commodity prices. There's fertile land in Renville, 600,000 acres of it, which ought to be more than enough for the county's 1,300 farmers to earn a living on. Even with the past few weeks of dry weather, farmers here are in for a bumper crop. The profusion of life and vitality is obvious in these fields; stand quiet for a while, with crickets whirring all around, the taste of plant sugar in the air, crops swishing when a wind comes by, and trouble seems as distant as winter.

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