The bright-green hulk of our John Deere combine harvester crept across the field of soybeans. It was late in the day, early October, the sun low. A cloud of hulls and chaff spewed from the back of the combine, then swirled up around us and blazed in the glow. Sealed in the dustless quiet of the cab, Rick Hammond steadied the wheel with one hand and punched coordinates into a touchscreen computer with the other. The reel of the harvester head spun steadily below us like the paddle wheel of a river steamer, standing up stalks so that the toothed blades could cut a dozen rows at a go. The feed auger corkscrewed the cut plants into the mouth of the combine, where a throbbing set of threshers splintered the dry pods, collecting the oily seeds inside and sending them spiraling up to the grain tank behind Rick’s chair. Harvested beans ticked against the back window like a light summer hail. The only other sounds were the Pong-like beeps from the computer.
“Okay,” Rick said at last, marking the final coordinates, “we’re on autosteer now.” And to show me, he took his hands off the wheel. “I thought I’d be able to retire before I had to get autosteer,” he sighed. Rick is in his sixties, tan and weatherworn, but still plenty fit. Most days, he works sunup to sundown, especially during harvest. It wasn’t the long hours that were getting to be too much, he said, but trying to keep up with the technology. “The reason for all this is inputs,” he explained. “Inputs” is a kind of catchall term on the farm, a word used to cover any overhead or revolving costs — seed, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, as well as payments on past investments and big costs for the year, such as a new tractor or additional land. Everything hinges on keeping your inputs as low as possible without jeopardizing your yield.
The combine continued along, following the contours of the planting lines automatically recorded months earlier by G.P.S. As we moved, our progress was charted on the touchscreen in varying colors to show where each row or part of a row was above or below the target for bushels-per-acre for this field. All of that data is recorded and stored to plan for next year, helping farmers decide how to adjust the density of their seed populations, where to apply fertilizer, how much to water, where to add inputs, and where to save money. The sun was setting now, just south of the Platte River in eastern Nebraska, turning the browned plants a radiant gold, but onscreen the colors of our current swath shifted back and forth from green to yellow, from profit to loss.
The thin difference became especially apparent in 2014. At the end of June of that year, crop counters at the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new estimates projecting that the summer’s mild weather and above-average rainfall would result in a higher-than-expected yield. It’s the kind of prediction that sounds like good news, but for farmers it meant an upcoming glut of grain. One report calculated that the national soybean yield would be 3.3 million acres higher than expected at planting — not just cutting into profits but actually outstripping domestic demand. On news of such unprecedented surpluses, soybean futures, which had topped $17 per bushel, dropped below $10.
Then, in August, in the weeks just before harvest, a series of downpours moved across the middle of Nebraska, dumping two to three inches of rain at a time, pushing back the start date for bringing in the beans. While he waited anxiously for the fields to dry enough that a harvester wouldn’t mire in the mud, Rick watched projections for the national yield go up and up. Every day that the crops stayed out, unharvested and undelivered to the co-op, the per-bushel prices went lower. For weeks in nearby towns, at the firehouse in Hordville and the bar in Polk, even at the Iron Skillet at the truck stop south of York, the talk had turned to the traders in Chicago making bank on the backs of farmers. Rick didn’t have time for idle chatter. He moved an old grain bin in from a distant part of the farm to store as much of the harvest as possible and wait out the down market, and he tested the moisture at the edges of the fields every morning.
When he finally caught a day of clear sky and enough of a breeze to get going, the ground, after weeks of rain, was still so wet that bringing in all the equipment they’d need to work the field — the harvester, the tractor and grain cart, and the semi to haul the beans away — was going to compact the soggy soil and make it too dense to plant next year. After some thought, Rick decided to make the sacrifice. The decision might seem impulsive — why not wait just a few more days? — but “beans are weird,” Rick told me. Unlike most crops, which are planted in the spring, grow all summer, and begin to mature only when the weather turns cold and the air dries, soybeans are short-day plants — meaning, simply, that their final stages of maturity are triggered by waning hours of sun. With every day of earlier nightfall, the beans grow riper.
This poses two major problems when you run into an unusually wet September. First, the days get shorter no matter what. Weather-dependent crops like corn slow their maturation on rainy days. You can get lucky — catch a warm spell or even a single sunny day — and get out in the field and back on track. Not so with soybeans. While you’re waiting for the clouds to clear, the beans are going past maturity. Second, soybeans have to be delivered to the grain elevator at a precisely defined moisture rate: 13 percent. “We’re at twelve-point-nine right now.” Rick showed me on the touchscreen. “But when we get down there where the ground is a little wetter, it’ll go back up.” Above 14 percent, he said, the grain elevator not only charges you for drying but also docks you for the estimated shrinkage. “And you would think, ‘Well, one percent of moisture would be one percent of shrink,’ ” Rick told me, “but no. They dock you one and a half percent.” At 15 percent moisture, they’re apt to reject the whole load.
So to make your best profit on soybeans, you need a sunny day (but not too sunny) with a dry breeze (but not too dry), and you need that day to fall exactly when the plant has received the precise number of hours — yes, hours — of sunlight from the moment you planted it months earlier. To make hitting such a tight window even remotely possible, seed companies, like Rick’s supplier, DuPont Pioneer, have hybridized soybeans for nearly a century — and genetically modified them in recent decades — according to bands of latitude called maturity groups. They number these photoregions from 0 in the northern growing zones of Canada to 7 in the light-drenched flatlands of Florida. But Nebraska is almost exactly divided between groups 2 and 3, the line bisecting the state into north and south. Most farmers here, especially in central regions like York County, plant both varieties to spread out their risk, but some daring farmers like Rick will formulate a guess as to what the weather holds for the growing season and plant more of one group, hoping for higher yields and higher returns.
In 2014, after several years of drought, Rick bet on another dry year — and planted incredibly short-season beans. While most of his neighbors were planting 3.5s, Rick planted 2.4s. And he was dead-on, right up until the rains started. If he could have harvested early, ahead of farmers in other parts of the country, and caught the market at its peak, he was positioned to make up for all the other setbacks going into the harvest. But if a farmer guesses correctly on the growing season, as Rick did, and then gets an extremely wet fall, he can end up with hundreds of acres of mature soybeans and fields too wet to run the combine. With each storm that rolls up on the horizon, he could move from making a hefty profit to incurring a crippling debt.
Rick knew prices would hold for a time, on the chance of an unforeseen late-season catastrophe, a hedge against an ice storm freezing crops or a line of thunderheads dropping hail that could send prices soaring. But once grain started pouring into the elevators, prices on futures were sure to slump. With the market already in free fall, some farmers decided not to wait: They went out as soon as the mucky furrows would allow and used propane or electric dryers to deal with the high-moisture grain. This was yet another expense, and if the moisture levels were too high, the cost of drying could cancel any profit. Other farmers, like Rick, held out as long as possible, but eventually everyone had to make hard choices.
“Every day that the beans sit out there,” Rick said, “you’re under risk of a big storm. And beans get harder and harder to get out, because they just soak up moisture like crazy. And then, the more that happens — when they’re dry, wet, dry, wet, after they’re mature — they’re prone to shatter. They’ll split wide open in a big wind.” So when the rains finally let up, he decided it was time to go, soggy fields or no. It wasn’t worth risking the return on this field this year just for the promise of next year. He set up the harvester and started across the field to judge for himself whether the beans were ready.
Now halfway through another swath, Rick checked the level of the grain tank. He needed to empty it. He radioed over to his soon-to-be son-in-law, Kyle Galloway. “Can I dump on you?” Kyle pulled up alongside the combine with the tractor and grain cart, moving in perfect parallel. While the harvesting reel kept spinning and the combine inched across the field, the unloading auger arm started pouring out soybeans until the tank was empty. Kyle peeled off to unload into the trailer of the big rig, but Rick’s mind was already back on the moisture levels. At the end of the swath, he took a sweeping turn and set the harvester back on autosteer.
“This here is instant yield, instant moisture,” Rick said, pointing to the screen, “and this is average yield, average moisture.” As we moved, he could see in real time if he was on track to hit his production targets or falling short, and whether the moisture of the entire load was within the acceptable range or inching high enough that he’d have to pay a penalty for drying. He watched the data rolling across the screen, giving the minute-to-minute condition of the crop. All the perils of modern farming seemed to crawl across the four-inch screen. But harvest, at last, was officially under way. Now Rick just had to get his crops in as soon as possible. It was going to be a race.
The overproduction of corn by the American agricultural industry has generated a lot of attention in recent years, as food activists and environmentalists have grown worried about the middle of the country turning into a vast monoculture. But that’s only half the picture. The corn boom, to a remarkable extent, has been made possible by a coequal boom in alternate-year planting of millions of acres of soybeans. In many ways, corn and soybeans seem made for each other. Soybeans are a natural nitrogen-fixer, replenishing the soil for nitrogen-hungry corn hybrids, and the plants share almost none of the same pests or diseases, preventing insects, molds, and bacteria from overtaking fields. But the soybean is more than an enabler of King Corn. It is, in fact, far and away the most successful crop introduced to the American farm in the past century.
In 1920, there were fewer than a million acres of soybeans planted in the entire United States. But soybean production boomed beginning in the 1930s — surpassing barley production by 1940, cotton in the 1950s, oats in the 1960s, and wheat and hay in the 1970s. This year, the number of acres planted to soybeans is expected to reach 90 million — virtually equal to the acreage of cornfields — and almost all of those acres are concentrated in the Midwest and on the Great Plains. How did the soybean, a legume native to East Asia and traditionally used primarily in foods from China, come to have such a place of prominence here? The rise of the soybean in the United States is attributable to, more than to any other person, Henry Ford.
In the early twentieth century, the American farm underwent a period of unmatched innovation. The arrival of the gas-powered tractor for plowing, the combine for harvesting, and affordable trucks for hauling grain to market made it possible for farmers to plant more and more acres and to manage those acres with fewer farmhands. But by the mid-Twenties, the market was flooded with grain, depressing prices and endangering the very family farms that the technological revolution had promised to empower. Farmers began calling for research to develop new uses for existing agricultural supply rather than continuing to search for ways to increase yields.
In January 1927, Wheeler McMillen, an associate editor of the popular magazine Farm and Fireside, published a watershed article entitled “Wanted: Machines to Eat Up Our Crop Surplus.” He wrote that he had been receiving panicked letters from farmers lamenting that more grain was being produced than people could possibly eat. McMillen suggested that chemical compounds in plants might be converted into industrial products, and even advocated for government backing for such research. “There is no wrong in channeling some federal funds into farmers’ pockets,” he wrote, considering that the American farmer “by cheap food has subsidized the growth of cities.”
Among McMillen’s most interested readers was the owner of the Ford Motor Company. Ford, after all, manufactured much of the equipment that had contributed to booming yields — and if the company was to maintain that market share, it had to find a way to sustain its customers. To Henry Ford’s mind, it also made perfect sense to subsidize research into the uses of farm products, because he was already growing concerned about dwindling petroleum supplies. Numerous auto parts were made from petroleum-based plastics, and, of course, all of Ford’s engines ran on diesel and gasoline refined from petroleum crude. “If we want the farmer to be our customer,” he said, “we must find a way to be his customer.” In early 1928, he met with McMillen to discuss this new field of research — what was eventually dubbed “chemurgy” — and came away even more convinced that the key driver should be private industry, not the government.
Ford authorized dramatically expanding the agricultural laboratory at his headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. Under his direct supervision, technicians experimented with a staggering range of vegetables, fruits, grasses, legumes, tubers, and roots to determine which plants might contain high levels of cellulose for plastics and which might contain sugars that could be converted to ethanol. All efforts were aimed at finding replacements for petroleum while propping up American agriculture.
The stock market crash in October 1929 exacerbated the financial crisis for farmers. Ford publicly advocated continuing full production of all crops and again urged the government to resist stepping in. “The farmer and the chemist will solve farm relief, not the politician,” he told the New York Times. Nevertheless, the USDA sent emissaries around the world in search of new crops that could be planted on American farms — crops intended for industrial use, not food. On one such trip to China, more than ten thousand soybean varieties were gathered. Learning of this, Ford urged his staff to look at the soybean. They found that the plant had unexpected levels of usable oils and yielded high-protein soy meal after the oil was extracted. In short, it appeared that the soybean could be used to produce industrial lubricants and that the byproduct could be turned into plastics.
The results were so encouraging that, in 1932, Ford approved $1 million in new research funding, and that spring had 300 varieties of soybeans planted on 8,000 acres of his own farmland in rural Michigan. The next year, he expanded it to 12,000 acres — making him the single largest soybean grower in the United States. That same year he announced that he would buy any soybeans delivered to the Dearborn plant. To encourage production, he made 400 Fordson tractors available for free use to Michigan farmers and offered gas and diesel at a penny per gallon — less than a quarter of what it cost at the pump. Farmers put more than 35,000 acres of land into growing soybeans, and Ford bought their entire output as promised. It was a daring move but good business.
Ford also put the full muscle of his publicity machine behind promoting soybeans. He hosted the national convention of the American Soybean Association, promoted blending ethanol into gasoline, and gave a series of interviews, telling one reporter that he envisioned a time when much of an automobile “could be made from by-products of agriculture.” He even announced a plan to decentralize Ford production by opening a constellation of factories in rural areas to manufacture plastic parts made from local soybeans. Ford bragged that he used soybean oil in his paint and as a lubricant in his casting molds. When soybean meal was combined with formaldehyde, it could produce a thermoplastic resin, which was used to make distributor caps, gearshift knobs, and horn buttons. “There is a bushel of soya beans in every Ford car,” Fortune declared. “He is as much interested in the soya bean as he is in the V-8.”
In 1934, Ford’s promotions got an unexpected boost. The first of several years of severe drought — what proved to be the worst in American history — engulfed 75 percent of the country. Corn and wheat withered in the fields. Amid rampant crop failures, farmers harvested 23 million bushels of soybeans, a better yield than most crops and far better than its oil-producing competitors, such as linseed and canola. The following spring, farmers planted roughly 45 million bushels of soybeans. Selling for fifty cents a bushel during the worst years of the Great Depression, soybeans were hailed as a godsend. Soybean trading was so active and central to industry that the Chicago Board of Trade started offering soybean futures for the first time. By the end of the 1930s, the soybean harvest was exceeding 75 million bushels per year. Time magazine declared Henry Ford “a bean’s best friend.”
But no sooner had industry begun to move away from petroleum than the world’s largest oil reserves were discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938. The barrel price of crude oil fell precipitously, and the demand for petroleum substitutes waned. Ford continued to extol the virtues of soybean products, but industrial applications for soybeans were now seen as impractical. During the years when grain crops were failing, however, animal feeders had discovered that livestock fed an oil-rich soybean diet bulked up quickly. With demand from Ford and other automakers no longer elevating prices, milling companies, hoping to capitalize on their existing supply, were eager to get into the soybean trade.
In 1939, Archer Daniels Midland announced the construction of a modern soybean plant and elevator in Decatur, Illinois. Soon after, Cargill launched an aggressive bid of its own into soybean processing. By the harvest of that year, soybean mills dotted the Mississippi River, and the American Farm Bureau Federation sponsored hundreds of events to encourage farmers to plant soybeans and instruct them on how to achieve top yields. For the first time, the middle of the country was also the center of soybean production in America, and those farmers were now well positioned to take advantage when the United States was pulled into World War II.
When Hitler began his march across Europe, there were sudden scarcities of edible oils and fats — much of which had previously been imported from Mediterranean countries. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government pushed agricultural producers to achieve record output, and soybeans increased from 78 million bushels in 1943 to 193 million in 1945. Yet Cargill and ADM struggled to make a profit because President Roosevelt and Congress had worked together to pass price-control legislation, creating the Office of Price Administration and thus establishing fixed prices on animal feed.
After the war, however, when the government slowly started to roll back its strictures, feed prices rose sharply. As Ford had always feared, government involvement, instituting price controls and later subsidies, made farmers subject to the whims of federal farm policy — and the agribusiness interests that controlled that policy. But by then, Ford was too sick and old to keep up the fight. He turned the company over to his grandson, and, just two years later, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Without his guiding vision, soybean production for industrial purposes waned sharply for several decades, but the market for feeding livestock boomed like never before.
When wartime rationing officially ended in 1947, the American public wanted French wine and a good steak. Nationwide, consumption of meat rose by more than 20 percent, and the federal government heavily subsidized corn and soybean production to keep up with the demand. Ever since, the prices of commodity grains have risen and fallen according to the demand of livestock feeders.
Rick wasn’t pleased. “Not good,” he said, “not good.”
It was past eleven in the morning, and the sky was still overcast and threatening. With the remaining fields near the house too wet for work, Rick loaded the combine onto a flatbed and brought it to a section of dry land south of Interstate 80 where he had planted more very-short-season soybeans. The wind seemed to be picking up enough to bring the moisture down to where he could harvest. He had run a test patch just to be sure, only to find that an unusual number of the bean plants were “laid down” — that is, their stems were so flat to the ground that the spinning reel of the John Deere couldn’t prop up the stalks for the cutting blades. So many beans laid flat meant a measurable loss of yield, but it also suggested the possibility of something even worse.
“We had a couple of hailstorms come through here this summer,” Rick said, kneeling in a furrow next to one of the flattened plants, “but our insurance adjuster didn’t expect the loss to be near this bad.” He plucked one of the plants, roots and all, out of the ground and flipped open his buck knife. Slicing longways, he split the stalk in half. “Aw, man, look at that,” he said, showing the hollowed-out insides to Kyle and Meghan, Rick’s daughter, who had come out to check on the field.
With one glimpse of the stem, they each set to pulling up their own plants and cutting them open. After a few tries, Rick called out. “Here we go,” he said, holding up the sliced-open stem for everyone to see: a tiny larva, a narrow white caterpillar, nestled right where the stalk met the roots. “Stem borer,” Rick said. “They warned us to be on the lookout for them this year, but we’ve never seen them here before.” He turned and cursed, then flipped open his cell phone, and in a minute had the insurance adjuster on the line. “Yeah, we need you to come out and have a look,” he said as he wandered back toward the road.
Meghan shook her head. “You spend all fucking year trying to get these crops the best yield,” she said. “It’s ready to be harvested. They’re done, and when they’re done, you got to get them out.” Meghan is the sixth generation of her family to live and farm in this area — and she and Kyle were starting to talk about a wedding within the year. Once that happened, Rick figured it would be time to give them a bigger role in the operation.
But handing over control of the operation — succession, as it’s known — is one of the hardest times in the life of any family farm. The older generation struggles to let go of the reins, to trust their kids to carry on a long and fragile tradition. The younger generation bridles against meddling and second-guessing and feels the double weight of scrutiny and doubt at every misstep. Many farms don’t officially change hands until the older generation dies, leaving the rising generation beholden to their parents until they’re well into adulthood and often into their fifties or sixties. The peculiarities of farm succession breed resentment and too often divide generations or turn brothers and sisters against one another. The process can be so stressful and legally complex that there are psychiatrists and attorneys who build whole practices around helping families navigate it. But on the Hammond farm, it was even more complicated than that.
Years ago, Rick had tried raising organic corn and direct-marketing his grass-fed black Angus cattle, but those efforts had largely failed. Now he had fully committed to planting a range of genetically modified corn and soybean varieties — and to get certified organic would mean years of letting fields lie fallow. There was no going back; for better or for worse, Rick was now tied to the commodities markets. “During the era of high prices, yahoos that should have been broke were thinking, ‘There’s nothing to this,’ ” he told me. “Now we’re back down to cost of production — or less. So everything matters.”
For the next year, Rick needed to catch a few breaks. He couldn’t afford to buy new machinery, couldn’t afford to replace his center-pivot irrigation system. To get the handoff to Meghan and Kyle started on the right foot, he needed to have a full year of paying down loans, not incurring new debts. He needed a year in which crops came in early and healthy, prices rebounded, equipment held out. And if he was forced to take out more loans, he needed interest rates to stay low. He needed a whole year of everything going right — and having this field infested with stem borers was a far cry from right. Now Rick would have to wait to harvest this field until the adjuster could come and assess it, which could be days or even a week, depending on how many claims were already waiting. And while Rick waited, there was the chance of suffering more losses to the field.
“Hail, wind damage, snow,” Kyle explained. “Right now those crops are really vulnerable.”
“Eight inches of rain,” Meghan said.
“Yeah, they just got big rains in southeast Nebraska,” Kyle said. “It wiped out a lot of fields. They say a two-hundred-year event.”
“It’s also driving the price,” Meghan said.
“That’s right,” Kyle agreed. “In the week since those rains, beans went up a dollar. That’s probably how much yield has been lost. Because the beans are really sensitive. High wind will just knock the beans right out of the pod.”
Rick snapped his phone closed and started back toward the field, moving quickly. “We’re not going to get it out, so bring the combine in,” he said. “Let’s get the head back on the trailer.” He told Kyle that they would move everything over to a neighbor’s property. The neighbor, Seth (we have not used his real name to protect his privacy), had gone in with them on the rental for the combine. Rick had thought that his short-season beans would be ready first, but that wasn’t going to happen now. They could make the most of what remained of the day and then hope to find another field that was ready tomorrow. For now, Seth’s half section was dry, so they might as well get everything over there.
Kyle went to work unhooking the head of the harvester.
“We’re at least two weeks behind,” Rick said in my direction but almost to himself. “And it’s just killing us.”
Failure is everywhere on the farm. It hides in the long shadows cast by the barn at last light. It waits amid the dark stalks shifting in the fields before dawn. It’s all around, always lurking, always palpable, but just out of view.
These failures can be dramatic and sudden: the death of a patriarch, his chest rolled over while repairing a tractor or his overalls twisted into a choking knot by the auger in the grain bin. If there is no will or no clear plan for succession, the farm can go under. Just as shattering can be a divorce. Legal bills and the stress of unsettled assets can turn a farmer’s attention from keeping the books or watching the markets, and somehow the business slips away. And, of course, failure can come from the fields — cobs stunted by drought, beans infested by cutworms.
More frequently, though, it creeps up, not one major disaster but a series of small missteps. Too little insurance in a drought year. Borrowing to build a hog barn just before the bottom drops out of the market. Buying more ground and more seed only to see commodity prices plummet. As often as not, failure comes from nothing more than a farmer overestimating his ability to service a loan.
Some would say that this is no accident. In the early 1970s, Earl Butz, the secretary of agriculture during the Nixon Administration, told farmers that a new day was dawning. They had to “get big or get out.” He urged those who heeded his call to acquire as much land as they could afford and plant “fencerow to fencerow.” Butz wanted American farmers to produce a steady oversupply of key grains in order to manipulate commodities markets to the disadvantage of our Cold War enemies. The only way to outproduce them was to invest in every possible method of intensifying production — using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, ending crop rotation in favor of monocultures, consolidating farmland and agricultural companies, and tinkering with the genetics of row crops to make them both resistant to various herbicides and tolerant of denser planting.
Butz promised to use the emerging global economy to bolster prices. If the United States faced harvests in which supply outstripped demand, we would simply negotiate trade deals, using economic might to artificially create a market. If we could flood the global market with massive quantities of grains, pushing prices below the cost of production, then, Butz believed, the world would have no choice but to buy from us. Soon, the entire Nixon Administration was sold on the idea that we could make our enemies — and even our friends — dependent on us to feed themselves.
In 1972, Butz sold what amounted to our entire grain reserve to the Soviet Union. That same year, Nixon went to China and brokered a deal with Chairman Mao to ease trade restrictions. The Soviets and the Chinese, who still remembered the horrible privations of Stalingrad and Nanjing, viewed these moves as a pledge not to wage war through food. But Butz saw the same deals in terms of “agripower,” stating: “Food is a weapon.”
The trouble, as many critics saw it, was that producing at that volume meant relying on agribusiness, making the country beholden to a handful of companies. Where family-owned farms had been numerous and diverse, the kind of small operations that had to produce a variety of high-quality products to insulate themselves against market fluctuations, multinational grain companies were centralized and large enough to capture extensive portions of critical commodities and turn a profit by doing nothing more than capitalizing on market uncertainties at strategic moments.
The most famous example came in 1973, when Cargill placed huge orders for U.S. soybeans via a Geneva-based affiliate, Tradax, making it appear that there was a pending shortage. Prices skyrocketed, eventually rising so high that Nixon ordered a halt to all soybean exports to prevent domestic scarcity. With foreign countries desperate to find new sources of soybeans, Cargill filled the canceled orders of other American companies with supply from its South American subsidiaries, commanding artificially inflated prices. When the U.S. embargo was lifted, Cargill canceled its Tradax purchases and by year’s end saw its annual profits jump from less than $20 million to more than $150 million, despite an overall decrease in its production that year — and regardless of the impact on American farmers.
A few years later, farmers once again saw the risks they faced. In January 1980, after Leonid Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter declared a grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Ever since buying our national granary, the Soviets had been acquiring huge quantities of American grain — including 25 million metric tons of wheat and corn contracted that October for the coming year. Carter bristled at the idea that the Soviets thought they could stage an invasion when we controlled their food supply. He announced the embargo and canceled the outstanding grain orders for some 17 million metric tons of corn and wheat. He issued a temporary freeze on trading in grain futures to allow the market to stabilize, but when it reopened, prices plummeted anyway, causing grain prices to lose 20 percent of their value. Angry farmers marched on the USDA. One protest leader said, “We planted fencepost to fencepost, and now this happens.”
As commodities prices fell, it became apparent that instead of making the world dependent on our grain supplies, we had grown reliant on their demand. Even after the embargo was lifted, American agricultural exports declined by more than 20 percent between 1981 and 1983, which, combined with decreased market prices, resulted in a nearly 40 percent reduction in farm income in just two years.
Some would regard this as the ultimate failure of agriculture policy, but the emergent industry of consolidated agribusiness continued to flourish. Cargill sales grew from $2.2 billion in 1971 to $28.5 billion in 1981 by turning the profits from grain shortages into a diversified portfolio. They moved into value-added operations — milling grain for animal feed, making high-fructose corn syrup for Coke and Pepsi — then expanded and vertically integrated, acquiring feed elevators and meatpacking plants. By the mid-1980s, Cargill was not only the nation’s top grain exporter but also the number one egg producer, the number two beef packer, and the number three miller of corn and wheat. Seeing the success of the old grain cartels, former defense contractors who had moved into agrichemicals, including Monsanto and DuPont, aggressively entered the food industry.
Meanwhile, the market free fall touched off by the failed grain embargo created a catastrophic decline in consumer confidence that led to a national recession and, as inflation began to rise, set the stage for the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. Prices on key grains stayed low, and overproduction soon drove them even lower. At the same time, the purchase of modern tractors, irrigation systems, and grain-storage bins left thousands of farmers hopelessly in debt. And this, of all the ways that failure lurks on the American farm, may be the most lethal: Raised on the Protestant work ethic and a faith in the basic fairness of the system, most farmers firmly believe that the greatest success belongs to the family that works the hardest. The way out of debt is putting in longer days in the field and longer nights at the books.
But it isn’t really so. In fact, at the end of the Farm Crisis, Danny Klinefelter, a professor and ag-extension economist at Texas A&M who studied and categorized farm failures during that era, found that the most common causes of bankruptcy were too much ambition, too much accrued debt, and, in Klinefelter’s words, “too much wishful thinking.” Farmers, he said, didn’t consider the cyclical nature of farming. They took on loans for land and equipment during periods of good weather and high prices. And in hard times, they expected to make up the difference with more work and more yield. It’s rarely so simple.
“Many of the producers who have failed or are in trouble have been considered by the farming community to be top farmers,” Klinefelter wrote, “but attaining the highest yields does not necessarily result in the highest profits.” That was a lesson few farmers could accept.
In the decades since the Farm Crisis, grain production has kicked into overdrive. Big producers just got bigger. And small farmers, in an effort to keep pace with the expansion and vertically integrated models of agribusiness, began to take Butz’s motto to heart. With the help of emerging technologies, everything from the G.P.S.-mapped furrows to computer-controlled irrigation systems, they began to plant crops in places no one would have dared waste seed, much less water, a generation earlier. The more they planted, the more they stood to profit. But then all those acres and all that overhead started to become a curse.
In this case, the risk of failure was really a side effect of the good intentions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In an effort to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality, the EPA imposed the first renewable fuel standard in 2005, requiring the production of at least 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels within seven years. The goal was to kick-start the biofuel industry, but the incentive, when combined with a steep increase in gas prices due to the Iraq War, instead triggered runaway demand for ethanol. The number of ethanol plants nearly doubled overnight. At first, that seemed like a good thing. It created a domestic fuel source, and the higher prices profited American farmers and the American companies that supported them.
Soon, however, so much corn was being diverted to ethanol production that it created a scare on the global commodities markets. Foreign countries dependent on American grain worried that their own meat producers wouldn’t be able to afford to feed their livestock, sparking a commodities run. As the price of corn reached unimaginable heights — $6 and $7 per bushel — demand increased for soybeans as a feed alternative. Soon those prices had doubled, too. Then the shortage brought on by the drought of 2012 sent the price of commodities to record levels, with corn reaching as much as $8 per bushel and soybeans topping $17.
One afternoon, as we sat at a workbench in Rick’s barn, he told me that the biggest pitfall a farmer faces is his own optimism. Everything starts to seem easy, and you think the good times are going to last forever. And the government, in the name of spreading the wealth and stimulating the broader economy, always provides an excuse to take on more debt. In 2010, Congress announced that it would raise short-term rapid-depreciation write-offs for farmers from 50 percent to 100 percent. So if you bought a new tractor or grain bin for $100,000, you could put that full amount against your annual farm income, instead of only half.
In 2011, across the country, farms suddenly had new trucks and tractors, new barns and outbuildings, even new houses and new equipment, that could cost as much or more than a farmhouse.
“And here’s the trap that farmers fall into and we’re still dealing with. Like that big sprayer,” Rick said, pointing to the vehicle in the corner of the barn, its wheels taller than me. “That was a quarter-million-dollar purchase.” He paused a moment, looking at the machine.
“As my banker says, people forget they have to pay the principal,” he continued. “Now, during these really shitty times, everybody still has the payments. Yeah, I did benefit from all that tax write?off, and it was a hell of a deal on the interest too — but it’s still an expense.”
In no time, the factors that had quadrupled grain prices self-corrected. Gas prices stabilized and then began to fall, lowering the market price for ethanol. Ethanol producers began idling their new plants, because they simply couldn’t produce fuel cheaply enough given the high input price of grain. When the EPA tax credits expired, the agency adjusted the renewable-fuel standard downward, but the drought also broke, bringing an upsurge of production in the 2013 harvest — just as demand was leveling off. Corn and soybeans crashed, losing half their market value between the planting season and the end of that harvest year. Coming into the 2014 season, every farmer had to make his own market projection.
Rick gambled on another dry year and that the markets would remain down, so he planted mostly very-short-season hybrids, hoping to get his harvest in early, before the markets fell even further. With his crops still sitting in the fields and markets continuing to fall, I asked Rick if he was worried. He shook his head. They were more than equipped, he insisted, to weather a bad year.
“Now, if we see sub-four-dollar corn for two more years,” he continued, “yeah, you’ll see some people going broke, especially the young guys who started about five years ago when it was eight-dollar corn. And they thought, ‘Oh, man. There’s nothing to this farming game.’ They bought the twelve-thousand-dollar?an?acre ground and took out loans for the bins and the pivots and equipment. . . . The Meghans and Kyles of the world,” he said, “they could be in real trouble.”
Kyle pulled the grain cart alongside the semi and switched on the unloading auger arm, sending soybeans cascading out of its mouth and into the cargo hold of the trailer, then moved the semi forward to fill the second cargo hold, unloading more beans until the trailer was piled with more than a thousand bushels. Finally, he drove to the grain elevator in Hordville, easing across the scale and then forward to the pit area, where he stooped to crank the gate at the bottom of the trailer until the beans rushed out, bouncing off the grating and pouring into an underground tank. For days, Kyle shuttled back and forth between the field and the elevator, until all the forward contracts that Rick had negotiated months earlier had been fulfilled.
Only then, on a bright, cloudless day in early November, did Kyle and Rick shift to stocking the grain bins lining the farm’s gravel driveway. Kyle hooked the tractor to the grain auger while Rick climbed the ladder up the corrugated side of the bin and then shimmied onto the slanted roof, lining up the chute directly over the opening at the top of the bin. Kyle brought a semi filled with beans and attached the hopper of the auger. Once he turned everything on, the beans dropped from the trailer into the hopper and then corkscrewed inside the auger to the opening at the top of the bin. At that open mouth, Rick turned on the electric spreader, a simple spinning plate that scattered the augered soybeans to the edge of the bin to ensure that the structure filled evenly. You can reduce the risk of rot in the bins, Rick had explained to me, by making sure that the beans are spread out, and that the roof is tight and well ventilated, that the floor is raised and perforated so an industrial blower can force through enough air to keep them dry.
This remaining stockpile would determine the income for the year. Indeed, a bin can be a farmer’s best friend, making it possible to wait out a down market, but if the farmer isn’t careful, it can turn into his worst enemy. The structures are expensive, forcing the farm to take on $50,000 or even $100,000 of debt. And the bins themselves can be extremely dangerous. Without a spreader, farmers have to wade into the grain at the top of the bin and shovel it to the edges. If they’re not properly harnessed in, there’s a chance of sliding to the center and sinking into the soybeans or corn, like quicksand. OSHA data indicates that every year an average of thirty people die that way. Even the augers can be a hazard. Little more than an Archimedes’ screw inside a steel tube, the spinning threads are exposed at either end, and every year there are dozens of amputations and deaths from farmers catching a hand or a piece of clothing in the turning works.
But maybe the greatest danger is the false sense of security that a row of grain bins can create. When the auger was first imagined in the early Forties by Peter Pakosh, a young engineer at what is now Massey Ferguson, the idea was discounted as too treacherous. Senior engineers worried that the outer tube would warp with time and come into friction with the corkscrew, sparking fires. With all the grain dust in the air, there was even the chance of an explosion. Massey bosses advised Pakosh to give up the idea. Instead, he worked on the design in his home basement until he had the kinks ironed out — and then formed his own company, Versatile, with his brother-in-law in 1947. The auger revolutionized farming, finally allowing farmers to store their crops and wait for a better price. But when grain augers were first mass-produced by Versatile in the 1950s, they were just sixteen feet long and offloaded only about 1,000 bushels an hour. Today’s augers, like all things in modern farming, are bigger and faster — reaching more than 100 feet high and off-loading 1,000 bushels in as little as five minutes. All that height and speed has pushed grain bins to capacities of more than 100,000 bushels, making it possible to put up thousands of acres of yield in a single bin.
Now what was once a safeguard against temporary downturns has turned into a vast oversupply, with stubborn farmers hoping to stick it out until markets improve, a collective waiting game. In 2014, crop estimators expected that more than 12 percent of the soybeans harvested that season, over 475 million of the 3.91 billion bushels brought in, would still be in bins a year later. “You have some hardheaded old-timers that say, ‘By God, beans were at seventeen dollars two years ago, and I’m going to leave my beans in the bin until it’s seventeen dollars again,’ ” Rick told me. “You want to say: ‘At your age? Good luck with that.’ ” Those prices were never coming back, he said.
In times like these, you have to be realistic, he said. You control what you can control. Make sure the bin is secure and tight, that the blowers are running, and that the grain is spread evenly. Make sure you don’t lose in the bin what you’re hoping to make up in the markets. But no sooner had Rick stepped back to watch the whole system working than he could hear the spreader start to wobble and scatter beans against the bin walls. Sometimes this kind of variable power to the spreader’s electric motor will trip the breaker, but in this case, the spinning pan continued to run, even as the noise grew louder. “You can hear the grain throwing against the wall,” Kyle said, “like sheets of rain.” At this point, there was no choice: Rick switched off the broken spreader, and Kyle restarted the auger, letting the soybeans pile up in the center of the bin.
“We’re going to have to go in there with shovels,” Kyle said ruefully. Rick was on edge now, and Kyle was, too, but they kept quiet, each doing his work. They still had a long day ahead.
After another day of chipping away, harvesting, filling the semi, and unloading into the grain bins, Rick decided it was time to call it an evening. But he wasn’t quite ready for the drive back or giving himself over to sleep. So he ducked into the empty house on the southeastern corner of Centennial Hill Farm, the house where his wife, Heidi, grew up. It’s abandoned now, except as a guesthouse and a place to host occasional potlucks. The refrigerator often holds a random collection of unopened cans and jars — not much, but enough to scavenge for a snack or a stray drink. Rick scoured the remnants of the last get-together in search of something to take the edge off before bed.
With no other options available, he settled on the last two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, but not without a few grumbles. He cracked one and took a long sip, then smirked. “I’ve raised hell about these in the past,” he said, “but, you know, it’s funny how you get certain things the right amount of cold, and they all taste pretty good.” He slid into the booth of the breakfast nook and motioned for me to slide in across from him. He wanted to assure me that, despite everything that had been going wrong, he wasn’t worried about the current crisis.
“I don’t feel like it’s going to be anything like the Eighties, when everybody was going broke,” Rick said, taking another deep draw of his beer. “That was caused by Reagan and Volcker, the Fed chairman. They thought they came in with a mandate to crush inflation — and inflation was out of control — but bankers had been pushing farmers to buy ground every year. It inflated up to about twenty-five hundred dollars an acre for good ground. The interest had been less than the rate of inflation. So when they raised rates, to all of a sudden have interest triple, that’s what caused it. Bankers and farmers couldn’t react fast enough. They went broke, had this huge debt. Bankers were foreclosing on farmers because your collateral was worth a third of what it was when you took out this loan.”
Everything had been different back when he met Heidi. She was a student at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, in Rick’s hometown of Curtis, in the southwest corner of the state. He had been a hotshot horseman in his small town — a skilled rider with a row of purple and blue ribbons in barrel racing and pole bending at the state fair to prove it. He seemed to have the world by the tail. But college in Lincoln had been different, harder. He ended up taking a semester off and going home, but life on the farm was getting harder, especially for a family like his that didn’t own the ground they farmed.
Rick found himself at loose ends as he took off another semester and then another. He was still technically enrolled at the University of Nebraska but a few credits shy of a degree in Latin American studies and in no hurry to finish up. The degree wasn’t going to do him any good. He knew he wanted to be back farming and ranching, but he could see that the opportunities were drying up in Curtis. So he took odd jobs while he figured out his next move. “I’d worked on the railroad for three years, steel gangs and tie gangs,” Rick told me. “They’d made me assistant foreman and wanted me to be foreman. I could see then, if I didn’t quit, I never would.” So he left the railroad, but he still couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do. “I just wasn’t finding it,” he said.
That’s when he met Heidi. “Oh, everybody loved her,” he said. “She could drive a tractor, fix engines.” She had grown up in a farming family in eastern Nebraska with a hard-driving father and three headstrong sisters. Rick’s bigheaded swagger didn’t fluster her a bit. “We had a few dates. I even took her to church — very honorable,” Rick deadpanned, then grinned. “But I was still convinced that I could change the world.” He broke off the relationship and signed up for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. He went off to Ecuador to teach agriculture in a small village, but he soon became disillusioned with trying to apply American know-how to places with no resources or infrastructure. He came home disheartened and more lost than ever, only to find that everything that had been starting to slip away in Curtis was utterly gone. Agribusiness had swallowed up small farms. Families had moved away. “Dad had quit farming, and my sister and brother?in?law were farming that little rented place,” Rick said. “I had grown up on a small rented farm. I knew there was no future there.” A friend of his named Kevin had sold his farm and equipment and gone to Colorado to open a ski shop. Rick followed him out there and for a while worked a few hours a week and ski-bummed the rest of the time. At some point, he’d had enough. “I said I gotta get back to school and finish my degree.”
And he’d been thinking about Heidi. He called her up to see if she wanted to have Thanksgiving with his family in Curtis. After that, they could drive back to eastern Nebraska together — Rick to get himself reenrolled in school, Heidi to visit her own family. Heidi agreed and drove out to Colorado to pick him up, but by the time she arrived it was after dark, and snow was swirling.
“That night we had a hell of a storm, about two feet of snow,” Rick remembered. “She was driving a little Fiat.” While he packed up the last of his things, Kevin went outside to check on Heidi. She had put her farmer coveralls on and was under the Fiat putting chains on the tires. “Kevin came in and said, ‘I think this one’s a keeper. You better marry this gal.’ ” They drove across the state, all the way back to Lincoln through the storm, together. Rick went back to school, and on weekends he drove out to York County and tried to impress Heidi by pitching in on the farm. Eventually, he won her over, just as her father, Tom, was getting ready to retire. Soon, Rick dropped out for good and started talking about leaving Lincoln, moving in with Heidi, and getting married.
Audacious and brazen, Rick had a head full of ideas for ways to expand the operation and make way for the future. “In the Eighties,” he told me, “inflation was so high that everyone took out loans against their farms. Then ground went from twenty-five hundred an acre to eight hundred in two years, so farmers’ equity and the value of what their loans were borrowed against went to nothing.” It was a terrible time for family farms, but Rick saw the once-in-a-lifetime chance to leverage Heidi’s share of the family land in order to pick up more ground at a fraction of its real value.
Tom himself had been a risk-taker in his own right, but these times had him spooked. His father had been put off the land when Tom was young, his grandfather forced to sell it off after bad decisions in the Teens. His father had worked his whole life to save up enough to buy the farm back, and when he died, young and unexpectedly, Tom had had to give up his own dreams. After just one semester at the university, he dropped out and came home to save the farm from being lost again. Whatever the ambitions of the young man who wanted to marry his daughter, Tom was reluctant to make unnecessary and untested changes, and even more cautious about taking on debt in the midst of a credit crisis.
“But when Heidi and I got married, and she inherited her share of the land,” Rick said, “I was fifty percent of the decision-making process on how to go forward.” And he couldn’t bring himself to pass up the opportunity he saw before him. Heidi had fifty cows, fifty sows, and three hundred acres of land under her control. “When I first came back from the Peace Corps, I was going to make it on forty acres, and be all holistic and symbiotic, and everything working together,” Rick said, but something about having more land and livestock than he’d ever imagined possible, along with a desire to prove himself to his father-in-law, brought out his competitive side. Rick and Heidi worked it all out on paper and decided to take the risk. They upped the operation to 150 sows and 100 cows. Heidi’s father thought they were being reckless. “We had a hell of a good year, that first year. We worked our backsides off, but we made a hundred thousand dollars on hogs.” To free themselves from Tom’s second-guessing, Rick and Heidi used their profits to buy out the remaining debt on the equipment. It took every penny, but their piece of the farm now belonged to them outright.
It didn’t stop there. “After two years, I got Heidi talked into taking on three more quarters.” As the peak of the Farm Crisis approached, land prices were at an all-time low. Rick was eager to take on as much as possible, rolling each year’s profits into renting still more land, on the assumption that an eventual recovery would set them up for life. Then, just three years after taking over their share of the farm, Rick and Heidi decided to use their equipment as collateral for a loan to make a land purchase. “I could see what a land base did,” Rick told me. “Without land you cannot operate.” He said he had everything nailed down for a loan from First National in York, but the day before he was supposed to sign the paperwork, he received a call from the loan officer.
“We’ve got a problem with our board of directors,” the banker told him. “Because everyone’s going broke, we want Tom to cosign.”
“By then Tom and I were just fighting like hell,” Rick said, “so I told him, ‘Evaluate the loan on its own merits, and if we don’t qualify, we will seek assistance elsewhere.’ ”
Rick tipped his head back, draining the last of his beer. Then he lined up the two empty cans in front of him and shook his head. “So arrogant. Farming just three years, and I was that brash.” The bank agreed to make the loan, and the pattern was set for the rest of Rick’s farming life. “Because of my aggressive ways, we have continued to stay in debt for thirty-two years, and always pushing, doing a lot more than we should. My idea was to try and build an operation that I could hand down to my children with as much land as what we were benefited when Heidi’s share was handed down to her. So I did everything I could to get ahead and to turn that success into more and more contiguous land. If you can swing it, you buy it. When you’re a farmer, that land means everything.”
It was late now, pitch-black outside the window. Even the moon had waned to nothing but a sliver of light. The only sense of a world outside came from the distant barn light, its dim bulb always left burning and just bright enough to give shape to the shadows.
“I’m probably close to bipolar,” Rick said at last. “When I’m on, everything is possible. I just go for it. But then I’ll get really down, thinking, ‘God, how are we going to get out of this?’ And I put it on my kids — that I was doing it for them. That was my excuse in my head.”
He sighed deeply. Months before, Meghan had warned me that one of Rick’s defining characteristics is self-doubt. “He worries every decision to death,” she said, “and then, no matter what he decides, he always thinks there could have been a better way.” It’s a common trait among farmers. The neighbors’ corn always looks taller, their cattle fatter. Every farmer kicks himself for not doing enough to capitalize when the markets are up and for being too exposed when the markets are down.
“I just get comfortable, to where the wolf’s away from the door,” Rick said, “and what do I do? I go and remortgage everything and do dumb things — buy more land, more equipment, build a barn or a new house.”
He tapped the empty cans on the table in front of him.
“And it’s caused a hell of a lot of stress on my family,” Rick said. “Was that worth it? I don’t know. That will be for them to decide.”
Kyle drove the pickup south across the interstate and then east toward what all the maps label as Lushton, Nebraska, though it’s barely more than a wide spot in the road anymore. We were still several miles outside of town, making our way toward Seth’s farm. Kyle told me that he didn’t know how exactly to explain why Rick and Seth had started harvesting together, but it had something to do with a kind of shared stubbornness.
A few years back, for example, Seth had taken a load of high-moisture corn to the grain elevator and been charged a drying fee. But the elevator simply blended his corn with a load of overly dry corn, so the dryer didn’t actually have to be turned on. “I was there,” Seth told the operator. “The dryer was not running. I am not going to pay a drying fee.” Rick had told me earlier that he’d admired Seth for telling the co-op that it wasn’t right.
As we hit the rise and the acreage appeared, we could see a field of ready soybeans and then a shelterbelt of tall trees, a farmhouse and a cluster of outbuildings tucked behind. The beans, brown and mature, seemed almost to glow in the autumn light. “Wow,” Kyle said, surveying the field. “It’s ready to go.” But then he turned along the south edge of the property and drove slowly, so he could count rows and divide them to figure out the number of rounds to complete the field. As he went, I could see the shimmy and drift of Seth’s rows.
“He just hasn’t invested in autosteer yet,” Kyle said, and laughed. “He just put this pivot up last year. Before that it was flood-irrigated with the pipes and all.” It was a system that most farmers, especially in eastern Nebraska where center-pivot irrigation was invented in the 1950s, had abandoned long ago.
But Rick and Kyle were going to have to harvest the old-fashioned way — keeping an eye on the outside furrow, following the wobble and drift of rows planted by the human eye rather than computer-drawn straight lines. Every turn of the combine required lining up with where Seth had tried to match row spacing between each pass at planting. Farmers call these “guess rows.” The sixteen rows laid out by the planter are perfectly spaced, but the furrow between passes can be slightly narrower or slightly wider than the machine-spaced rows. Because the harvester is twelve rows wide, it’s impossible to split each planting swath. Instead, you have some passes within the planted pattern and some where the harvester is straddling the places where two planting rows come together. But as the light failed and the shadows grew longer, it was getting harder and harder for Kyle to keep track of the guess rows. He leaned forward, peering down over the steering wheel, to be sure that the spinning reel of the harvester was standing up the rows and cutting everything cleanly.
To make things even more challenging, Seth, back in the spring, had planted around the concrete platform of his new center pivot for the first time. And rather than setting his row-spacing starting from that platform, he’d started from the edge of the field and worked in. Ordinarily, farmers won’t plant closer than thirty inches from their pivot, but Seth, hoping to get a little extra from the field, had allowed just five inches. So as they neared the platform, Kyle had to figure out where to set the floating bar on the outside of the harvester head, what they call the snout, in order to stay aligned but without having to take multiple passes to get around the pivot.
“We try to put the outside of that head on the guess row,” Kyle explained. “But the eye-planted rows can sometimes run together. And if you don’t guess right, you’re taking half a swath trying to fix it — which takes fuel and time.” And if you get off by too much — you miss a guess row and don’t notice or just try to keep going — you can start to run over rows, breaking the pods or treading the plants into the muddy soil and making them impossible to harvest. Seeing the trouble it was causing, Seth told them not to worry about the rows right around the pivot, but even in a neighbor’s field, Rick and Kyle wanted to capture every bit of the yield. So between passes, Kyle would come down from the cab, study the rows with Rick, and then hustle back behind the wheel.
At dinnertime, Meghan drove to pick up food Heidi had waiting for them at the house and returned with tacos wrapped in aluminum foil and a cooler full of Coke. Everyone sat on the tailgate of the pickup or leaned against the bed, eating quickly. Rick kept eyeing the sun, now sinking into the line of trees that stood between the edge of the field and Seth’s house.
“I think we should call it a night,” Rick said finally.
“It’s all right,” Kyle said. “There’s just a few more swaths.”
Kyle was hoping to finish this field before it was fully dark, so that they could load up the head and the combine for another field for tomorrow. If they could get done in the next hour, they would have a jump in the morning. Together, Rick and Kyle walked over to the remaining rows, getting a read on how many rounds were left to complete the field, but also going back and forth about whether to continue or stop. Finally, Kyle won out. He took the combine down to the north edge of the field, then turned back toward the pivot, watching the spinning reel below him and steadying the wheel.
As he neared the southern edge of the field, Meghan, waiting in the grain cart, came on the radio. “You’re driving crooked,” she said. “You’re knocking over rows.” Kyle looked down at the reel. Everything seemed in line. So he stopped the harvester and climbed down to see what was going on. Right away he could see: The snout was bent in and the plastic body of the soybean head was broken. He’d hit the pad of the pivot and never even felt it.
“Goddamn it,” Kyle rasped under his breath. This could be thousands of dollars of damage. Worse still, if it was more than he could fix himself, it could be days of waiting for a Deere-certified mechanic. He pulled back the plastic body and stuck his head inside. He could see that the snout had been pushed in and bent up the hydraulic arm on which it floats. That arm was rubbing on a pulley belt that runs the cutting sickles, putting slack in the system and creating friction. “It was still cutting,” he said, “but it was already getting really, really hot.” He reached in to see if he could straighten the bent arm by hand. No dice.
“I should have just left that row,” Kyle said, still tugging hard on that arm. “It was planted right up against the pad.”
“That’s what Seth said,” Rick snapped. “You cannot harvest something that’s planted that close.”
“Yeah, I probably should have just left that little bit.”
“If Meghan hadn’t seen it, it could have started a fire,” Rick said. He couldn’t hide his anger, but Kyle was already thinking about what they needed to do. He said he could straighten the arm if he could just heat it up, but he couldn’t afford to wait until morning to fix it. If they were going to finish this field in the morning and still stand a chance of loading up and getting some beans out of their own fields, he was going to have to make the repairs right then, in the dark. He asked Seth if he had a cutting torch and a wrench he could borrow. Seth told them to pull around to his shop, and he set off across the field.
By the time Kyle and Rick drove over in the pickup, Seth had already rolled out a portable light and the tank and hose and a rosebud heating tip for the torch. He grabbed a couple of wrenches. Kyle asked if he had any fender washers. Seth pulled out a box and shook several into Kyle’s hand.
Hoping to get out of the way, I went with Meghan back to the house, where we waited, saying little. It was close to an hour before Rick and Kyle came rolling into the driveway. They stomped into the mudroom laughing and kicking off their boots. “You asked for that fender washer, and Seth just said, ‘How many you need?’ ” Rick said, slapping Kyle on the back. “Why can’t I have a shop like that?”
“I assume everything’s working,” Meghan called from across the kitchen.
“Yeah,” Kyle said with a long sigh. “We had to drill out some rivets and get the plastic bent so we could get the torch in without burning everything up. And then we had to heat that arm to get it straightened out so it quit rubbing. It was really hard steel and we couldn’t get it bent by hand. And then a little piece on the back side broke. So we had to weld that back together.”
Rick interrupted. “I want you guys to know: The combine is better than it’s ever been.”
“Better than before?” Meghan asked skeptically.
“At least,” Rick said. “We should hit every center-pivot pad.”
Before long, they were seated together around the dinner table, recounting stories of all the near-disasters of past years. The time they’d taken out a power line with the unloading auger. The time Meghan had swung wide to make a turn on a country road with the bean head strapped onto the flatbed trailer and clipped a stop sign. They laughed until the tension and worry of the accident, the adrenaline from what could have happened, had been shaken off and disappeared.
In 2014, American farmers harvested more than 14 billion bushels of corn and nearly 4 billion bushels of soybeans — setting new records, as they had the year before and would in the year to come. With so much production, roughly three quarters of the harvest nationwide went directly into bins, as every farmer waited and prayed for rebounding prices. They never came. Instead, prices continued to slump as yields continued to grow, and whispers spread about the possibility of another Farm Crisis.
That fall, Rick had warned that the American farm might be in trouble if we saw two more years of record harvests. That’s exactly what has happened. The harvest of 2016, another record-setting year of production of core commodity grains like corn and soybeans, pushed prices down again. Corn, in particular, has plummeted to less than half its market value of five years ago. Livestock prices have fallen simultaneously and at a rate that made it impossible to capture profits on that end. This downward spiral is already having broader effects. Cash-poor farmers aren’t updating equipment or buying new trucks or even going to town to spend money on food and entertainment. The rural economy is stalling.
Worse still, farmers who took out loans for land or equipment at the peak of prices are starting to worry about their ability to service their debts — and banks are growing nervous, too. Lending institutions are starting to call on big farmers to liquidate landholdings used as collateral, in order to reduce their risk. But this trend is already dragging down property prices, forcing still more liquidation — the exact cycle that led to rapid devaluation in the 1980s. Today the potential dangers of a rural bank panic to the broader economy are even greater. Half of all farmers have quit the business in the past thirty years, so now every failure carries twice the weight.
To break this downtrend, the American Farm Bureau Federation had been counting on President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which promised to expand markets for beef, pork, and soybeans. But the rural areas that were depending on this new deal, as well as standing agreements such as NAFTA, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and his protectionist, antiglobalist policies. Trump is threatening to cancel manufacturing trade deals with China, and China is responding by threatening to cancel its purchases of American grains. At the same time, Mexico is threatening to suspend its imports of American corn. If such a thing were to happen, it would make the Farm Crisis seem like a ripple.
For now the Hammonds are waiting and hoping for the best. In November 2015, Meghan and Kyle were married, and less than a year later, Meghan found out she was pregnant. “The hardest part of my job is working with family,” she told me. “But that’s also the best part of my job, because family can be pretty hard on each other, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones that will be there for you in the hardest times. We’ve been through some hard times on the farm, and we’re still here, still going — and hopefully on to the next generation.”