Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Farm Math

'Round about this time every year, we get to thinking. Reminiscing those warm days of summer, long days that turn into glorious evenings spent on the combine, the hard work and the dust, the worry about the future. We wonder if we'll be here for one more year or for fifty. Grain and cattle prices are falling, input costs are staying high.
Will we have times like these with our own kids out in the field, enjoying a pop (or soda if they prefer)? Will Danish Cowboy's shirt from 1987 make it another year? Is the farm economy entering another "bust" of the boom and bust cycle that has marked the past century in the Great Plains?
We grow wheat and cows out here. Wheat on the flat areas and cows on those rolling hills in the background. It's big country here, it truly is. The average farm in our county is about 2700 acres. And that is average. You can't really make a self-sustaining living on that amount of acreage. Farms that require full time labor are about twice that size, even more if you live in some of the rougher areas of the county. For comparison, farms in historic Lancaster County, Pennsylvania average 78 acres in size. The primary difference is precipitation. We pretty much live in a desert with 12-14 inches of rain per year where Pennsylvania will get over 40 inches.
Couple all of this with a cyclical economy and the future is a big unknown. While we received record prices for our wheat and cattle in the last 1-2 years, we also paid record prices for inputs like fuel, fertilizer, feed, pesticide and freight. And also groceries -- I had no idea that two 16 month-olds could consume so much. So while our gross income made us look rich, our net income remained relatively unchanged. Honestly. Don't blame us for the cost of your Wheaties or 27-grain crunchy nut bread.
It can be a big, lonely place out here and the numbers we crunch are not always pretty even though our landscape always is. Our county had a population of 2,276 in 1990 and was down to 1,724 in 2007. The average number of people per square mile is 0.65 and falling fast (Lancaster County has an average of 525 people per square mile and they are even considered semi-rural!). It is fascinating to consider the diversity of the land in the United States and how we adapt ourselves to live where we are placed.
The average age of a farmer is 55 and climbing. The young ones just are not interested in coming back. Buying the farm from Mom and Pop isn't always feasible and the big city can be very alluring.
The average age of Danish Cowboy's shirts is also quite old and also climbing very fast.
But more importantly, we need to consider our lives here and plan for the future. We hope that we can raise our kids out here, teach them the value of hard work, enjoy the beautiful sunsets after a storm has passed, take long rides on horseback across the sweeping prairie. But we also hope that they go out in the world and see the diversity that exists. Maybe they'll come back here to continue the perpetual cycle that our community revolves around, maybe not.
Sometimes in the middle of winter when it is below zero and there are two hours of daylight, I'll ask Danish Cowboy why he brought me here. Why, for the love of God, didn't you tell me about this? He usually just smiles, reminds me of the glorious colors of summer, the smell of freshly cut hay, and tells me I wouldn't have it any other way. He's right.

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