Thursday, August 25, 2005

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

Everything Must Go

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

Minneapolis City Pages
by Peter Ritter
August 24, 2005

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.

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."

"Thirty years ago, it was a big deal to get 100 bushels an acre," Allen continued. "Now you're looking at an average of 150. Sometimes you get better than that. Last year was the first time in my life I got 200 bushels an acre.

"It's a crapshoot. When you plant that crop, that's your year's income. So if you make a mistake and planted the wrong one, that's it. There's so many variables all the time you can't control."

Allen took a sip of his iced tea. "That's one thing about farming. Every year you lay out basically all the money you got, plus you borrow some. And if you don't get a crop, well, you just lost everything. You're gambling everything every year. Then there's these two things you have no control over, and that's the market price and the weather. So you're very vulnerable. And the worst part of it is, there's not a great reward if you do survive. It isn't like: 'Oh, this year I'm going to make $100,000 or $200,000.'"

"If you're lucky you make up for the years when you don't make anything at all," Mary explained. "So most farmers are carrying a lot of debt."

During the '80s, this debt, combined with depressed crop prices, ruined many small farmers. "A lot of people were getting forced out. There were a lot of auctions that were forced by the banks," Mary said. "I had a good friend who asked me just yesterday if I needed her for moral support to come out here on Thursday for the auction. Her family--she and her husband--had gone through an auction that they were forced into. It was such a terrible experience for her that she was real sure I was going to need her just to hold me up. She said, 'I'll come if you need me to, but I don't want to be there, because I can hardly stand to be at an auction anymore.' She started to cry. It's been really hard on a lot of people."

The Perises' impending auction, while no sad occasion, did inspire a certain amount of reflection. "It's sort of the end of my way of living," Allen said.

"It's the end of an era of this farm," said Mary. "This spring was the first time in over 100 years there hasn't been a Peris going out and planting these fields." Mary went out onto the back porch to answer a phone call. Allen sat with his hands folded on the table in front of him, smiling placidly at the idea of leaving all of this behind.

Peris had agreed to show me around the place, so we went back outside. He led the way over to the farm's century-old barn, which his father put up with a team of neighbors. He opened the door. Weeds were pressing through the floorboards. Patches of dusty sunlight came through gaps in the wall slats, falling on long-unused stalls. Starlings wheeled about in the cool darkness. Long ago, Peris's family kept 150 head of beef cattle in here. Before that, they had dairy cows. "Every Saturday I cleaned this barn out by hand," Peris said. Another low-slung barn with a sagging roof housed the family's hogs. Behind the house stood a dilapidated chicken coop.

We were standing near the foundation of the old farmhouse. "No one had any money back in the '30s," Peris said. "They butchered their own meat, put up potatoes in the cellar. The house, it was originally just two rooms. Later on, they added a kitchen, then an upstairs. They put in a furnace that burned wood and coal. You had to get up by six to feed it. Even then, if you spilled water, it'd freeze. You'd run downstairs to dress over the furnace grate."

Peris had arranged his equipment along the wide horseshoe of the farm's driveway. He stopped at an old red tractor. "This is what I farmed with when I started out," he said. His father, he explained, rigged a snowplow to fit the tractor's front. Like many small operators, both Peris and his father supplemented their income with jobs off the farm. For a time, Allen Peris drove a livestock truck. During the pea harvest, he worked for the Green Giant plant in Glencoe. And he fixed tractors and combines in a local repair shop.

In the tall grass on the opposite side of the lawn sat a rusted-out 1950 Ford pickup that also belonged to his father. Peris learned to drive in this car. He isn't the type to get sentimental over an old machine, though. "It's just iron," he said.

Peris pointed out a nearby object that looked like a battered old drinking fountain. "That's a cream separator. When you couldn't get your milk to town, you'd store the cream." He chuckled. "I'm old, old."

We came to what looked like a piece of a dismantled amusement-park ride: an iron crossbar with four seats welded onto it. The bar, Peris explained, would attach to the front of a tractor. While he drove, Mary and their three children would sit in the seats spraying weeds by hand. Even with umbrellas to block the blazing summer sun, it was, he admitted, an oppressive chore.

Coincidentally, none of the Perises' kids--an engineer, a hotel consultant, and a zookeeper--showed any interest in going into the family business. And why would they? At the mercy of the weather and buffeted by the vagaries of the international commodities markets, the modern farmer is never very far from ruin. Meanwhile, the immense capital investment required keeps younger farmers from starting their own businesses. Conceivably, farms like Peris's may soon be as much of a museum piece as the old combine in his driveway.

The Perises' auctioneer, Henslin Auctions, is easy to find, since it's situated directly beneath the only stoplight in Bird Island (pop. 1,195), a pinprick-on-the-map town a few miles down 212 from the Peris place.

Hanging in Henslin's storefront window is a poster advertising the upcoming Polka Fest at the Bird Island Ballroom, as well as a bill of sale for the Peris auction. The auction business is booming these days, and Henslin is highly esteemed in the area, as evidenced by the trophies and plaques filling the firm's office.

LaDon Henslin was out at an auction when I visited, but his son Allen was in. The phone was ringing off the hook. A woman in Arizona with a piece of land to sell. Someone shopping for antiques. A farmer looking to place a bid on a tractor. Summer is the busy time for auctioneers, the younger Henslin explained. He is an earnest young man with the quick-draw smile of a born salesman. "Right now, the majority of our auctions are for real estate," he explained. "I'd say that's 65 to 70 percent of our business. Back when there were a lot more farmers, there were more farm auctions. The majority of farm auctions we do now are retirement auctions."

The Henslins hail from nearby Clara City (they are, in fact, acquainted with the Perises through their church). Allen began working with his father during high school. At first, he served as a ringman--the assistant who handles the merchandise and keeps track of bidders during an auction. Later on, Allen attended the Continental Auctioneers School in Mankato, where both he and his father are now instructors.

LaDon Henslin got his start in the business in the early '80s, when the farm crisis was at its worst in Renville County. A bull-necked fellow whose unhurried manner is much at odds with his tommy-gun auction chant, LaDon had always wanted to be either a farmer or a farm-implement dealer. Auctioneering, he figured, offered a bit of both worlds. "For me, when I was just starting out, those were not easy times," LaDon said. "People think that auctioneers have it good when farmers have it bad. But that's not the case. Auctioneers got it good when interest rates are low. Then people are willing to buy and people are willing to sell."

In those early days, Henslin said, auctioneers were viewed somewhat differently from the way they are now. The farm auction was symbolic of the farm crisis then sweeping rural America. Everyone saw television images of weeping farm families forced into foreclosure sales, sometimes shadowed by bank officials and federal marshals. The '80s even saw the return of the "penny auction," a tradition dating from the Dustbowl years, in which neighbors of a bankrupt farmer would buy up his equipment for mere pennies and then cede it back to him. During these times, the farm auctioneer was naturally regarded in somewhat the same light as an undertaker or a highway patrolmen: someone you'd only encounter in the event of disaster.

According to Henslin, there are fewer farm auctions these days--but not necessarily because farmers are doing well. There simply aren't as many farmers left in Renville County. And many of the farms that have survived have congealed into large corporate operations.

To understand why small-scale family farms like the Perises' are disappearing, one need only consider the simple, untenable economics of farming. Since the federal government loosened price controls in the mid-'90s, crop prices have remained virtually flat; indeed, the price of corn is not much higher today than it was when Peris's father was farming, more than 30 years ago. Meanwhile, as equipment and chemicals have grown more sophisticated, farm operating costs have risen dramatically. A state-of-the-art combine, for instance, can now easily run upward of $150,000. That means higher interest payments. The prices of land and fuel are also up. Add to that the annual cost of storing grain, and the only way to survive is to take advantage of economies of scale, farming more land and getting a higher yield per acre. Even then, farmers are lucky to break even.

The trend in Renville County, as in many other agricultural areas across the country, has been toward fewer, larger farms. In 1987, about 400 of the county's 1,500 or so farms were larger than 500 acres. By 1997, there were only around 1,100 farms in the county, and the average farm size had increased by nearly 10 percent.

According to the most recent census figures available--for 2002--farm size has increased another 6 percent since 1997. The biggest growth occurred among farms already greater than 2,000 acres.

The day of the auction, a Thursday, dawns mercilessly hot. By 10:00 a.m., when the sale is scheduled to begin, there are perhaps two dozen trucks parked in the Perises' long driveway. Many of the neighbors have dropped by for support or out of curiosity. But some of the license plates are also from as far away as North Dakota and Missouri. Most of the farmers in attendance are Peris's age or older.

LaDon Henslin is working the microphone, and his son Allen serves as ringman. As usual, they begin with the smaller items: welding torches, wrenches, battered old oil cans, and anything else that might catch a farmer's eye or an antiquer's fancy. Normally, Henslin explains, they save the machinery for last, since farmers who are interested in bidding on the larger items usually show up late. Henslin, sitting up in an enclosed booth on the bed of a pickup, rolls into his staccato chant: Ten dollar, ten dollar. Now five dollar. Who'll give five dollar? Two-and-a-half. Two-and-a-half. Who'll give a dollar? Dollar, dollar, dollar. Now two-and-half. Now five, now five, now five. Sold! five dollar. What's your number, buddy?

For most of the auction, Peris floats silently at the back of the crowd. He watches with a tight, inscrutable smile as the tools of his life's work are dispersed. Everything goes: Peris's hand-carved ice-fishing lures, a rickety old motorbike that hasn't run in years, even a battered suitcase that still has Northwest Orient tags attached. What doesn't sell the first time gets bundled together as lots.

Two of Peris's neighbors, Mark Olson and Bob Muench, are standing in the shade of a pine tree in the yard. They're both looking out over the soybean field that slopes gently up from behind the house. Like Peris, Olson and Muench run small corn and soybean operations. "I got 650," Olson explains. "That'd be considered small, I guess."

"We're about the same," Muench adds.

"Prices have been pretty good. Corn was good last summer. Market topped out over $10 for beans, and corn was over $3."

"Yeah, we've had real good corn crops the last couple years. Soybean's been down because of the aphids. I don't know. Our soybeans the last two years weren't so good." Muench shakes his head. "Prices are up, prices are down. Price of fuel went way up. Price of fertilizer and chemicals are way up. So you got more input."

Olson and Muench both have deep roots in Renville County. "Where I live, my grandparents settled it in 1892," Olson says. "Most of the people around here have long histories on the farm. The trend has been going away from that the last 10 years. Investors are buying it."

"Yeah, and the younger guys have a hard time getting going."

"It's expensive. If you're selling $2 corn, you can't make it."

"The farms are getting so huge. You know, they can farm so much. The guy that's got the land, he tries to get some more."

"It's sad to say, but our rural communities are close to being extinct. Because when people like us retire in 10, 15 years, with farm sizes the way they are, there's going to be nobody left."

By two o'clock, everything of consequence is gone. People begin to drift off, some empty-handed, others carting away bits of the Peris farm. Peris's obsolete combine ends up selling for $2,800--not, perhaps, as much as he'd have hoped, but perhaps as much as could be expected. Even the rusty old Ford truck belonging to his father sells. He still isn't feeling sentimental about it, though. "It's just stuff," Peris shrugs. And that stuff is someone else's trouble now.