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In just 50 years, more than half of Iowa’s farmers have gone out of
business. My family could be next. By Kirsten Scharnberg

It felt strange, introducing someone to a dying way of life. It almost seemed pointless. But it felt worse to think that my city-slicker friend would never know what I mean when I talk about how every spring planting feels like an exhilarating toss of the dice and how every fall harvest feels like a job well done and how growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere means that neighbors are family and Sunday church isn’t optional and a town of 706 people can feel like the biggest place in the world.

So we drove eight hours due west, across the mighty, muddy Mississippi, past peeling, hand-painted signs that announced, “Welcome to Mallard: We’re friendly ducks,” and “Royal, Iowa: A prince of a community,” until we finally crested a gentle hill and rolled into my sleepy home town, “Everly: Home of the Cattlefeeders.”

At the start of this Easter weekend, my friend–an avowed urbanite who has made her home in Hong Kong and London, Paris and Chicago–didn’t know what it means to be a farm kid. And if family farms vanish at the rate they have during the past two decades, maybe future generations of Midwesterners won’t either.

I wondered if it was a waste of time to explain what life is like for such a minority of Americans as my parents and grandparents and most of my family’s best friends. But as I drove through northwest Iowa that afternoon, seeing my friend’s obvious fascination with the uninterrupted farmland all around us, I decided that I’d rather share a worthy way of life than to simply forget the values, the risks and the rewards my upbringing on an Iowa farm had taught me. So I started with the basics.

“That,” I only half joked, “is a tractor.”

Of the 35.8 million acres of rich farm soil in the state of Iowa, my dad farms about 500. He’s proud of it. When big-city people ask him what he does for a living, he never tries to use sophisticated explanations like, “I work in the field of agriculture,” or “I’m in the food-production industry.” It always has sounded so impressive to me the way he says it, simply, almost defiantly: “I’m a farmer.”

My parents, Mark and Cathi Scharnberg, used to be one of more than 182,000 farm families in Iowa. Today they are among less than 91,000. In just 50 years, more than half of Iowa’s farmers–and those all across agriculture-centered states such as Nebraska and North Dakota and Kansas–have gone out of business.

My family could be next.

My dad told me several months ago, his voice steeped with emotion, that times were tough. Tougher even than the 1980s, when the entire nation watched as farmers auctioned off their herds and their hills. This time, as market prices hovered at Depression-era lows, it might break us, my father said.

“It’s amazing,” he told me. “I’ve spent almost 30 years putting food on other people’s tables, and now I can hardly afford to keep any on mine.”

I cried on the “El” ride home that night, surrounded by cosmopolitan business people who probably have never stopped to wonder how all that food makes its way to the aisles of the sparkling Whole Foods in their trendy Near North neighborhood.
I remember feeling so alone as we rumbled past Wrigley Field, a farm girl away from the farm, packed against people who likely never noticed there was a farm crisis in the 1980s, let alone another one right now.

The commuters with their Coach briefcases and Manolo Blahnik pumps did not know that I was crying for people like my family, hard-working, dirt-under-their-fingernails people who have devoted their entire lives to feeding our country.

They did not know that I was crying for towns like Everly, towns without a single stoplight, surrounded by cornfields, where the social fabric is stitched together by three sturdy threads: God, family and farming. And they certainly couldn’t know that I was crying because I knew that farm kids like me–those of us who fled home for the wealth of opportunities offered in places such as Des Moines and Minneapolis and Chicago–are part of the reason the Heartland is looking so different these days.

It’s hard to explain a lifestyle as unique as farming to someone who has never lived it. My friend, Shu Shin Luh–a bona fide city girl–couldn’t have found the concept more foreign. She’s an aggressive expressway driver. I’m more comfortable with gravel roads. She makes dishes with fancy-sounding names such as mango glazed chicken with jasmine rice for her dinner parties. I toss a pot roast into the Crock-Pot.

I’m a reporter at the Tribune. She’s a reporter at the Sun-Times.

“Explain it all to me,” Shu said on our drive to Iowa.

So I tried.

I tried to tell her why religion is so important on the farm: Just like a farmer has faith in an unseen God, he has faith that the rain will fall and the seeds will fertilize and the snow won’t come too soon.

I tried to tell her why farm families are so close: Harvests require everyone’s help; dad runs the combine, brother hauls the grain to town, sister and mom deliver lunch to the fields.

And I tried to explain why farm communities are so tight-knit. When a farmer dies, the neighbors finish his harvest, and when a farmer goes bankrupt, his neighbors buy his land, and when the school district can’t afford new sports uniforms, a wealthy beef farmer will offer to buy them in exchange for the privilege of christening the school team “The Cattlefeeders.”

Waving to all the familiar faces in my tiny town, I drove my friend past the house where I excitedly attended 4-H meetings and past the old high school where my brother was a member of the Future Farmers of America.

We drove past the churches–one Catholic, one Lutheran, one Methodist–all clustered so close together that if you stand at the intersection of Ocheyedan and 3rd streets, you can see all three at once.

And we drove past the grain elevator–the same cluster of dusty silos that sits in the heart of every Iowa hamlet–where manure-splattered farmers used to go to socialize but now go to sympathize.

“I didn’t know places like this still existed,” Shu said, bewildered.
All around Everly, little farm towns have dried up. Moneta has only a house or two left. Rossie is no longer listed on road maps. About the only thing thriving in Greenville is the bar.

A rural sociologist recently quoted in the Des Moines Register, a newspaper that long has chronicled the plight of the American farmer, predicted a depressing change coming to Iowa: “We will not be tied to the land, to the soil, to the environment,” said Vern Ryan, a professor at Iowa State University. “Family farming gives Iowa a certain sense of uniqueness, and hopefully pride. When we lose it, it really becomes a question of what we will become over the generations.”

What Iowa will become without family farms may be questionable, but what it will lose is obvious.

It will lose an industry that accounts for more than 25 percent of its economy. It will lose a way of life that shapes its work ethic, its social values, its history.

Ask my dad to explain why Iowa farmers are going under, and he’ll tell you the reasons are complex: competition with countries like Brazil and Argentina; our government’s aversion to trade with China; and a dirty word in our home, “corporate” farms.

I don’t understand all the causes. But I feel the effect. I see it on Main Street, where the grocery store is shuttered and the second grain elevator is abandoned. I see it at church on Sunday, where most of the pews are filled by gray-haired couples and only three little girls run up to the altar for the children’s sermon. And I see it in my father’s worried eyes when he explains to my friend that he lost so much money on hogs that he no longer has a single pig in the lot 50 yards from our house.

With the precision of a shrewd businessman who counts the value of what he produces in fluctuating dollars and cents, my dad illustrates exactly what is happening to the American farmer.

In 1974, his first year of farming, dad sold his corn for the best market price he’s seen since: $2.75 a bushel; today corn is going for about $1.93. In better days, he was selling hogs for about 55 cents a pound; last year he got a dime. And as these prices plummet, others rise. A tractor in 1974 cost between $25,000 and $30,000; Dad recently paid $76,000 for a new one. A decent combine sold for less than $40,000 back then; now a $200,000 price tag isn’t uncommon.

My parents, Mark and Cathi Scharnberg, used to
be one of more than 182,000 farm families in
Iowa. Today they are among less than 91,000. In
just 50 years, more than half of Iowa’s
farmers–and those all across agriculture-
centered states such as Nebraska and North
Dakota and Kansas–have gone out of business.

My family could be next.

The Scharnbergs, Kathy, Kirsten, Mark and Neil.

Still, my dad loves what he does. He proudly served us ham and pork loin for Easter dinner. Sitting at the dinner table next to my grandfather–the man who taught him how to sow a field–Dad tried to make his big-city guest understand that he wasn’t selling out yet.

“I hate to say that family farms are on the way out,” he said. “Maybe they are, but I’m stubborn. I’m not going to believe it yet. Still, it’s easy to feel like the rest of the country doesn’t care about us out here.”

I woke up early on my last day visiting the farm. I grabbed a quilt, threw on one of my brother’s hooded work coats, and sat alone on the porch. The place had never seemed so quiet. When I find myself missing the farm, when I close my eyes and imagine the exact rural scene I was viewing on that clear morning, I see pigs feeding and hear them loudly banging into the metal feeders. Now the pigs are gone.

Sitting on the porch that morning, I thought about how much this farm–and the people on it–had changed. I thought about how in college, when I wanted to talk to my dad, I could call home exactly at noon and catch him inside for lunch. Now, like nearly 40 percent of Iowa farmers, he supplements his dwindling farm income by working in a nearby furniture factory from 5 a.m. until 3 p.m. He farms around that and always sounds tired.

I thought about how when I was a little girl I instinctively knew to stop talking or clanking silverware at the dinner table when the farm markets came on KICD-FM. Now farmers force themselves to listen to the depressing prices that usually confirm their great agricultural gamble of the spring will turn into a financial failure in the fall. I thought about how I took for granted that my little brother, a boy who lived to help my dad feed the hogs and work the ground, would carry on the family farm and one day move into the farmhouse that my father’s father bought in 1947. But Neil, who came within inches of being killed when a tractor rolled onto him in 1993, decided that the risks associated with farming–both physical and financial–weren’t worth it. Instead, at 21, he’s a carpenter helping to build a new community center on Everly’s withering Main Street.

As I pulled out of our lane at the end of the weekend, I felt myself taking conscious stock of little things I had always taken for granted before. I noticed the exact stretch of our gravel road where my brother survived that tractor wreck. I noticed how our red barn lingered in my rear-view mirror for more than a mile. I noticed how I could identify which farmer tended every patch of land I passed.

As my friend and I made our way back to Chicago, I scanned the brown horizon beyond my windshield and saw tractor after tractor inching across the fields. I could almost feel the urgency to get our countryside planted. Inside those tractors, planting their corn and drilling their beans, those farmers were doing exactly what the people of Everly are doing as they build a $500,000 community center smack in the middle of an endangered town. They are doing exactly what my dad is doing as he muses that the pork industry might be making a comeback, and maybe he should “take just one more chance.” They are doing exactly what my mom is doing as she applies for high-paying jobs that will take advantage of her master’s degree and help them hold onto 500 beautiful acres so that “someday the grandkids can visit.”

They are refusing to give up.

Kirsten Scharnberg is a Chicago Tribune staff writer. This article originally appeared in the Tribune.

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