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.

But the same forces decimating the Red River Valley are eating away at the rest of the state's rural areas. Renville County, Redwood County, Yellow Medicine, Lincoln, Cottonwood, Kandiyohi--all tell the same story: auction sales in the newspaper, worried faces in line at the banks. Farmers who barely held on through the hard times in the 1980s are calling daily to elevator operators, who repeat yesterday's news--prices down and dropping.

For traditional farmers like Richard Serbus, survival comes down to simple math, figures you could scratch out on a slip of scrap paper. Steve Zenk, who teaches at the Ridgewater College farm business management program in Olivia, spends the better part of his days running the numbers on farm country. Take, he says, an acre of corn. Start the formula with the fact that most of the family farmers in Renville County rent more land than they could ever own in today's economy--at a going price of $90 an acre and up. Seed runs an average of $32 an acre. Fertilizer is $55, spray for weeds and insects another $30. Fuel and oil to run a tractor, nothing fancy, cost $11, with $19 for repair and maintenance. Tack on $7 to insure the crop against hail and wind damage, and $9 to dry the corn after harvest. Another $11 goes to the bank to service a farmer's operating or equipment loans. Average bottom line: $264 for one acre of corn.

Say you put in 400 acres of corn--a decent spread for a small-scale farmer in Renville County. Figuring with Zenk's averages, you will spend some $105,600 from planting to harvest. Most farmers only wish they had money like that on hand. They don't, so they take out a federally backed operating loan against last year's crop, which as a rule isn't sold until a year after harvest. Operating loans are short-term, with payment in full usually due within nine months. The average farmer in Renville County, Zenk says, carries a total debt load of $376,000, with a quarter of it--$94,000--due at the end of the year.

Dawn Villella

If you're lucky and the weather's right, the corn didn't dry out, burn from the roots up, or drown. The tractor didn't break down any more than you could fix without help. No blight or scab or worm hit your crop. And you stayed healthy enough to be out in the field every day. You can count, Zenk says, on a yield of 128 bushels of corn on the acre, the average for Renville County.

But then you tune in your radio to the financial crash in Asia and hear that one of your best customers is broke. The farm report announcer says that crops are good in Brazil this year, which means more grain coming onto the market and driving prices down--simple supply-and-demand economics. You phone up the elevator operator for the current price on corn--Is it going to go below $1.50? He tells you it already has. It's at $1.47 a bushel and going down. $188.16 an acre. $75, 264 for your crop. Bottom line: You just paid, this season, $30,336 for the privilege of raising 400 acres of corn. Tell that to the bank.

"There's the guy who won the sweepstakes," says Delores Swoboda. She's sitting at her kitchen table in her farmhouse with the latest press release from state Rep. Steve Wenzel in front of her: Short of something dramatic happening, it reads, agriculture experts predict that as many as 40 percent of Midwest farmers could face bankruptcy in the next year. "So this guy wins 10 million dollars--well, he can afford to farm quite a few years before that's gone." She throws back her head and laughs. Then her face takes on a grim look, and she reaches for another cigarette. "To me, it's a worse crisis than it was in the '80s. They got rid of most of the little guys already. I don't know if there's any hope of saving it."

A fourth-generation farmer and a no-bull rabble-rouser, Swoboda is known far beyond the borders of Renville County. In the early 1980s, she stood front and center in opposing hazardous wastewater dump sites along the Minnesota River. When the family-farm advocacy group Groundswell formed in November 1984, last decade's crisis had already begun to drive her neighbors in Renville County out of business. Swoboda joined the group as the editor of the Groundswell newsletter.

"We were farmers," she explains, "and we always felt like we had an obligation to our community and our little towns and schools and churches. If everybody's going to get foreclosed on and the big people are just going to get bigger and bigger, eventually you're not going to have any small towns or small schools. So we figured we could get together and do some demonstrating, go down to the capitol and in a very peaceful way let people know that there was a heck of a problem out here."

On behalf of Groundswell, she led rallies at farm foreclosures. She brought groups of farmers to St. Paul to buttonhole legislators. She mailed newsletters to more than 2,000 farm families around Minnesota. But she always figured the best thing she could do for farmers was to pick up her phone and listen. "There were so many farmers sitting at home going through depression," she remembers. "Instead of milking his cows, one farmer just sat on a little stool and looked out the window for three days."

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