Strong family farms remain vital, through hard times and disputes

The promise and reality that a nation possessing strong family farms is critical to ensuring continuation of a democratic form of government remains true.

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Mychal Wilmes

My brother held a debate with me as a listener while we milked cows. He was weighing if he should purchase a farm that went on the market after its bachelor owner died.

The farm economy was strong, and it was reflected in the price of land, which had reached top dollar. He had an emotional attachment to the property because he had worked there ever since he was strong enough to stack bales five rows high behind the baler.

The deceased owner lived in the huge farmhouse with his two sisters and earned a reputation with a fine Hereford herd. He sold breeding stock, but the cattle were much more than a commodity.

In summer, when the pasture was flush with grass and the cottonwoods, maples and elms provided shade, he spent time watching the cows with calves at their side.

“You know, they aren’t ever going to make more dirt,’’ my brother said to me, providing a hint that he would pay what the market demanded for the farm.


It would be a decision that he would come to regret when the meanness of the 1980s unfolded. Like so many others — through bad timing and to an extent due to factors beyond their control — the mortgage became an albatross.

Some gave land back to their mortgage holder and others reached deals to have loans reworked or written down. It was painful for all parties involved and caused the relationship between ag lenders and farmers, in some cases, to fracture beyond repair. For many, the sting lingers.

My parents, who farmed in the Great Depression, were cautious about borrowed money. In the Roaring Twenties, many leading economic experts of that time boasted that because of American ingenuity, the country had entered an era of unending prosperity. Farmers, who had suffered bottom-of-the-barrel markets since the end of World War I, had been left out of the economic miracle.

William Jennings Bryan, a veteran politician who was once an unsuccessful presidential candidate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, delivered a warning about the danger of a struggling farm economy.

“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if my magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.’’

His words rang true when the Great Depression hit with hurricane force. Unemployment soared to more than 20%; soup kitchen lines stretched for blocks; and for the first time in U.S. history, more people left cities to return to farms, where there was food to eat.

It is reassuring, in this time of low milk and commodity prices, that agriculture has to-date not seen an alarming decline in land values despite weather problems and trade uncertainty.

In my lifetime, the only thing that compares to a farm crisis as a divider in farming communities is the siting of large concentrated animal facilities. Announced plans for hog setups divided communities along clear-cut lines. Some saw economic development opportunities while others warned of environmental disaster.


Long friendships ended and pastors told of congregations rendered in two. It was a shame, since rural towns need everyone working together to survive at a time when declining populations helped lead to consolidated schools, closed Main Street stores, and consolidated agribusinesses.

Disputes over feedlots have lost much, but not all, of their heat. Time has relegated the pain of losing farms in the 1980s to a footnote in personal stories.

The promise and reality that a nation possessing strong family farms is critical to ensuring continuation of a democratic form of government — a position held by Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the nation — remains true.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

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