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.

A good share of farmers who were put off their land went to work for these larger concerns--driving trucks, running combines. In today's livestock business, "vertical integration" gives corporations control over poultry from zygote to drumstick, and hog production is following suit with "contract farms" cropping up all over the plains. For example, Zenk explains, a corporate hog producer will arrange bank credit for a farmer to build a $350,000 barn to hold 4,000 pigs. In a contract agreement not uncommon these days in Renville County, the corporation then pays either for hogs by the head or a flat rate for the building; the farmer pays utilities and interest, and pockets the difference.

For her part, Delores Swoboda says she's seen the raw end of such a deal once too often. "I had a guy stop in here last week on a contract. He was madder than hell. They got the whole farm mortgaged because of that hog barn. They get so much for every hog that comes out the door. But then he's got to pay to run them fans and the electricity in there. The payment comes out of his check for the building, and then the interest, you know, and God, he said, by the time he pays the electricity he doesn't have anything left. He's just coming out with nothing.

"The big concerns are behind the majority of those hog ventures, the farmers' co-ops." Swoboda goes on. "It's big money. It's not just six guys who got together and decided to build a hog barn--it's Cargill, Tyson, Murphy. Let's say Murphy comes out here and wants to build a big hog barn across the road--3,000, 4,000 sows. Well, if that was Murphy Farms, we'd raise hell, wouldn't we? We wouldn't want it to go through. But if it's the neighbor? Well, Ed's got two boys, you know, and he's been raising hogs all his life. We shut up because we think Ed is a hell of a nice guy. Well, Murphy Farms built the building and got Ed to raise pigs for them."

Dawn Villella

Take the analysis a step further, Zenk says, "and we're talking about the capitalist system. Wal-Mart moves in and small businesses suffer. How is this any different? Whether we like it or not, that's the way it is. Farming is evolving like every industry does. But people have this romantic vision of what a farmer is: They think we all wear bib overalls and walk around and say what a good life we have. You know what? That simple life is hard to maintain. They don't ask how much land we farm when we go to the grocery store. They just give us the bill."

"Christ, there was one--I'll never forget it." Delores Swoboda lights another cigarette, clears her throat, and smooths her palm over the kitchen table. "This was '88, '89. Neighbor lady came home and her husband wasn't there. She called upstairs. Nope, wasn't there. You know, she figured he was out somewheres on the farm. He'd be home. Goes about making dinner. Well, she needed something from the basement and opened the door, and she noticed the light was on down there. So she goes downstairs, and oh, for the love of God, there he was. He'd taken a shotgun and shot himself. His neighbor, his best friend, was a farmer I'd been talking to because he'd been having his problems. He called me up that night, a great big fella he was, and he was crying so as I couldn't even understand him. I says, 'What's wrong? What happened?' He says, 'Oh, Jesus.' Says his best friend's name. 'I just cleaned his brains off the wall.' His friend's wife had called him up after she found the body and he had gone over there to help her out. It'd come in the mail that day, the foreclosure notice. He found it sitting there on the kitchen table."

At the Bird Island Farmers Elevator Co., midway across the county on Highway 212, a farm truck loaded with corn is idling in the gravel lot. It's the middle of August, a hot and rainless day. Inside the main office, a farmer slouches against the countertop, stroking his big beard and swirling the coffee in the bottom of his plastic cup. The air smells of chaff and dust. A dry-erase board lists the day's prices: Corn is at $1.66 a bushel. John McNamara, who manages the elevator, pokes his head out from his office where he's been watching prices flash across his computer screen. He nods at the farmer. "Up two cents. You want to sell, or hold off to see if it goes up?"

The farmer stares down into his cup for a second, then shrugs. "Can't sit here all day drinking coffee."

The truck pulls up onto McNamara's new digital scale and weighs in. Then the elevator hands tip the truck bed up, and golden grain pours out into a grate on the floor. The elevator rattles into motion, lifting its load 75 feet into the air and dumping it into the storage bin.

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