Farmers fight to save their land in rural Minnesota as trade war intensifies
MONTGOMERY, Minn. — The feed chopper was the only 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 four decades of cold winters, muddy springs and grueling harvests.
Now, on a chilly Saturday morning, Krocak, 64, was standing next 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 three unprofitable years.
Krocak needed the money to stave off bankruptcy and hold on to the land that has been in his family since 1888. Hundreds of other farmers around the country, grappling with rising debt, dismal commodity prices and the fallout of the Trump administration's trade wars, are facing the same fate. Net farm income has dropped by nearly 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 it. 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's chopper at $100. His bid call - "I hear 100, 100. Now, can I hear 125?" echoed on the loudspeaker, the sound of treasured items slipping away.
Krocak bought the chopper for $6,700 in 1977. It sold for $150.
"It's the price of scrap metal, the wheels alone 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 about $1.3 million in debt.
After the final gavel, Krocak gently touched the chopper's gear shaft with his darkened hands, gnarled as ginger bulbs.
"You've been good," he told the machine.
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Liz, 61, sat nearby in her muddy, white Ford Edge and patiently waited for Bob to say goodbye to his chopper. She had been worried about him lately - her normally sociable husband had seemed withdrawn, saying the previous week that he couldn't bear to go to the sale.
"We just need to get through the day," she said. "There are all these little milestones we have to get through and keep going."
When she had met him four decades earlier, she had a job in Minneapolis at a bank. Her family 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 bride and seeing all these dirty, old farmers in the back who were too attached to their equipment. Today, that's 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's the home of Jolly Green Giant - since Bob's great-grandfather arrived from what is now the Czech Republic and later bought the original farm, now 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 oversupply and America's new thirst for alternatives such as soy milk when the Trump administration's trade wars with Mexico, Canada and China hit, sending exports plunging and exacerbating gluts of various commodities.
Dairy farmers have lost at least $2.3 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% drop.
The fallout has rendered the Krocaks' milking equipment worthless and complicated the family's planned shift to organic soybeans, corn and other small grains that they hope will preserve the farm for the next generation: Marty, 37, and his wife, 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 fair 10 out of the past 11 years.
After they made the emotional decision to sell the herd last spring, the family drew up the plan for "life after dairy" with a farm crisis counselor from the University of Minnesota's extension service. Liz dusted off her résumé after 40 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 money 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.
"After decades of farming, this is not the way we thought we would be ending our business," she wrote. "Sincerely, Krocak Farm LLC."
They had to face their creditors at a mediation. There was Del, the mechanic, whom they owe $28,000 and who now can't help his son buy a home. There 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 saying, "This is going to be an emotional day. I can see everybody really likes this family." Liz had burst into tears then - and she was crying again now, describing the scene seven months later.
"We just hope there's a farm left at the end of it," she said.
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The hardest part was saying goodbye to the cows.
Even now, they rarely enter the milking barn. Everything is left as untouched as it was on May 3, 2018, when drivers loaded their herd on trucks, carting away "a lifetime of genetic improvement, toil, blood, sweat and tears," as Bob put it. The whiteboard still 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 yet calved - to sell later on. They also found a new home for their favorite cow, beloved #1385, a lady of 10 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 ago, the neighbor who adopted her sent a photo 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 operation spiraled deeper into debt, they laid off the workers and milked the cows themselves - morning and evening, seven days a week. Prices had dropped so far that the farm's milk revenue fell from nearly $1 million to between $600,000 and $650,000 in their last years of operation.
At their lowest point, Marty was so exhausted he would fall asleep anywhere. Sarah would wake up in the middle of the night in an empty bed and run through the cold looking for him to make sure he was okay. Marty began contemplating suicide, planning to die tangled in a farm machine that would make it look like 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 anything," he said. "The only thing that kept me going was the thought that Sarah and the kids would have to go through this without me. I didn't want to bail out on you guys."
At Sarah's urging, Marty saw a counselor and found some comfort in the evenings listening to inspirational tapes from Tony Robbins or Goalcast videos aimed at anybody who had hit rock bottom. It 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, but it's risky: To cover the farm's mortgage payment, they're paying Liz and Bob $50,000 to rent their fields, about $30,000 more than market rate. They've already been hit with two major setbacks before a seed went into the ground. A buyer for last year's corn crop backed out at the last minute, a $15,000 loss. Then record spring rains delayed planting for weeks, wreaking havoc on their plan.
"It's on our minds all time. We could lose the whole farm," Marty said. With the new operating loan, "now we have a second chance, and we don't want to screw it up."
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Three days after the auction, a tiny miracle occurred.
The Krocaks originally had been turned down for a federal assistance program for dairy farmers, but word came that the criteria had changed, due in part to protests from farmers like Liz. The Krocaks now qualified.
So Bob went down to the local Farm Service Agency office - a low-slung building in the county seat - to complete the paperwork, expecting a payment of a few hundred dollars. He greeted everyone by name. He passed a huge poster near the door that read, "2018 Outstanding Conservationists KROCAK FARM," decorated with photos of his family and black cow spots and a pink udder made of construction paper.
At the counter, the agency's county executive director, Gary Kunz, gave him good news - they would be getting $12,302. Bob squinted at the amount.
"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'm not supposed to drink anyway," Bob said. "The bank will be glad to see this."
"I'm glad we can do it," Kunz said. "A lot of guys are hurting out there."
Driving home in his pickup truck, Bob passed lakes brimming with cold, navy blue water and farms he knows by name. The winter snows had melted, and the grass was beginning to turn green. Soon, it would be time to sow.
Bob decided to stop at the cemetery where four generations of his family are buried, a little grouping of graves next to a white church in a stand of arborvitae trees. A cross of rough lumber Bob made himself stands at the gate. He comes here often to think: 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 burden on Marty and Sarah?
He bent down to clean up twigs from around his father's grave. Vladamir Krocak had farmed almost until he died in 2013, more than 60 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 way 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 thought of him giving up on dairy farming. He once wrote himself a letter 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 have 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 bankruptcy.
"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'm not sure which way to go."
Bob listened to his wife but said little.
"It'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 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 land at risk.
After supper, the guests gathered outside by 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 still a farm. And we wouldn't be here if we still had cows; we'd be back milking those d--- things," Bob said as Liz looked on.
There was a ripple of laughter and then applause. They sang "Happy Birthday." The sun began setting over the lake. "Come inside, come inside," Bob said. It was cold out, and he wanted to make sure everybody got a piece of the pie.
This is article was written by Annie Gowen, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Julie Tate contributed to this report.