This was the second of a four-day series in The Des Moines Register that examined how the decline in family farms frayed the fabric of rural life in Iowa. The series was awarded the 2000 Outstanding Achievement Award by Gannett. The award is given in recognition of the best writing in the annual competition.
March 27, 2000
Farmers cannot afford to give up their day job
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
Manning, Ia. -The tractors in the Manning countryside rest from 9 to 5 each day.
The farmers and their spouses are in town. They wash laundry at the local hospital and dispense cash at the bank. They build dog kennels at the newmanufacturing plant west of town.
Farm chores are done before sunrise, during noon “breaks” and after the eight-hour workday in town is over.
A night with six hours of uninterrupted sleep is a luxury.
“It’s all about hurrying up to get the farming done so I can get to my job andget a paycheck,” says Scott Dreier, 41, a father of three in Manning. “It becomes a rat race. It’s a killer.”
The trend reveals a truth about farming in Iowa. Food production is being subsidized by off-farm income. Working a second or third job is the only way many Iowa farmers can make their farms survive.
In 1974, eight of every 10 farm operators identified farming as theirprincipal occupation. By 1997, the ratio had dropped to six of 10.
Farmers such as Larry Stangl say they make sacrifices to keep their families on the farm, a good place to raise children, not just crops.
Stangl, 47, has worked in town for most of his farming years.
“I couldn’t afford to quit,” says Stangl, who manages FenceMaster, the dog-kennel plant.
Farmers and their spouses are lured by steady paychecks, health insurance and paid vacation days -which usually are spent back on the farm.
Farmers in Manning say the sacrifices yield payoffs that cannot be counted in dollars. On the farm, business decisions are made around the kitchen table. Children understand why they can’t have a new pair of shoes or designer jeans.
Unlike many city children, farm youths have a front-row seat in their parents’ working lives, said Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist from Iowa State University.
In the country, children work alongside their parents.
“There are some important values that young people learn from seeing theirparents work,” Lasley said.
A child doesn’t need to grow up on a farm to have a good work ethic, Lasley said. But arguably, he added, city businesses in Iowa have high-quality workers because so many people working in urban Iowa were raised by farmers or farmers’ children.
Farmers in Manning say their children understand the meaning of work. Around Manning, the four-letter word is spoken with reverence.
“My kids aren’t afraid of work,” Stangl boasts of his four children.
At the Lutheran church, where women make quilts every Thursday, Marion Ream,77, offers her definition of the word.
“Work,” she explains, “is a blessing.”
Glen Ahrendsen, an Iowa farmer, is walking the Manning hospital halls, looking for scuff marks to wipe from the shiny floors.
A perfectionist, he drops to his hands and knees to rid the floors of blemishes.
He takes pride in his work and feels no loss of dignity in cleaning up others’messes.
The same farmer who was honored by the Iowa Shorthorn Beef Expo in 1996 for his contribution to the industry is the object of adulation in Manning.
“I walk in the bank, and they tell me how good the floors at the hospital look,” Ahrendsen says.
In 1998, Ahrendsen lost $30,000 on his hog operation south of Manning, where he lives with his wife, Shirley, and son, Aaron, 9. For years, the hogs, long considered the mortgage-lifter on Iowa farms, gave the Ahrendsens a reliable paycheck.
That was no longer true in 1998, after hog prices dropped to their lowest levels in decades. 1998 was a turning point for hog producers in Carroll County, where hogs annually outnumber people 23 to 1.
After prices fell, unprecedented numbers of Carroll County farmers sought jobs off the farm, said Dennis Molitor, the county extension director.
For the first time, at age 58, Ahrendsen looked for a second job to make up for the losses on the 315 acres he farms. He applied for jobs cleaning at area hospitals and stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart in Carroll.
He turned down the Wal-Mart job. He began cleaning floors and operating rooms at the Audubon hospital. In October, he took a job at the Manning Regional Healthcare Center, about four miles from his farm.
Even with off-farm work, Ahrendsen has been unable to make up the huge farming losses.
“The last few years, there is no net income. We are operating at a loss,”Ahrendsen says.
Farm income recovery isn’t expected to begin until 2005, according to a February report from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.
Still, farm income is higher than in the depths of the 1980s farm crisis, thanks partly to taxpayers. Net farm income in Iowa in the 1990s averaged $2.2 billion a year.
In the 1980s, farm income averaged $1.8 billion a year.
Federal subsidies have been a key to farm income over the past 20 years. In 1999, regular and emergency farm subsidies totaled a record $21 billion nationwide. For many farmers, federal payments will amount to more than 40 percent of their income from agriculture.
Washington is not expected to abandon farmers during the next decade, but the long-term outlook frightens farmers reaching retirement age.
Ahrendsen’s wife has some mutual funds and a small individual retirement account, but retirement seems a faraway dream for the family.
“I plan to work as long as I can,” Ahrendsen says.
There are few luxuries in the Ahrendsen home. Shirley Ahrendsen shops almost exclusively at discount stores. Vacations are minimal. On weekdays, the father sees his son for 39 minutes -from 6:45 a.m. until the boy hops on his school bus at 7:24 a.m.
For the first time in the Ahrendsen family’s 50-some years on the property, the farm is devoid of a farmer for eight hours a day.
Nearby farms tell the same story. They are often quiet during daytime hours while the farmers are away.
Anymore, little time is left for neighboring, Ahrendsen says.
“It isn’t anything like when I grew up, when all the relatives and neighbors in a two-mile area would come to all the birthdays,” he says. “We haven’t been to the neighbor’s house for years.”
He views the changes as unavoidable facts of life. Complaints are rarely uttered.
“This is still a great place to live,” Ahrendsen says. “If I had a day off inthe summertime, I’d just spend it right here in the yard and in the pasture, just looking at the cattle.”
For thousands of Iowa farmers such as Larry Stangl, Glen Ahrendsen and Scott Dreier, settling on a life career was easy. Farming was what they knew.
“When I grew up, that was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” Dreier says.
That makes it so much harder to quit, even when everything starts to fall apart.
For Dreier, farming was never easy. His first year on rented acres, 1977, began with a drought. He took a job in town to make up for the losses. He bought cattle. A year later, the market went sour.
“I would have been better off at the casino all winter,” Dreier recalls.
He took another job driving a truck. He consistently worked one or two extra jobs while raising three boys with his wife, Lisa, a teacher in Exira.
The hours were long, the work grueling. The all-nighters were stealing something from life as a farmer: the fun.
As markets shifted, Dreier lay awake at nights second-guessing decisions and equipment purchases. He refused to quit.
“I don’t like quitters,” he said.
Dreier found more acres for rent. He had 940 in all. But landlords raised rent. Profit margins narrowed. Production costs increased. Commodity prices dropped.
Then, a big storm hit in May 1998. A narrow swath of hail wiped out more than half of his crop. Two miles away, other farmers’ crops remained pristine.
Dreier received federal crop and hail insurance payments and was able to replant some of his crop. But on the 440 acres untouched by hail, he lost $20 an acre.
In hindsight, he blames some of the loss on his own marketing mistakes. Even with hail damage, Dreier made more in 1998 than he did in any previous year. But for the second time, farming looked more and more like a gamble.
The same hailstorm that leveled his crops also knocked out every west-facing window in the farmhouse where Dreier started his farming career and his marriage.
The windows of the now-abandoned house remained broken up until a week ago, when the house was burned down. Gnarled, uprooted trees and a broken windmill conceal the happiness that once was.
Dreier refuses to let the remains serve as a symbol of his life.
In 1999, on a snowy Sunday in January, he sold his John Deere tractors and combine. A brother-in-law sold his machinery on the same day. Someone else operates the farm Dreier rented.
“It was a gut-wrenching day, seeing it all go one piece at a time,” Dreier says. “I never felt I failed. I took my feelings of family farming and laid them aside. I had to look at this as a business decision.”
He now works two jobs, loading trucks for United Parcel Service and driving trucks for AG Processing Inc., a soybean-processing plant in Manning.
In February 1999, the Dreiers moved into a handsome brick home in Manning’snew subdivision on the town’s south side.
This spring, when farmers begin their planting, Dreier will be outside, too. He will use water and fertilizer to care for the fledgling grass that surroundshis new house.
Scott Dreier has become a farmer without a farm.
Copyright 2000 Des Moines Register