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A farm auction was held today

A farm auction was held today. The equipment list was published about three weeks ago. Two days ago the auction was announced in the local farm paper. And single-sheet fliers were posted on several of the farm store doors. At the truck stop where I buy my diesel fuel, a flier was posted in the window.

The auction was more of an estate sale, yet farm equipment was sold. I spent two hours here today, standing among farmers in my community. Wearing typical fall clothing and talking about the poor corn yields (dry year), these fellows were still anxious to begin harvest. The sale began with the auctioneer introducing the estate owner, who stated all sales would be final. Then the owner told us that he and his three sisters all lived somewhere else, and with their mom now confined to a rest home with Alzheimer’s disease, the farm house was vacant and would be offered for sale, but not at the auction.

There was a hush over the crowd as he spoke about his mother. Perhaps a hush of empathy swept over the farm men there because many were my age or older. Some were a lot older and probably had similar stories about the moving of time through generations; a time when a farm house is empty and must be empty for many reasons.

Here in the Corn Belt and upper Midwest, as I drive through rural towns and farm land, there are many empty farm homes. Not only empty but beginning the downward spiral of decay. There are a half dozen such homes within a few miles of our place in Alma, Michigan. Yes, the acreage around them is farmed and in most cases farmed well. But the farmstead itself is empty. And today, on this site, another home joins that list.

The son was my age 54 years old. All three sisters were married and lived outside Michigan. Interestingly, all had college degrees from Michigan universities, but all had jobs in other states. The son, Jarrod, did live here locally, but he worked as a geologist for an energy company. He lived in town with his family.

I thought he might tell us why he chose to live in town rather than here in the farm house, but he did not.

The estate items were ones we might find in an antique store. Yet the machinery had been stored in barns and sold well. All were in good shape. The top-selling item was the grain dryer – the most recent addition on the farm some nine years ago. For this one, the future location would be about 15 miles east. The grain tanks were practically given away. The costs of disassembly, moving, then assembly are significant. Yet they were sold.

These kinds of auctions have a social component, too. We have many Mennonite farmers in our community, and the women huddled together over a collection of pies on sale. I know several of the Mennonite farmers, and we talked about the price of milk. They had smiles except when the topic shifted to the cost of grain.

The big topic today, however, was the construction of the Liberty Fuels Ethanol Plant in Ithaca, just 15 miles south of our community. Destined to be the largest in Michigan, many of these farmers have invested the minimum investment of $20,000. The plant will be ready for corn harvest next year.

I started thinking about tomorrow or the next day, when all the equipment is removed, the signs are taken down, and there is a hush once again on this farmstead. I have written many times about the life cycle of a farm. This cycle has little to do with economics and everything to do with family dynamics.

Just as certain as I am of this family dynamic, I am sure that what happens around the family table, the kitchen table or the farm office, has more to do with whether the next generation remains, or in the case of this farm, all four children are gone.

They are contributors to society and bring into their lives authenticity. I am sure of these. Yet these contributions are outside of agriculture.

Jarrod’s father, by the way, died of cancer in this house about six years ago. While many suggested he enter the hospital and undergo therapy, he refused. A hospital bed was rented and placed in the living room downstairs, and there one day as his family gathered, he took one last breath. He is buried in a cemetery just down the road, and there is an adjacent plot for his wife.

As I drove back home, a trip of no more that 10 minutes, I wrestled with all that I had seen and heard. It was the end of a farmstead and the transition of a farm family who were now spread out across three states. I pondered what will happen: Will someone else lease the farm land? There are no prospects for someone renting the farmstead and few likely buyers. There were two dogs, farm dogs, and I am wondering what happened to them. They surely miss the farm.

Auctions like this are held every day somewhere across the Corn Belt, and the story in this article is common, not unique.

Perhaps that is why when I meet a young person just home from college, with the eagerness and passion for farming, I grant him or her the warmth of a smile and the words of encouragement. To wit, the farm lives on another generation, children are raised, families celebrate the ritual of life on the farm and when that new piece of equipment arrives, the celebration is found intrinsically.

A farm auction was held today. The many items sold will have new homes tomorrow and days afterwards. The fliers will be removed, and this farmstead will be a very different place.

One that will be silent for perhaps a long time. PD

Well, it’s official; I’m an adult. I know this, not because I’m married and have two kids or because my hair is thinning.

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Summer is fading. The daylight hours are fewer. The mornings are cooler. The autumn of our year approaches. Even some leaves are slowly making different pigments behind the slowly fading green that they now reflect.

Our growing season in the Upper Midwest has been one of two extremes. We entered the growing season with water having filled nearly all the void space at the rooting depth. But then little rain fell from that time forward. There are, however, a few exceptions. Often a thundershower provides an intense amount of rainfall in a short period of time. Yet rain can fall at uneven amounts from two points in the same crop field.

The corn yields here will be less than average over the entire rain-fed system, but where thundershowers delivered rain they may be above normal. The variable rainfall at some volume depths are the largest driver for crop yields. We have no control over when and where and how much rain falls.

I spend a lot of time helping others understand the components of conservation planning with particular attention upon farms with livestock. These farms have crop fields, too, so we are always working with a holistic approach. That is, the integration of all the systems, including rainfall, which work together. These are dynamic. And in a year like this one, the impact of the weather, especially the distribution of rainfall throughout the growing season, is an extraordinarily important part of the farm system.

Yet, while we may develop a comprehensive conservation plan, the components, such as rainfall, can change the plan significantly.

I often tell people that I work in a small cubicle without a window in an office building. Yes, I do get out in the field often, but to a large extent, I find myself removed from the actual components on a farm. In Flint, Michigan, I recently told a group of our conservation planners that sometimes we do forget that we work in a technical field but live in a dynamic world.

What do I mean by this statement?

I often make the claim that we place a lot of emphasis on creating a conservation plan that must meet the quality criteria for the holistic suite of resources, such as soil and water. I often follow that statement with an acknowledgement that it is merely a model. That is, it’s a prediction for how we think these systems work. Yet at the time the plan or the model is developed, the components are already dated, and changed, and in some cases significantly.

In our farming systems, the dynamics of change occur within seconds or decades depending upon the component. We know that the soluble concentration of phosphorus (P) in soils change many times a day. The forms of P that shift to and from labile to in-solution are constantly shifting. Thus, soil fertility is different today from tomorrow or yesterday, although the degree of difference may be nominal.

An example of a decade-long change might be the progression of new buildings on a livestock farm. During a recent farm visit in Missaukee County, Michigan, the dairy farm had four distinct sets of barns, each built by one of the generations of the owning family. The newest barns are currently under construction.

I am often frustrated in my work as a conservationist. The heart of my frustration is centered on the degree of effort we place in planning without adequately taking into account the parts or components of the farm system that are dynamic. I strongly believe we owe landowners the type of plan with emphasis on empirical knowledge (real-world and not cubicle-based).

I began this article with comments about rainfall distribution over the growing season. I claimed that we develop plans based upon models of average or typical values. And for this year, these plans are wrong, but they can be and should be updated.

The importance of developing conservation plans is obvious but so is developing the kind of plan that requires some flexibility. We should shift some of our effort towards developing a strategy for how the plan will be implemented. I do not believe we have yet committed that kind of effort.

For you, the livestock grower across the country, with swine, dairy, beef, poultry and other livestock, we owe the kind of plan that will be, at the time of implementation, accounting for the variables of a dynamic system, including lower crop yields because of too little rain so that adjustments can be made.

When I talk about conservation planning, I often talk about one of the best planning tools we have in the dairy industry – that of DHIA records. Readers of this article do not need to have this tool explained. I pose it to my supervisors and all of our conservation partners, including the landowners that are part of the Farm Bill program, such as EQIP. We need a DHIA-like farm records system for our livestock growers. Such a model would be based on a robust record-keeping system. The records, as a farm investment, help a farmer manage the components on the farm. The effect is a change in management, so that the farm improves efficiency and its economics (profit or return on investment) while, as a conservation consequence, the environment progresses.

These three big “E’s” (efficiency, economics and environment) will define the comprehensiveness of the farm system. Our plans should be written to help you have the kinds of records and attributable data so these E’s can be evaluated.

A change in management is wise if the evaluation of an existing condition discovers the trend is moving in the wrong direction. This step only happens with records comparing the change in the system over a period of time.

Farmers cannot make rain fall. But farmers can make certain adjustments because of a dry year. In fact, they do nearly every day. So it seems to me, that as a conservation planner, I ought to develop the kinds of plans that are less rigid and more empirically based. Or, in other words, plans that emphasize a comprehensive record-keeping system as a set of tools so that the big E’s can be evaluated.

On our livestock farms, we need conservation plans (CNMPs or NMPs) that will help you evaluate the performance (trends) of all components on the farm. I do not think we have this model yet, hence my frustration. I suggest that we can build this type of conservation plan.

At this point in my career, this task is at the top of my list. PD

“Um, Hi. My name is Bob, and I’ve been dairying for 12 years.”

Group, together: “Hi, Bob.”

“Well, where do I start? My father was a dairyman, and my family was often the subject of ridicule. I even remember times going to school smelling like a dairy.”

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I am nearly 55 years old. My career with the USDA-NRCS enters its fifth year as of late July 2007. At my age, many of my colleagues in the NRCS came through the federal system three decades ago and now have 30 years done. Many of them are near or at retirement.

In many federal agencies, managers are thinking about the retirement of those in the federal system with 30 years of experience. Our managers do here in Michigan. On our ecological sciences staff, nearly two-thirds of our group of 15 is eligible for retirement. In fact, we have one resource conservationist with more than 43 years of federal service. That’s a long career.

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Recently I’ve been thinking about the beauty of a farm, especially for those living there. In the space of a few minutes, a farm may continue on or it may begin the slow march towards decline.

Within this last month, I visited with two dairy farmers with two completely different stories. One is about my age, 54, and the other is in his late 40s. Both are second-generation dairy farmers. Both have college degrees. Both have for their oldest children – sons. Both of these young men have college degrees from the same university as their fathers.

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