Jeff watched the final truck rumble down the driveway with the last of his dairy cows. The last few months seemed like a dream. He never would have thought he would be out of the dairy business at age 50. Jeff felt he had spent his entire life milking cows. It was all he had known.

He had been through difficult times before and could always find a way to continue. But the last few years were different. Things had been so tight and he could not feed his cattle the way he wanted. He had changed up his breeding program to save some money. With the poor crop last year and having to buy hay, Jeff’s cash flow got worse and worse. Eventually his banker was unwilling to extend any more credit.

In an effort to salvage something, he had cash-rented the land. The bulk of his machinery was sold in early spring. He had continued to milk, using up most of the bunkers of corn and hay silage. Then his young stock were sold. With the corn silage almost completely gone, the remaining cows left, too.

Jeff walked through the empty buildings. Everything was quiet and it seemed almost eerie. There had always been the sound of livestock moving, fans running and the vacuum pump. Now there was only the sound of his boots as he walked up and down the empty alleyways. He stopped at the west door of the barn. All the cow yards were empty. Further out, crops were growing in his fields, but they were not his crops. Jeff sat down on a five-gallon pail and put his head in his hands. He cried for the first time in many years.

Bill lived two miles to the north. His situation was much different than Jeff’s, at least to the neighbors driving by. His hog buildings still looked new and all of the grass was mowed and things were neatly kept. Just like clockwork, every few months semi loads of pigs left and young pigs arrived. To those unfamiliar with the hog business, it looked like he was doing incredibly well and expanding. Bill now had pigs in outside finishing units that hadn’t been used for years.

The reality of the situation was that Bill had hundreds of heavy hogs over 300 pounds and no buyers. There had been an occasional semi leaving with pigs but in the last few months the trucks were fewer and fewer. Bill looked at every innovative way to market his pigs. He had made some strategic decisions which helped a little bit, but he was almost at the point where the heaviest pigs would need to be killed.

As a pig grower, killing pigs rather than sending them to market seemed wrong on every level. People were angry about shortages of meat and the high price at the grocery store. This only added to Bill’s frustration. His banker had been supportive for a long time, but there were now difficult decisions to be made. Would it be better to kill the young pigs rather than killing the fat hogs and burying them? The economic losses were mounting and cash flow had become a thing of the past.

Bill stood at the west end of one of the finishers and surveyed the ground where they were going to dig a large hole for his pigs. It seemed as if the whole world had been turned upside down. With little reason for hope, he leaned his head against the wall and wept.

Dean lived two miles further north of Bill and farmed about 3,000 acres. He only owned 300 acres and rented the rest. He was glad he was not a livestock farmer. Like his neighbors, Dean borrowed a significant amount of money each year to put his crops in. With the size of his operation, he had a nice line of farm equipment. People who drove past his place only saw the big machine sheds, the well mowed lawns and some big grain bins. They all imagined how rich he was.

Dean, like the others, struggled to make ends meet. More and more of his equipment was either long-term financed or rented. Cash rent in their area had only gone down by only a small amount last year. At the current prices Dean could only lock in losses. He had made marketing decisions last year which helped him some, but there was a lot of old crop and most of the new crop still unpriced.

The clock was ticking for Dean also and it was hard to see a path forward. He had already moved as much debt as he could against his farmland, hoping this would help. His banker had frankly discussed the situation and told him this would need to be a better year. It was an easy thing to say but a hard thing to accomplish.

It seemed as if a lifetime of Dean’s work was about to disappear and there was nothing he could do about it. As he pushed the machine shed doors closed and watched the late-afternoon sun descend, Dean hung his head down and wept.

Stan sat in his recliner looking out the window to the west. From his perspective, the crops looked good. However, Stan felt he was being left behind in these unsettling times. He had contracted the coronavirus in late March. His lungs were not good to begin with and the virus had weakened them even further.

Stan’s equipment was still in the machine shed. Not a wheel had turned all spring. While he was in the hospital, his wife had made the difficult decision to rent out their land. While Stan was recuperating, the last of his cattle had been sold. All of his feedlots were empty. He was able to sell the rest of his silage to a neighbor. That was the only bright spot.

Stan had spent six weeks in the hospital and had been home now for a month and a half. He did not bounce back as the doctors thought he would. He felt like a prisoner in his home and wondered how he would survive the next few months. He walked through the kitchen and opened the door to sit on the deck. The sun was just beginning to set in the west. He looked over his empty cattle lots and his neighbor’s corn planted in his field. Exhausted from the short walk and overcome with emotion he sat down in a chair, hung his head and wept.

There are many farmers struggling right now. It may be the most painful or stressful time of their entire lives or farming careers. You will not see them on TV or read about them in the newspaper. The general public will not be able to understand the commitment they have made to farming over the last 20 to 40 years. While some will say it is simply a business and this is how businesses work, it is much more than a business or a way of life.

For most farmers, it is their lives’ work. While it is true there will be life after farming, these affected farmers will never be the same. There will always be a need for farmers and those who produce food. Farming will continue. History reminds us this is not the first time a significant group of people may be forced out of farming. However, it is the first time many have experienced it.

As we go through these tough times, let’s not forget to be patient with our spouse and other family members. Let’s not be so quick to judge our neighbors. We all handle pain and frustration differently. Although we do not control so many things around us, we can control how we respond.


Bob Dunaway and Associates offer estate and retirement planning. Gary Johnson can be reached at 563-927-4554 or by emailing him at plans@bobdunaway.com.