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.

Serbus credits his thrift and his cows as the reason he's still in business today. "When everybody else was out vacationing, we were into our milking. And even though sometimes you're not making that much money, you're not out spending it." He's also managed somehow to keep his debt load low, paying cash as often as he can afford it, and taking the balance out of his household budget. Just, as they say, scraping by and making do.

During the '80s farm crisis, he stopped spraying his crops to save money, and ended up harvesting thistle and weed along with the grain. "You buckle your belt real tight," he says. "It was tough. The most upsetting thing of it was that smaller farms were snuffed out--and the larger ones, the federal government forgave their debts. I could name four of them around here. One was a million dollars. Just forgave them." Stories about injustice, these days, are standard fare among farmers around Renville County. There's this one Serbus tells, confirmed by his neighbors with the same stoic rage. There's the one about farmers, without naming names, who've declared bankruptcy but managed to salvage their farms in court. The one about the 2-year-old kid who suddenly owned 1,000 acres and a $200,000 combine after his grandfather went belly-up and transferred the title to ensure that the property stayed in the family. Stories about despair, about suicide and bizarre deals made on paper just to keep from owning nothing.

Serbus's youngest son Galen is short and stocky, with wide eyes and a ready grin. At 24 he carries himself with the energy of youth, every move quick and agile. While his father prepares to go haying, Galen slips on his boots, cranks up some rock 'n' roll on the boom box in the dairy barn, and starts milking the cows--a chore he's assumed as part of his try at taking over the farm from his father. He buys all the supplies for the 20 cows, milks them twice a day, and pockets the profit. He's full of ideas about the farm--somewhere between a young man's foolishness and strategic planning for a future that holds little stock in traditional, small-scale agriculture. "My dream," he says, "is to get a decent milking system, with piping, one of those computer boxes that run the whole works." In the meantime, he uses a couple of five-gallon milking machines for the painstaking process, cow by cow.

When he got out of high school, Galen went to work on a factory farm, a huge hog operation nearby that housed thousands of sows. He worked his way up, from artificially inseminating sows to training new employees. In his early 20s he was already earning what he considered good money--$23,000 a year. All the while he was looking for a way to get back on the farm.

He's quit the job, and still he's trying to find his way into the farm. "It just doesn't pencil out," he says, "I just can't see the way to make it work." Last year Galen put in 30 acres of hay in a move he thought would save him on feed for the dairy herd. His dad gave him a family discount on rent, loaned him seed and fertilizer, and let him use the machinery for free. He skipped crop insurance because he couldn't afford it. But a late freeze destroyed the whole crop.

He seeded his land with corn then, hoping to recoup his losses. Corn came up all right. Even with last year's high yields and a price of around $2 a bushel on corn, Galen didn't stand to gain much from his crop. When he stacked up what he'd made from selling corn against what he owed his father, he found that he'd just broken even. He's still paying back his dad, but he's thankful, at least, that he didn't borrow from the bank.

"If you'd talked to me before last year," Galen says before heading off, "there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to do this. Absolutely. I quit a decent job to come back to the farm." Now? He shrugs. "I don't know. It's one heck of a decision I'm facing. I don't know what I'm going to do." This spring, Galen didn't plant any crops on his father's land. He's sticking to milking, hoping to build up a nest egg. In the meantime, maybe commodity prices will come up again.

His father is hanging on for another year, and probably another. "The sooner I cut out and retire, the harder it's going to be on him," he says. "To make it easier for him, I'll stay in. Give him more time." He shoots a dour look at the dairy barn, inclines his head toward the faint strains of rock 'n' roll and the clanking of milk cans. "He's losing interest. You can tell it. And I can't even really blame him for that."

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