The last harvest:'I'm done fighting' Farming: Bad weather, crop disease, falling demand, plunging prices. A North Dakota grain grower surrenders to the pressures that are driving the U.S. family farm to extinction.

November 08, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORISKA, N.D. -- As harvest winds down for another year, the stark landscape here turns even more desolate. Most of the fields have been shorn of their wheat and barley. Only the soybeans and the sunflowers, their yellow petals already fallen and their black seed heads drooping, remain to be combed from the ground.

Allen Kunze rushed to harvest his final rows of crops, much as one Kunze or another has done since 1898, when President McKinley deeded 160 acres of this unforgiving land to a German immigrant homesteader named Joseph Kunze.

This, though, would be the last harvest.

With the work done, an auctioneer sold off Kunze's farm equipment, and he became yet another farmer to bail out.

"I'm done fighting," Kunze said.

To farm is to fight, of course -- the weather, the competition, the diseases that can wipe out an entire season's work.

But this year, farmers are facing another obstacle, insurmountable to many: the collapse of international markets.

With half of U.S. grain sold abroad -- 40 percent to Asia -- economic crises in countries such as Japan, Russia and Brazil have sharply reduced demand.

Commodity

prices, as a result, have plummeted. Farmers in some cases are getting less for their crops than it costs to produce them. The price of wheat here, for example, dropped as low as $2.40 a bushel this year, well below the $4.50 economists estimate it cost to produce it.

While farmers across the country are suffering, the crisis is particularly severe in North Dakota because of an added stroke of bad luck -- several years of wet weather and crop diseases that have left many of the state's 30,000 farmers with reduced yields.

The numbers are so grim as to be nearly unbelievable: Farm income in the state has crashed 98 percent, from $764 million in 1996 to $15 million last year.

"We're running into some very serious problems," said Scott Stofferahn, executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency in North Dakota. "It's the worst I've ever seen."

Stofferahn estimates that more than 3,500 North Dakota farmers may quit after this year because they won't be able to pay off their loans and thus could be denied money for next year's crops.

As a result, the farm auction to sell off equipment, and sometimes the land itself, has become a commonplace ritual in communities like this. It is a somber yet oddly festive affair, much like another event that similarly draws a gathering of friends and relatives during a difficult time.

"A wake is about what it is," said Tony Heinze, Kunze's auctioneer. "All the neighbors will show up. They'll talk farming. Lunch will be served."

Heinze has conducted about 70 auctions this year, twice his average. Earlier this year, when farmers would normally return to their warming fields to plant a new season of crops, many instead were getting out.

"This spring," Heinze said, "a close neighbor of mine asked me, 'Well, how many funerals do you have scheduled?' "

Many of the farmers in trouble today survived the crisis of the 1980s -- when farm foreclosures and bankruptcies led to widespread despair, even suicide and murder in some cases -- only to succumb to this year's crunch.

This time around, though, farmers are opting to get out before they lose everything.

"We weren't going to get to the point where we had to sell our land," Kunze said as he drove past his family's original homestead one recent day.

On this land, his father was born. And there, Kunze pointed to a pond, is where a brother drowned at the age of 2. After his mother died this summer, they found a trunk in which she had kept the clothes that the toddler was wearing that spring day 52 years ago.

Kunze and his wife, Marilyn, will continue to live on the farm but rent some of the land to other farmers. Those rent payments should cover the mortgages he has taken out on various parcels over the years.

He also plans to put some land in a federal conservation program that pays farmers to turn fields into grasslands or wildlife refuges. He will turn to trucking full time, having started a small side business 15 years ago of hauling livestock.

Friendly yet taciturn, Kunze maintained a mostly stoic front even as his chosen way of life slipped from his grasp.

"I struggled for the last six, seven years," Kunze said. "You're always thinking next year will be better.

"I should have quit a couple years ago. But it gets in your blood or whatever. You got to get over that psychologically.

"There's life after farming," he said. "It's hard to explain to a nonfarming person. I was born into it. I helped my dad on the farm since the day I could walk."

Now, though, the love that has sustained him through 27 years of farming is tempered by the daily reminders of the intense financial pressures that have forced him out.

On a recent day, when the ground was too wet to harvest, Kunze went into town to run errands. At the farm supply store in Valley City, he chatted with other farmers similarly idled by the weather and pessimistic about the future of their livelihood.

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