An ever-diminishing field

Economy: Falling grain prices, and not this year's drought, encouraged Kenny Knox to abandon farming.

September 04, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The drought-stunted cornfields around Maryland assure Kenny Knox that he did the right thing. Back in March, he sold all his tractors and combines, paid off his mounting debts and got out of the business of raising grain at the family farm in Taneytown.

"I don't miss it. I didn't make any money for three years," says Knox, 46, whose tanned, gaunt face and compact build give him the look of a farmer.

Knox doesn't doubt he would have lost money to this summer's drought. But he'll also tell you that if the market for grain hadn't gone bad, and if he had earned good money for his sweat, he would be driving a tractor today -- instead of a tractor-trailer.

"It was the prices, more than anything," Knox says of his decision to cut his losses.

Experts had projected that grain prices would continue to be low this year. Knox was afraid that if he waited longer to sell out, he'd have to give up the 56-acre nucleus of the farm his father started in the 1930s, and the family home where his mother raised her 16 children after her husband died in 1976.

Now that the summer has played out as the driest in 70 years, Knox realizes how right he was.

He had built one of the larger grain farms in Carroll County, raising crops on 1,700 mostly leased acres. He and his wife, Rose, lived in town so their three children, now 12, 16 and 22, could be within walking distance of the schools and parks. Kenny Knox would make the short three-mile commute to the farm just outside the city limits.

But on March 12, Knox held an auction that drew 400 farmers, and they paid him cash for his equipment and tools so that he could pay his creditors. Much of the equipment, including grain bins and silos, had been purchased in the past 10 years as he expanded. They were gleaming, intended to take him into 21st-century farming.

Even before the auction, Knox had had job offers -- some of them from farmers. But he took a job with a trucking company that delivers building supplies in Maryland and nearby states. Except for a brief stint as a trucker when he was about 20, this is the first employment he's had other than working the vast expanses of his family farm.

"I'm in the truck all day," he says, from as early as 4 a.m. until 5: 30 p.m. Long hours, but not as long as the sunrise-to-sundown hours required by farming. And his weekends are free for church camping trips and holiday picnics.

"And if the truck breaks down, you don't have to worry about it," says Rose Knox.

Her husband shrugs.

"It's a job, is about what it is," he says.

Rose Knox does not regret her husband's decision. Sometimes she reminds him of its wisdom.

"Even now, he'll sometimes say, `I just don't know what to do,' " she says. "I say, `Honey, you're making good money.' ... He's definitely getting ahead now. We're not losing anything with this job."

They just returned from a weeklong vacation during which they didn't even check the home answering machine.

"We never went swimming in June and July before," Rose Knox says. Those months were consumed by harvesting wheat and planting corn and soybeans. This summer, they spent several days at a friend's pool.

They never celebrated the Fourth of July, unless it rained.

"We never had the time to enjoy life," she says. "This was the first Memorial Day you didn't bale hay, Kenny." This year, they had a picnic.

Final harvest

One chore remains. The Knoxes have hay left from last year's harvest. On Saturdays, Kenny and Jordan, his youngest son, load bales onto a brown pickup truck kept at the farm.

On Tuesdays, while Kenny Knox is at work, his wife and Jordan drive the bales to the Westminster hay auction. After it's sold, they deliver it to the buyer's farm.

The continuing chores give Jordan a little more time to get used to his father's decision. His older sister and brother had long since tired of the farm chores, but Jordan, 12, always liked to help his father on the farm after school and all summer.

This summer, he said, he's bored and watching more TV.

"Except on Tuesdays and Saturdays," he says.

The auction brought them enough for the creditors and the taxes, says Knox, declining to disclose dollar figures.

Over the course of that blustery day in March, hundreds of farmers arrived, wearing their unofficial uniform of tan coveralls over hooded sweat shirts.

They huddled around Knox and the auctioneer to bid on the shiny green John Deere combines -- Knox had washed and waxed them every year, and they still gleamed after 15 years. They bid on the tractors, the blue silos and the grain bins that were only 2 years old.

Plummeting grain prices

Knox had expanded his farming operation and went into debt just in time for a drought in 1997 and plummeting grain prices last year.

Financial problems halfway around the world in Asia, a major buyer of U.S. grain, resulted in prices that were lower than the cost of planting and harvesting.

"I'm tired of working for nothing," Knox said in the spring when he made his decision.

He was nervous about the kinds of jobs out there, but confident that he'd find an employer who would snap up a hard worker.

He got an offer from another farmer who wanted to hire him to spread fertilizer, but that's a job Knox never liked to do on his own farm -- he hired that task out to the fertilizer company.

Another offer came from a large farm supply company. And there was a possibility of a job at a large dairy operation in Pennsylvania.

But Knox ended up answering a newspaper ad for Home Run Inc., a trucking company in Thurmont. It offered more money than the farming jobs did.

Trucking doesn't provide the serene beauty and tradition that Knox knew on his farm, but it offers something very important the the farm did not.

"They pay me a check every week," he says.

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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