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Published June 17, 2013, 10:52 AM

Drought tests SD farmer again

In southeast SD, drought reminiscent of 1980s farm crisis

By: Ross Dolan, Forum News Service

WAGNER, S.D. — If there’s an adage Wagner, S.D., farmer-rancher Doug Kokesh lives by, it’s, “You’ve got to live within your means.”

Kokesh, 52, is thankful for this year’s timely rains, but he’s not about to get cocky. When you live the farm life, things can turn on a dime.

He’s seen it happen.

Kokesh’s father nearly lost the family farm during the 1980s farm crisis, a time of double-digit interest rates, low crop prices and plunging land values.

He’s convinced the terrible economic pressures of the time contributed to his father’s death in 1987 at the age of 55.

As a young man in his mid-20s, Kokesh began his farming life in the hole. Desperate to save the farm, he sold livestock at firesale prices, paid off some notes and convinced local suppliers to carry him just a little bit longer.

Slowly things turned around, but it was a hard lesson learned.

“I don’t ever want to go there again,” he says. “You felt so, so,” he hesitates, seeking the right words, “like you did something wrong — but you didn’t.”

The hard times taught him to be more efficient and to be a better manager.

No guarantees

Kokesh shakes his head at what he calls the “aggressive” purchasing attitudes of younger farmers, who purchase land at top dollar or invest heavily in new equipment. There are no guarantees that interest rates will remain low or that land and crop prices will stay where they are.

“There’s land over here for sale tomorrow, and I’m not even considering it,” he says.

Kokesh drives older Ford pickups, works mostly alone and stays busy.

Last year’s drought tested his conservative philosophies.

“I remember growing up that 1976 — when I was around 16 — it was bad, and a few years in the early ’90s, but nothing like last year.

“Last year was so ungodly dry. If we didn’t have these new crop genetics and rural water, we’d have nothing.”

Crop insurance and price supports were a result of those earlier hard days and the summer of 2012 proved their worth.

“Federal crop insurance was a big one,” he says. “Last year alone, it saved a lot of people. In the ’70s, there was no crop insurance if it got dry. In those days, if you lost, you were out.”

Kokesh has managed to keep his farm by diversifying crops, and finding a niche market for the 300 registered Piedmontese-cross cow-calf pairs he raises on his farm seven miles north of Wagner and on rented land farther north. The cattle are raised drug- and hormone-free and bring a premium.

“I kept my herd together last year and didn’t have to sell off any, but I had to buy $27,000 worth of hay.”

This year, the cattle are standing belly deep in green pastures.

Until recently, when his area received 2.2 inches of rain, the moisture amounts weren’t great, but they were well-timed.

“It’s been 40, 50 and 70 hundredths — never a big one, but it all added up,” he says.

His farm has now received 5.5 inches of moisture since May 1.

“It’s amazing how resilient grass can be,” he says.

His pastures survived the greatest drought pressures of recent memory, but Kokesh fertilized his fields to help them through the drought.

Koskesh is nursing along a poor stand of drought-starved winter wheat. He planted no spring wheat this year, but there will be about 300 acres of corn and alfalfa, 160 acres of milo and sorghum and about 100 acres of forage cane, a grazing supplement he also calls “cow chow.”

In the large, foursquare farmhouse, Kokesh’s office can be found at the end of the kitchen table.

“I’m insurance poor,” he jokes, waving a health insurance notice with a nearly $1,200 annual increase. The new $950 monthly bill to cover his family comes with a $5,000 deductible.

“Thankfully, we’re a pretty healthy bunch, but that deductible means that everyday trips to the doctor come out of your pocket.”

Then there’s life insurance, crop insurance, vehicle insurance and property insurance. It all adds up, Kokesh says, but insurance, especially crop insurance, is worth every dime.

“The money you put out there for seed, fuel, chemicals — you have such a huge investment to raise your crops that you better be getting a return, and that’s where insurance is guaranteeing you that, but it’s a heck of a premium.”

He and others worry that the federal government may cut back on price supports.

Through it all, Kokesh and Kathryn, his wife of 25 years, have managed to raise a family of four children. All have graduated from high school and three are in college. He figures sons Richard and Robert will eventually work the farm together.

Robert, an All-American wrestler for the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, came close to winning an NCAA national title in the 174-pound weight class this season. Twin daughters Kimberly and Kristi are both attending college. Kimberly plans a career in nursing and Kristi is studying to be an elementary school teacher.

Kokesh knows he probably works too hard and should take some time off. Maybe take his fishing rod out to Pickstown, where some big fish have been reported near the dam.

Maybe tomorrow. Today there’s work to do.

“I’m sustaining. I’m not rich, but I’m holding my own,” he says.

Still, he is wary of the weather and the changes it and the economy might bring. His advice is simple.

“You’d better live within your means, because this thing is not over.”

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