Land Minds coffee clache

Members of the Chatterbox “Round Table” include (clockwise from bottom): Jim Simpson, Larry Baumgartner, Bob Wertish, Tom Rauenhorst, Smokey Walton, Jim Zenk, Bob Mehlhouse and Howard Thomas.

Recognizing it was my turn for Land Minds, I woke up this morning (March 26) thinking about a Q & A session at the Round Table.  I’m speaking of our morning coffee sessions at the Chatterbox Café — the venerable ‘intelligence center’ of Renville County.

So now it’s  8:30 a.m.  Six at the Round Table (now referenced as the RT), plus a couple of late arrivals.  I shared my intentions. Our good waitress refilled three coffee pots and away we went!

With big snow piles still around the Chatterbox parking lot, my obvious lead question was, “When will planting start this year?”  With eight seated at the RT (three retired farmers plus five others retired, but not farmers) I’m using only first names to protect the innocent — of which there are zero in this bunch.  However, our group features two Bobs, so I reference them as Older Bob and Younger Bob. Both Bobs have sons now running their farms.

Older Bob ventured, “It looks no sooner than late April to me”.  Younger Bob said, “That sounds likely — providing no more snow storms or heavy rains.”

Larry, our retired Olivia city crew member chuckled, “Bob, you just retired.  You said your son was doing the farming.  You were just going to make certain you got your dock in early.”  Jim, retired plumbing supply sales man ventured, “I just look out my window. If I see Jim in his field I figure it’s time for me to plant radishes.” 

Smokey, our Ohio immigrant who ventured to the Renville, Minn. sugar beet plant from Ohio sugar processing work was specific. “I would say maybe 15th to 16th.”  That prompted Howard, a 59-year shearing sheep veteran, ”You sugar beet guys … always precise to the day.  How the hell do you know?”  

But reality spiked when table talk turned to money.  “Sounds like a few won’t be farming this year,” was the gloomy comment of all three retired farmers and echoed by Tom and Jim.  “And it looks like it’s catching the full range. Both younger and older guys getting squeezed out.”

Younger Bob talks with bankers frequently (social chatter he claims). His bankers tell him a few area farmers aren’t getting operating loans this year.  “And they don’t want to chew up any more of their retirement equity, so they’re electing to quit farming.” But the consensus of the brain trust at the RT was, there’s always a few farmers willing to take on more acres if they can rent for $200 or less. And that’s the challenge: land owners still wanting $250 or more.

Are more sheep the answer? That suggestion stymied the table. But Howard, our sheep shearing veteran (with an estimate of a little over 900,000 shorn sheep), said he couldn’t recall a sheep farmer ever going broke!  The seven non-sheep guys around the table guffawed that comment. “Howard, you got some of that sheep wool lodged in your brain.” Yep, the RT crew isn’t bashful about biting back.  However, our good shepherd ignored their comments and reminded us that sheep are making good money today. “There’s more and more ethnic people across the country — even here in this area — who only eat lamb meat. Wool is in demand too.”

Smokey, our Ohio migrant, got into trucking after retiring from Southern Minnesota Sugar Co-op. He was primarily hauling seeds — both corn and sugar beet seed.  Olivia is the corn center of Minnesota and at one time had four different brands of seed corn produced in the area.  Also, Southern Minnesota Sugar Cooperative is the world’s largest. 

These 2,000-mile trucking runs gave him a bird’s eye view of agriculture. “Midwest farmers are the best,” Smokey claimed. “And the best money-making farmers are the Mennonites, the Amish and the Hutterites.  I recall stopping at a Nebraska Hutterite irrigated farm. The only thing he was irrigating was his pasture. Why I asked? That’s the only crop making me money. If I got water left I’ll then water my corn too.” 

I asked my RT veterans why dairy farms have disappeared from Renville County … only three left. Quick response was dairy cows left because that’s hard work. Jim recalled his dad had eight cows. “20 cows was a good-sized farm herd 40 years ago.”  Jim left the farm three years ago, moving into Olivia. So the Chatterbox is only a 5-minute drive.  

So my next question to these grizzled veterans:  “Will your sons do a good or better job running the farm than you did?” Jim responded quickly. “Well, I certainly hope so.” But he added his cell phone rings whenever his son needs some help. Younger Bob admits turning the operation over to his son has been a bit of a mental challenge. “But he’s college educated, has had good work experience with a neighboring farmer, and I’m providing him a full line of good equipment. We had those 5-6 years of good money, but the past three haven’t been so good. And 2019 sounds like another financial challenge.”

Sheepman Howard to the rescue. “Make certain they are Triple A farmers,” he said, “April, August and Arizona!” Yep, even the RT crew agreed with that wisdom! Smokey said he’d heard markets yesterday on the Linder Farm Network. July corn priced at $2.79. “Get enough yield and there might be some profit” was consensus of the three retired farmers.

City employee Larry recalled when he was a kid doing farm work he was getting $2 a day. Third-generation farmer Jim prompted, “When my ancestors decided to quit being cave men, they turned to farming. And that’s how I got to Minnesota, my pedigree tells me.”

Tom related his family history dates back to Germany coming to America in 1846. “They were two brothers, settled just west of Milwaukee. They had six sons and needed more land. They heard about land being available at Wells, Minn., so they walked the 500 miles to check. Found some land they could homestead.  Staked it and then walked back to Milwaukee. The next spring they picked up all their belongings and walked again the 500 miles to Wells to start their new farming life.”

Tom’s great grandparents farmed till 1899 in the Wells area. Meanwhile, a railroad to Chicago was built through the area and farmers could send their wheat to Chicago. Wheat prices zoomed. “My great-grandfather had a 160-acre farm; bought another 80 acres. Then sold the 240 acres and came up to Bird Island. Land was cheap and he bought a total of 1,050 acres. Taxes were 10 cents an acre, but it was all wetland, often underwater. Bird Island was an island during high rainfall periods. But In the ‘20s, the big ditch was dug in and taxes jumped to $10 an acre to pay for the ditch! 

“Plus they had three years of drought,” Tom went on to say. “It was so dry that third year they couldn’t pay taxes and lost the farm. There were no government programs in those days to bail you out when crops failed. Grandpa had six sons who needed work, so they went into custom farming. They would provide the equipment and labor to get fields planted and harvested for other farmers. They owned a threshing machine. Lots of labor in these operations too.”

The RT guys agreed it was in the late 1920s the Kercher clan started digging Renville County drainage ditches to get the prairie drained so crop farming would work. “Steam powered dredges in those days.  Sometimes they had to get mats laid over the soils to support these big digging machines.”

After two and three coffee refills, it’s time to wrap up table talk. The general agreement was that unless a major weather disaster occurs somewhere, farm income was in the tank for 2019 too. So who would be farming Renville County in the future?  Would socialized agriculture happen?

Jim reminded, “This farming is a cyclical business, always has been and that continues. I started farming in 1967.  Rent was $30 an acre and you couldn’t make any money. It’s no different now except there’s another zero behind that $30. Rent is $300 and you can’t make any money.  If rent was $100 the younger guys could make that work.”

Younger Bob said $250 rent is where we’re at today, but land costs have dropped from those

$12,000 highs just 4-5 years ago to $6,000-$8,000 today. “Interest is more reasonable, but we do need some kick in our commodity markets,” he said.

So how long can the financially-strapped survive? There is usually lots of chatter on such a question, but today even the RT guys were cautious. Smokey ventured, “My guess is the government will let it get lower and then come on with a program to keep them on the land until things get better again.” 

Jim was asked how long will your son last before he needs to be bailed out? “He may need that off-farm income,” Jim admitted. “There’s gobs of jobs available.”

Younger Bob ventured, “Sometimes it doesn’t take too much to get that worm turned around. Like right now, both sides of the Missouri River from Sioux City on south into Missouri are flooded. And from Nashville and down the Mississippi, farm lands are flooded. But a week of rain-free weather can make huge differences. However, if lots of these flooded acres don’t get planted, then we’d have a price bump.

We asked Jim, the retired plumbing supply guy, will every acre get planted in Renville County regardless of whether it cash flows? “Sure, it always does,” he replied. “We’ve got some high-caliber farmers around here. One way or another, they find a way to get things done.” 

Looking at American politics, is socialism inevitable even in American agriculture? Speaking for virtually every member of the RT, younger Bob retorted, “I don’t think socialism has a place in America … and certainly not in agriculture. We thrive on the competitive spirit. That’s what makes American agriculture such a power worldwide!”

Jim thinks younger people really are embracing socialism. Tom cautioned, “If we really want socialism all we need do is vote in this age 16 voting.” Jim, who has been to Cuba, reminded, “In Cuba the voting age is 16. And Cuba is a mess.“ Can you imagine 16-year-old kids voting in America? “That’s scary!” was the consensus opinion of the RT on March 26. And these guys ain’t going to change!

“Get the energy power people to increase ethanol usage 5 percent in America would be a big boost to the ag industry,” said Younger Bob. “That special wavier to protect the oil refineries is just plain political favoritism of the worst kind.”

Nope, the RT doesn’t agree with a 20-cent gas tax increase. But yes, they agree a lesser amount, like maybe 5 cents is doable and wouldn’t slow down the economy. 

Now it was time to shake dice. Larry was the loser — buying eight cups at $1.50 each.  A $12 tuition this morning. So there you have it: wisdom from the Round Table!  And a few wry comments too. Like Smokey, who jested, “I thought getting older would take longer!”

Howard probably spoke for all when he said, “Behind every angry woman stands a man who has absolutely no idea what he did wrong.” Jim chimed in, “Some things are just better left unsaid. And I usually realize it right after I say them.”  To which Larry muttered, “A wise man once said nothing.” Then he added, “Respect your elders. They graduated school without the internet.”

One comment with 100 percent agreement:  Keep God in your hearts every day!

Dick Hagen is the staff writer emeritus of The Land. He may be reached at rdhagen35@gmail.com.