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The good ol’ days are better left to memory

August 3, 2018

An easy answer is provided after someone asks what motivates me to awaken at 4:30 a.m. Old habits die hard and that is undeniably true for former dairy producers. I was one until a little past my 30th birthday.

The memories of fetching a new-born calf from the pasture return in between midnight sleep and early morning tossing and turning. The mind’s false alarm sounds when the herd’s best cow is felled by milk fever, when a heifer calf comes down with pneumonia, or when the bulk tank’s cooling unit quit on a 90-degree August day and the milk becomes accidental cottage cheese.

The mind plays its mean tricks, but also returns an old body back to the ballyhooed days when the New Holland baler with a Wisconsin engine could produce 1,000 bales daily with just a few misses.

It is easy to brag about stacking so much hay, followed by evening milking, without missing a beat because good times are remembered while difficult times lose their sting.

The knowledge does not, despite evidence to the contrary, make me a natural born fool. Little tangible is left of family farming in the era of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The diversity that involved flocks, swine and beef. Reliance on dairy encouraged alfalfa as another crop to go with corn, soybeans and small grain. Diversity in farming is little more than an antique concept in a time of specialization demanded above all else by the need for efficiency.

The theory espoused by many agricultural economists in the 1970s and ’80s involved removing government from agriculture so that the most efficient farmers would survive. The economic pie would remain the same size, but each farmer’s slice would be bigger because there would be less of them to share.

The concept was buttressed by the conviction that because U.S. farmers were more productive and more efficient than any others worldwide, foreign markets could be dominated. The notion’s validity was challenged and then discredited through a series of events.

Fence-row-to-fence-row production drove market prices below the cost of production. Policy decisions made in Washington, D.C., involving embargoes ruined the nation’s reputation as a reliable commodity provider and encouraged commitments in South America and elsewhere to increase production of exportable commodities.

The full flowering of farming’s economic potential was remarkable for its shortness. Its demise came with the economic crash of the mid-1980s. I was both cursed and blessed to witness the crushing devastation.

Conservative Iowa farmers barged into a Federal Land Bank office to protest foreclosures. A penny action, which involved farmers collectively agreeing to bid only a penny for machinery worth thousands more to frustrate lenders, ruined an auction. A dairy farm family who lost their herd to foreclosure cried at the kitchen table because they lacked money to purchase food.

In response, the lender who foreclosed on them said it was their own fault because they weren’t good dairy managers.

A thousand crosses were pounded into the lawn to memorialize farmers lost in the Great Farming Depression. An entire family farming generation fell victim to misguided policy, greed and the federal government’s turtle-like response.

I hope and pray that there will never be similar carnage again. We are reassured that the current situation is not at all like the 1980s. Debt-to-asset ratios are much better now; land values have slipped a little, but there is no collapse to send mortgage holders below water; and farmers are more efficient and better managers now than they were then.

Sleep ends just before the sun starts its daily journey. The 10 bred heifers in the long-ago pasture promise more milk in the tank. I appreciate the ability to dream about long-ago things because age, infirmities and economic realities prevent me from recreating them today.

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