Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Guest Post: Russ from Winterset

Hey everybody. Long time no talk. I’ve been busy & had a massive case of blogger’s block, but I’ve made a vow to try to change my ways & help ALa out with content like I’m supposed to do. My wife and I just made a big decision about our future, and I wanted to share it here first.

Let me give you a little background first. My maternal grandmother died of complications from MS in May of 2003. She was diagnosed with the disease before I was born, and her decline and last few years of suffering made her passing a blessing. Due to manipulations out of our hands, my mother’s only brother was named executor of the estate, and my folks have spent the last three plus years trying to get him to do ANYTHING besides just sit there with his thumb up his ass. They finally got a judge to tell him “settle this thing, or I’m going to get all up in your bizness, beoyatch” (not exactly worded like that, but she did have kind of a “Judge Judy” thing going on). The final settlement gave my uncle the house (which the leech had been living in since he put grandma in a nursing home) and almost 200 acres of farmland. My folks got the remaining 400+ acres of pasture/timber land where Dad currently runs about 40 head of cattle. He’s got another 30 or so head of cattle at home, along with some crop land that his cousin farms for us on shares. Dad’s getting up there (he’ll be 69 this fall), and he’s looking to slow down & enjoy things a little. A couple of months ago, when the estate was getting close to being settled, he asked me if I was interested in taking over the farm by coming in as a partner for now & increasing my role gradually.

I’m conflicted. I grew up working cattle, sheep & hogs, and spent lots of nights busting my ass for little money. Farming is at the point where a family can’t support themselves unless they’ve got several thousand acres of cropland, and then you’re on the hook to the bank & the tractor/combine dealership. One or two bad years with hail, drought or surplus corn/beans in the rest of the country holding down prices and you’ve got an auctioneer taking bids on your land & all your gear. Ranching isn’t much better. You take what the buyers give you when the animals are ready to go, since you can’t put them in a warehouse & wait for prices to go back up. There are things you can do to help maximize your income, but they’re very labor intensive. In order to do this, my wife and I would have to keep our day jobs and take on the farm work as our #1 “hobby”. We’re both from farming families, so we decided to give it a go. I’ll be helping out trying to keep my grandmother’s “South Place” (it’s about 7 miles from the farm where I grew up, closer to Macksburg than Winterset) running smoothly. I’ll have to regularly check over three miles of fence (most of it in thick timber), keep an eye on the cows and their calves, and watch out for dogs, coyotes, cougars (don’t laugh, we’ve had a couple of sightings in our part of the state over the last few years – including one by one of my wife’s brothers during last year’s harvest) and two legged varmints who want to shoot, steal or chase the cattle with 4-wheelers. The farm is a great deer & turkey hunting spot, so I’ll have to spend more time dealing with jackasses who try & tell us that “Oh yeah, I changed the oil on your grandfather’s car once back in ’72 and he told me I could hunt here forever. I thought it would be OK if I brought my whole extended family with me, is that cool?”

I know a few things for sure about this opportunity. I’m going to try to do it without going to the bank for loans. I’ll put most of the income back into the operation for the first 5 or maybe 10 years. I’m going to stick to the things I’m minimally competent at doing, so we’ll be running a cow-calf operation with the farmland either dedicated to hay for the cattle or farmed on shares by my extended family. Janis and I would like to build a house out in the country, but since the pasture land in question doesn’t have a good house site on it, we’ll be trying to keep the farm going while we live at least 5 or 6 miles away. For the time being, we’re still in town. Sheep & hogs? Maybe. Sheep are VERY labor intensive, and feeding hogs is getting to be something you don’t do unless you’re tied up with a major producer/packer as a contract feeder (you agree to feed their hogs for a set rate per hog – it minimizes the risk if prices go in the toilet, but you also lose big profits when the market’s running good). I wouldn’t mind feeding a few head every year, just to give us some pork for the freezer (and to sell to friends & family). I’m going to try to make a go of this as a labor of love instead of a business proposition. I’ll be lucky to make minimum wage considering the hours I’ll be throwing in here, but the alternative is to walk away from a family operation that will be sold if I don’t do something. My only sister & her husband aren’t in a position to do anything with the farm right now.

Oh yeah, and here’s a special message for my brudda Irish Diablo: my farm won’t have ANY horses. Especially any of those freaky sex horses. Nope. Not gonna have ‘em. And don’t look for any “The Brokeback Bridges of Madison County” stories here either. I’ll be hard pressed to make enough money for myself, much less enough money to hire a couple of sexually ambiguous hired men. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

As far as another series of posts I’ve decided to try and write goes, I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately. “The Ancient Engineers” by L. Sprague De Camp is a book that examines the role of ancient engineers & architects in the development of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Muslim & Indian cultures, along with early European countries. The book is chock full of stories and anecdotes that have fascinating parallels to modern events…well, they’re fascinating to a civil engineer, so the rest of you will have to suffer through with my obsession. I’m going to try and do one post a week based on things I’ve read in that book, and I’ll also try to dedicate a post to farming and ranching on a weekly basis while I’m at it. I’ll make no claims to the truth of any of my agricultural stories – I don’t do this for a living, so I might throw in a tall tale or two.

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