Everything Must Go

How to step away from a hundred years of family farming--in four hours or less

Allen Peris's combine is a Massey Ferguson 850, a boxy, ketchup-red thing that looks like a toothy Zamboni. When Peris bought the machine, in the early '80s, it was top of the line. Farming has changed since then, and farm equipment with it. Now he worries that the combine won't fetch a fair price at his upcoming farm auction, where, along with the dated Massey machine, he'll be getting rid of his old tractors, augers, grain bins, and all manner of odds and ends accumulated during a lifetime of farming. After almost 40 years, Peris is getting out of the business: Everything must go. But he worries that there are simply fewer and fewer small farmers like him around who might have use for such modest equipment.

When I dropped by to visit a couple of days before the auction, Peris was out in the yard setting up and cleaning his machinery in preparation for the sale. He was wearing short sleeves and suspenders, and his forearms were tanned and ropy with muscle. Beneath the rim of his baseball cap, Peris's face was sun-lined. But his eyes were bright and clear and strikingly blue. Peris was reserved but not unfriendly in the manner of a man who's grown used to spending his days alone. It was muggy already at 9:00 a.m., and the stillness of the air suggested an oncoming storm. Sure enough, within half an hour, a menacing black thunderhead had blown in from the northwest.

You can see weather coming a long way off in Renville County, a flat, exceptionally fertile area about two hours south and west of the Twin Cities, just beyond the groping tendrils of suburban development. Highway 212 bisects Renville, running west to the South Dakota border. Blacktop and dirt roads further divide the county into a tidy checkerboard of soybean and cornfields edged with cottonwood windbreaks.

Would you like to buy a tractor? An auger? An ice-fishing lure? Mary and Allen Peris in the weeks after the auction
Bill Kelley
Would you like to buy a tractor? An auger? An ice-fishing lure? Mary and Allen Peris in the weeks after the auction

Peris has lived in Renville his entire life. He jokes that he's moved only once, when his family tore down the old farmhouse and built a new one six feet to the south, on the site of an old strawberry patch. His grandfather, who came from Germany, bought the land from the railroad. After a stint driving a livestock truck into South St. Paul, Peris's father took over the farm in the '30s. His two brothers farmed the place across the road. Peris, in turn, took over the operation when his father died, in 1967. He started with 160 acres, but soon bought another 160. Later, he added another 40 acres, then rented 80 more.

At the county fair, the farm bureau gives out certificates to families that have been on the same land for 100 years or more. Peris has never claimed his award, though. It's not terribly uncommon to find families in Renville County who've worked their spread for well over a century.

Inside the bright and immaculately clean farmhouse, Peris's wife, Mary, was waiting with coffee, cold iced tea, and muffins. Curio cabinets in the living room displayed Mary's collection of Santa Claus figurines. Mary was a first-grade teacher in the local school district for 34 years. When she retired last year, she and Allen agreed that the time had come to get out of farming. Though they plan to continue living on the farm--Peris has already rented his land to a younger neighbor--they'd also like to enjoy the freedom retirement affords while they're still young enough to do so.

"We decided that a long time ago," Allen said. "There were things we wanted to do that maybe we physically couldn't do in 10 years. Climb mountains. Things like that." After the auction, they were planning on taking a church retreat to Alaska. Then they were going to drive the RV parked in the driveway down to Florida and do some fishing in the mangrove swamps there.

Before she married Allen in 1971, Mary had never lived on a farm. "She had a little hard time at first," Allen said. "Her idea of income was a monthly check on a regular schedule. And farming is: You harvest a crop and then you sell it. That's all there is to it, really. You don't know how many bushels you're going to sell, and you don't know what the price is going to be."

Mary came over from the kitchen and sat down with us at the dining room table. "The thing that drove me crazy about it," she said, "is that a person can go out and do the very best job. You can work yourself into the ground. And if it doesn't rain, it didn't do any good. If the prices are bad, it didn't do any good. I wanted to go crazy, thinking, How can you do all this work and you don't know if you'll get anything out of it? But that's just how it is. You know, he was always so calm about it."

Allen shrugged. "You just put your faith in God and hope you'll make enough to keep living."

Mary said, "I can remember the year after we got married, we had planned a trip up to the Boundary Waters, and Allen kept waiting and waiting [to sell the corn]. He said, 'I think corn's going to hit $2.' So we waited, and finally corn hit $2." That was more than three decades ago. "On Saturday, corn was $1.86 in town. So the only solution is to grow more of it. Not only more acres. You also need a higher yield per acre."

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