MONTGOMERY, Minn. — The feed chopper was the but machine Bob Krocak ever bought new, back when he was starting out as an ambitious young dairy farmer.
He used it to chop acres of alfalfa and corn to feed his herd of Holstein dairy cattle, which repaid him with some of the creamiest milk in Le Sueur County. The chopper and its fearsome blades lasted through iv decades of common cold winters, muddy springs and grueling harvests.
Now, on a dank Sabbatum morning, Krocak, 64, was standing adjacent to the chopper in the parking lot of Fahey Sales Auctioneers and Appraisers, trying to sell what he had always prized. The 128 Holsteins were already gone, sold last year when his family quit the dairy business after 3 unprofitable years.
Krocak needed the money to stave off bankruptcy and hold on to the country that has been in his family since 1888. Hundreds of other farmers around the country, grappling with rise debt, dismal article prices and the fallout of the Trump administration’s trade wars, are facing the same fate. Net subcontract income has dropped by well-nigh one-half in the past five years, from $123 billion to $63 billion.
Farmer Randy Matthews approached and looked over the battered feed chopper and a rusty baler next to information technology. He was not impressed.
“It has a brand new chain on it,” Krocak said hopefully.
“You won’t get much for that,” Matthews predicted.
The auctioneer ran through dozens of machines before he started the bidding for Krocak’south chopper at $100. His bid telephone call — “I hear 100, 100. Now, can I hear 125?” echoed on the loudspeaker, the audio of treasured items slipping away.
Krocak bought the chopper for $6,700 in 1977. It sold for $150.
“It’southward the price of scrap metal, the wheels lonely are worth that,” he lamented to his wife, Liz.
The proceeds would barely make a dent in the $47,000 they owe the local bank, the $550,000 they owe businesses in town and the $662,000 mortgage on their property — which all adds up to well-nigh $one.iii one thousand thousand in debt.
Later on the final gavel, Krocak gently touched the chopper’s gear shaft with his darkened easily, gnarled as ginger bulbs.
“You’ve been good,” he told the machine.
Trade WARS’ TOLL
Liz, 61, saturday nearby in her muddy, white Ford Edge and patiently waited for Bob to say goodbye to his chopper. She had been worried almost him lately — her normally sociable husband had seemed withdrawn, saying the previous calendar week that he couldn’t behave to go to the sale.
“We just need to become through the day,” she said. “There are all these trivial milestones we accept to get through and keep going.”
When she had met him iv decades earlier, she had a job in Minneapolis at a bank. Her family unit thought she was crazy for marrying a farmer, but soon she had manure on her red pumps.
“I remember going to these sales as a young helpmate and seeing all these dingy, old farmers in the back who were too attached to their equipment. Today, that’due south who I was with,” she said.
She married into a family that’s been farming in this part of rural Minnesota — the verdant Minnesota River Valley that’south the home of Jolly Green Giant — since Bob’south great-granddad arrived from what is at present the Czechia and later bought the original farm, at present spread over 197 acres, with two farmhouses, grain silos, barns and sheds for pigs, chickens, and a Welsh pony named Dixie.
Dairy producers were already struggling with low prices due to crowd and America’s new thirst for alternatives such as soy milk when the Trump administration’southward trade wars with Mexico, Canada and People's republic of china hit, sending exports plunging and exacerbating gluts of various commodities.
Dairy farmers take lost at to the lowest degree $2.iii billion in revenue since the trade wars began, according to the National Milk Producers Federation. The Krocaks were one of 313 dairy operations in Minnesota to fold in 2018, a 10 per centum drop.
The fallout has rendered the Krocaks’ milking equipment worthless and complicated the family’southward planned shift to organic soybeans, corn and other modest grains that they hope will preserve the farm for the side by side generation: Marty, 37, and his married woman, Sarah, 35.
Marty is the eldest of Liz and Bob’s five children, including daughter Maggie and four sons, the youngest age 28. As a group, the brothers have won the tractor pull at the summer off-white 10 out of the by 11 years.
Afterward they made the emotional decision to sell the herd last spring, the family drew up the programme for “life later on dairy” with a subcontract crisis counselor from the University of Minnesota’s extension service. Liz dusted off her résumé later forty years and got a job in a school cafeteria. Marty began working at an equipment manufacturer.
Liz then wrote proper letters to everyone they owed coin to — the vet, the feed lot guy, the mechanic and the excavator — telling them they had retained a bankruptcy attorney and would probably never be paid.
“Subsequently decades of farming, this is non the way we idea we would be catastrophe our business organisation,” she wrote. “Sincerely, Krocak Farm LLC.”
They had to confront their creditors at a mediation. There was Del, the mechanic, whom they owe $28,000 and who at present can’t assist his son buy a home. In that location was Steve, the feed store guy, who is 64 and has delayed his retirement because of the Krocaks’ $311,000 bill.
Liz recalled the mediator opening the meeting by maxim, “This is going to exist an emotional day. I tin see everybody really likes this family unit.” Liz had burst into tears then – and she was crying again now, describing the scene seven months later.
“Nosotros merely hope there’s a farm left at the end of it,” she said.
Proverb Goodbye TO THE COWS
The hardest part was saying cheerio to the cows.
Fifty-fifty now, they rarely enter the milking barn. Everything is left equally untouched equally it was on May three, 2018, when drivers loaded their herd on trucks, carting away “a lifetime of genetic improvement, toil, claret, sweat and tears,” as Bob put it. The whiteboard all the same lists the cows that were hurt or sick, the silver tanks are redolent of sour milk, and cobwebs cover the milking pumps.
They kept some heifers — female cows who haven’t nevertheless calved — to sell later on. They also constitute a new dwelling for their favorite moo-cow, dearest #1385, a lady of ten years who loved to luxuriate in her stall and would only rise grudgingly to be milked. Like the Krocaks, #1385 was not ready to give up. A few weeks agone, the neighbor who adopted her sent a photograph to Sarah’s cellphone — a snapshot of the cow and her new black-and-white calf.
Toward the end of their dairy business, life for Bob, Liz, Marty and Sarah had become an exhausting blur. As the farm performance spiraled deeper into debt, they laid off the workers and milked the cows themselves — morning and evening, seven days a calendar week. Prices had dropped so far that the subcontract’s milk revenue fell from nearly $1 1000000 to between $600,000 and $650,000 in their last years of performance.
At their lowest signal, Marty was and then exhausted he would fall comatose anywhere. Sarah would wake up in the center of the nighttime in an empty bed and run through the common cold looking for him to brand certain he was okay. Marty began contemplating suicide, planning to die tangled in a farm machine that would make information technology look similar an accident. He had a life insurance policy, and he wondered if he was worth more dead than alive.
“I didn’t care anymore about annihilation,” he said. “The only thing that kept me going was the thought that Sarah and the kids would accept to go through this without me. I didn’t want to bail out on yous guys.”
At Sarah’s urging, Marty saw a counselor and establish some comfort in the evenings listening to inspirational tapes from Tony Robbins or Goalcast videos aimed at anybody who had hitting stone bottom. Information technology wasn’t until they sold the cows that he relaxed.
“I feel like I got my husband back,” Sarah said.
Marty and Sarah got an operating loan this season, only information technology’s risky: To comprehend the subcontract’southward mortgage payment, they’re paying Liz and Bob $fifty,000 to rent their fields, nigh $30,000 more market rate. They’ve already been hit with two major setbacks before a seed went into the footing. A buyer for concluding year’s corn crop backed out at the concluding minute, a $fifteen,000 loss. Then record leap rains delayed planting for weeks, wreaking havoc on their program.
“It’s on our minds all time. Nosotros could lose the whole subcontract,” Marty said. With the new operating loan, “at present we have a second adventure, and nosotros don’t want to screw it upwards.”
QUALIFYING FOR Assist
3 days afterward the sale, a tiny miracle occurred.
The Krocaks originally had been turned downwards for a federal assistance program for dairy farmers, but word came that the criteria had changed, due in role to protests from farmers like Liz. The Krocaks at present qualified.
And then Bob went down to the local Subcontract Service Agency role — a low-slung edifice in the canton seat — to consummate the paperwork, expecting a payment of a few hundred dollars. He greeted everyone by proper name. He passed a huge poster near the door that read, “2018 Outstanding Conservationists KROCAK Subcontract,” busy with photos of his family and black moo-cow spots and a pinkish udder made of construction newspaper.
At the counter, the agency’south county executive director, Gary Kunz, gave him good news — they would be getting $12,302. Bob squinted at the corporeality.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s more than beer money.”
“Well, the good taxpayers of Minnesota would prefer you not spend this on beer,” Kunz said.
“After the diagnosis on my heart, I’one thousand not supposed to potable anyway,” Bob said. “The banking company will be glad to see this.”
“I’m glad we tin do it,” Kunz said. “A lot of guys are pain out there.”
Driving home in his pickup truck, Bob passed lakes brimming with cold, navy bluish water and farms he knows past name. The wintertime snows had melted, and the grass was starting time to turn light-green. Soon, information technology would exist time to sow.
Bob decided to terminate at the cemetery where 4 generations of his family are cached, a little grouping of graves next to a white church in a stand of arborvitae trees. A cross of crude lumber Bob made himself stands at the gate. He comes hither often to retrieve: What if he had worked harder? What if they hadn’t taken out loans in 2005 to expand their operation? Were he and Liz putting too much of a financial brunt on Marty and Sarah?
He aptitude down to clean up twigs from effectually his father’s grave. Vladamir Krocak had farmed almost until he died in 2013, more than sixty years after he returned from World War II, so sick of the sight of blood that he refused to gut a fish. When Bob had criticized the fashion his father handled the cows, Vladamir handed him the milking equipment and said, “They’re yours.”
They would celebrate his 100th birthday in five days.
Bob often thinks about what his dad would have idea of him giving up on dairy farming. He once wrote himself a letter of the alphabet wondering whether a rainbow he saw over the farm was a sign that his father was telling him it was okay.
Now, at the cemetery, Bob said, “He wouldn’t take minded. He hated the cows.”
The afternoon of Vladamir’s 100th birthday party, Liz had bad news. Their attorney called and said their creditors were continuing to press for payment, which could send them into defalcation.
“If we file bankruptcy, will it all go away?” Liz wondered as she stood in the kitchen over a pot of steaming potato dumplings. “We’re teetering on the edge, and I’thou non sure which way to go.”
Bob listened to his married woman simply said little.
“Information technology’s out of our control,” he said. “I want to think about positive things like getting ready for planting and fixing the hole at the end of the driveway.”
And anyway, the guests were about to arrive. Their friends and relatives came from all over, some wearing the same blue-striped Dickies overalls Vladamir always sported. They brought taco dip, beer and wine. The house was fragrant with pork and dumplings, custard pies and kolache, a traditional Czech fruit-filled pastry that Liz and Maggie had made.
Soon, the extended Krocak family unit and their friends filled the house and spilled out onto the porch. An aunt brought scrapbooks, including snapshots of the “milking parlor party” they threw in 2005, when they celebrated the expansion of their operation with cocktails in the barn and accrued the debt that’s put their state at take a chance.
After supper, the guests gathered outside past a picnic table so Bob could make a speech. Somebody lit the “100” candles on the pie in honor of Vladamir.
“Even though we don’t have cows, we’re all the same a subcontract. And we wouldn’t exist hither if we still had cows; we’d be dorsum milking those d— things,” Bob said equally Liz looked on.
At that place was a ripple of laughter and and then applause. They sang “Happy Birthday.” The lord's day began setting over the lake. “Come up inside, come inside,” Bob said. Information technology was cold out, and he wanted to brand sure everybody got a piece of the pie.