The Next Generation
Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
Chet Sorensen's funeral was even larger than his oldest son's had been a few months before. Friends, neighbors, and relatives had filled the room of the funeral home, and spilled over into adjoining rooms.
Another heart attack in the hospital late at night finally brought his death, but the doctors soon learned that death would have come soon, from the cancer that was eating away at him.
Ken could barely drag himself to the funeral home. Losing Tom was bad enough, but now, to lose his father all too soon after was almost more than he could stand. He kept up a brave front as he talked with the many people who had come to show their respects: many neighbors quietly asked him or Lydia if there was anything they could do to help. "We'll struggle through somehow," Ken told all who asked, but inside, he wondered how.
The next morning, Judy found Ken gone from the house when she came in from doing chores. She thought he must be out in the fields somewhere, but after a while remembered that all the tractors were still setting in the Sorensen barnyard. When he didn't come home for lunch, she began to worry. She got in the Sunbird and began to drive around, looking for him. She checked the barnyard again, and noticed Hal wasn't around. Not finding Ken, she drove past all the owned and leased land, but saw no sign of her husband or the dog. Finally, she started driving up all the farm lanes, thinking he might be hidden in the tall corn.
Ken was sitting by the stream in the woods on the back of what they called "Ed's 80", Hal asleep at his side. Judy saw him at a distance, but couldn't get the car any closer. She got out of the car and started across the field to him on her crutches.
Silently, she sat down beside her husband and took his hand. "Pretty back here," she said finally, for the lack of anything else to say.
"Yeah," Ken mumbled. "I always used to come back here when I wanted to be alone. I always thought we ought to throw a little dam over there in that narrow spot, and turn this into a swimming hole."
"Why didn't you?" Judy asked.
"Oh, Dad never got around to it when Tom and I were younger, and by the time we got older, it didn't matter any more."
"You could still do it," Judy suggested.
"Oh, yeah, I could," he said. "But today, I just don't know whether it's worth the bother to do anything around here, ever again."
"Sure it's worth it," Judy said. "You can't give up now."
Ken stared at the flowing stream for a long time, then picked up a stone and tossed it into the water. "When we came back down here, I at least expected I'd have Dad figuring out what to do," he said finally. "You remember I told you once I know how to do everything around here, but not what or why?" Judy nodded, and Ken went on. "The good Lord knows I don't know what to do. I know we've got to get things set up so we can lease this place out and give Mom something to live on. But, I don't know where to start."
Judy struggled with a way to say what she had to say: "Ken, I guess my mother took a look at me after the accident, and figured I was hopeless. But, I've just had to learn to do the next thing. I think it's worked out pretty good. I didn't give up, just because I had no way out of a tough problem."
Ken pitched another rock into the water. "You're right," he said. "I guess the oats are ripe enough to combine. If we get a good start, we ought to be able to get that done today and tomorrow."
For the next week or so, things didn't seem a lot different. There was work to be done, and Ken pressed on with it almost as if his father were there. Judy spent a lot of time with Lydia, trying to be helpful, but mostly trying to be there.
About a week after the funeral, Ken got up with the idea of plowing the oat field, but the patter of raindrops on the roof quickly put an end to that idea. He and Judy lay in bed for a while, putting off getting up, but finally Judy said, "What are you planning to do today?"
"I dunno," Ken said. "I guess I'll help you with the chores, and then I guess I'll pull the 4630 into the shop. It needs an oil change and lube."
"I'll bet your mother has some coffee going," Judy said. "Let's stop in and see her before you get started with the Deere."
One cup of coffee turned into two, and then three, before Lydia said, "Ken, did you know that your father rewrote his will after Tom died?"
"I didn't even know he had a will. I just figured you wound up with everything."
"No," she said. "Originally, that was about what was to happen. You and Tom were each going to get a fifth of the farm, and I'd retain three fifths. Then, when I go, there was supposed to be enough insurance money to allow Tom to buy out your share."
"I figured something like that," Ken said. "What's the new setup?"
"You get a quarter interest now," Lydia said. "Your father had a lot of faith in you and Judy. He wanted it to be more, but that meant a big load of inheritance tax. When I go, there'll be enough insurance money to pay the inheritance taxes and the rest."
"Does Carolyn get anything?" Judy asked.
Lydia shook her head. "Nothing," she said. "The will still has to go through probate, and our attorney told me yesterday that could take a while. In the meantime, Ken, you're supposed to be the executor of the will. Your father wanted you to administer the farm, with my approval."
"You mean we could just go ahead and sell out?" Ken asked.
"No," Lydia asked. "We can't sell off any capital, but we can buy and sell what we need to run the farm. I don't know what we owe or not, and I wish you would go through the records and get some idea of where we stand."
The 4630 went unlubed as the rain fell. Ken and Judy spent the day with Lydia, going through records. Once, when Lydia was out in the kitchen, Ken whispered to Judy, "No wonder he died! I think the worry was worse than the cancer!"
By the end of the day, the situation was clear: the farm was on the bitter edge of going broke. It was even worse than Ken had understood the spring before.
The value of the about 400 acres of land they actually owned was now about $300,000, but somewhat over $200,000 was still owed on it -- mostly on the 240 acres bought a few years before, when the value of the land was higher. As Ken had suspected, the original farm had also been mortgaged for new machinery, for putting in crops, and, most importantly, for making up the lost collateral to the bank when property values went down.
Ken estimated the current value of the property and equipment at about $400,000, if they could get a sale on a fair market. If the bank shut them down, the farm would bring a lot less; Ken had heard plenty of horror stories about foreclosures, and knew, like every farm boy, that an auction was a good way to turn a dollar into a dime.
The problem was that actual indebtedness was somewhere over $400,000. The biggest part of this, of course, was in the mortgages on the various pieces of property, but there were other bits and pieces. The new John Deere 8820 combine bought the fall before still had nearly $70,000 owed on it, and other equipment, bought earlier, drove equipment debt up over $100,000. The 4630 represented a lot of that, plus a couple other specialized pieces of equipment, like the corn planter and plow that only the big John Deere could handle. Those had originally cost a low more than what was owed on them, but they were getting paid down, now.
There were other bills -- mostly for fertilizer, and running expenses, but these weren't cheap, either. It had cost over $50,000 to get a crop in that year, and Ken wasn't sure he had found all the bills. Much of this had been in a production loan from the bank, due the first of the year.
At that, Ken knew the situation could be worse; if the family hadn't already owned the original 160 acres, and bought Ed's 80 long enough ago that it was paid off, they would have been down the tubes already.
Part of the expense eating them up was sheer interest payments, on loans taken out at unfavorable rates. Plus, they'd had a couple of bad years in the last five when they'd lost money, though Ken hadn't realized it. Indebtedness had gone up in those years, not down. "The bank owns this farm," Ken said finally. "They're just letting us use it until they get tired of watching us."
"It can't be as bad as all that," Lydia said.
"There's a balance sheet," Ken said, pointing to a piece of scratch paper. "What I can't figure out is why Dad and Tom went out and bought the 8820, or why the bank let them."
"Well, I guess they thought it would be more efficient than the old machine," Lydia said.
"Yeah," Ken said. "And now we're stuck with it. We couldn't sell it now for what we owe on it, and it doesn't have a hundred hours use on it."
"Tom wanted it real bad," Lydia said. "He told your father that since you wouldn't be around to help, they had to have higher capacity equipment."
Ken didn't doubt that's what Tom had said, but he suspected that it hadn't been his motive. Pushing Chet into buying the new equipment would serve as a way to show that he was taking control of the farm, but it had been a very expensive power play. The old Minneapolis-Moline 4296 combine had been perfectly adequate, even if it would have needed several thousand dollars worth of overhaul sometime in the next few years; yet Tom had traded it off at nearly junk prices, and replaced it with a machine that spent all but a few hours a year just sitting.
Ken stared at the paperwork. "Well, the situation isn't impossible," he summed up. "If we can get some good prices on corn this fall, maybe we can pull it off, at least this year."
Judy spoke up. "Ever since we've been married, I've watched you groan every time you see the corn prices on TV."
"Yeah," Ken said. "But we've got some contracts for delivery late this year and early next year that aren't too bad a figure. Well what corn has been going for now. We stand a good chance of breaking even and making our payments. But," he continued, "I'm not sure there will be anything left over for us to eat on this winter."
August turned into September, and as the month progressed, the corn started to ripen. Ken knew that he'd be out with the hated 8820 harvesting it before long, and wondered if he'd be doing it another year.
Much depended on corn prices going up, but they fell steadily, day by day, as reports of a record crop kept coming in. Ken knew it was possible to store some corn as a hedge that prices might go back up, but when the time came to make payments, he might have to sell whatever he had at what price he could get, just to get cash. He knew he might be able to get short-term loans in hopes that prices might go back up in the short run, but interest could eat up much of the gain if it went up at all. It would be sheer speculation, but speculating might be their only hope.
Ken's head throbbed with problems. This was the part of farming he had never been exposed to in practice. He did know a lot of the theory from his classes, and he had a better than average guide for grain sales in his father-in-law, who could explain some of the realities and ins and outs of the process.
It all came down to the fact that if they wanted to be sure of paying their bills, leaving some credit for the next year and be able to live through the winter, they would have to cut expenses somewhere. This late in the year, there weren't many expenses that could be cut on crops.
"Some guy once said that if he won a million dollars in the lottery," Ken told Judy as they lay in bed one night, "He'd keep on farming till the million was gone. I always thought it was a joke. Now, I'm not so sure. We could have made more money this year shoveling hamburgers somewhere."
Thunder shook the house.
"Not again," Ken complained. "I guess maybe we'd better be building an ark."
Judy looked out the west window on the fading September day. "Looks like a bad one," she said, and went back to the computer to store her project; she didn't want a power outage to kill the memory.
"Well, there's another week before I can get in the field," Ken said glumly.
One thunderstorm had followed another that summer and fall, and this one proved to be worse than most. The wind howled viscosly ahead of the storm; Ken could see lightning striking all around the area, although nothing hit very close. Still, as soon as the storm had blown past, he took a turn around all the farm buildings, to make sure there hadn't been any damage. While he was out in the loafing sheds, he heard sirens go by. "Somebody must have gotten it," he said to himself.
Satisfied that everything around the farm was all right, he went back home. "I thought the Willow Lake Fire Department covered out here," Judy said.
"Well, that was the Reading department that went past, heading east," she replied. "What would they be doing out here?"
"Somebody must be having a bad one," Ken said, getting up again and walking out to where he could see to the east. Judy followed him out to the road; to the east, they could see a glow in the darkening sky.
"Big fire," Judy commented.
"Yeah, that would have to be about over at Griswold's," Ken agreed. "Let's go see."
They got in the Sunbird and drove about three miles down the road. It was indeed at Roger Griswold's farm; a mile away, Ken could see the big old barn and the machinery shed burning. "I hope he's got insurance," he said, shaking his head. They stopped up the road and watched the huge fire for a while, not wanting to get in the firemen's way. Eventually, they worked their way on foot up to to Griswold's yard. Flames still shot far in the air, and even at a good distance they could feel the heat. It was easily the biggest fire either of them had ever seen.
They found Roger Griswold standing in his driveway, watching the barn burn. "You get the machinery out?" Ken asked.
The older man shook his head. "Got out some of the little stuff out, but the corn planter was parked in front of the 7720, and I couldn't drag it out in time to save the combine."
Ken whistled so softly only he could hear it. There was at least $60,000 worth of combine going up in smoke, and probably more. The machine wasn't more than two years old. They soon learned that wasn't all; the barn was full of hay and part of the summer's grain harvest, as well as some other machinery. "I've got good insurance," Griswold said. "It should cover most of it."
Ken made the obligatory offer: "Look, if there's anything I can do to help, you just let me know."
A couple of days later, Griswold called Ken. "Got something I want to talk to you about," he said. "Why don't we go and have a cup of coffee at the cafe?"
"Why not?" Ken replied. "Can't do anything in the field anyway. It's too wet."
Ken drove his dad's old four-wheel drive pickup into Willow Lake; Judy wanted to go shopping in Geneva, and offered to take Lydia in the Sunbird. Inside the Willow Lake Cafe, Ken sat down at a table where Griswold was already waiting. "Now that you're running your place, you've got to drop by here some," Griswold said. "This is where all the deals are made."
Ken knew that a lot of local farmers spent some odd time in the cafe when they couldn't work in the fields, but virtually all of them were quite a bit older than he was, so he avoided the place. Other than the few people he knew through his father or through church, he had no friends there.
They talked about the fire for a while. Griswold gave a blow-by-blow description of his actions from the time he discovered the fire in the hay until it had driven him from the cab of the combine. In a last desperate act to try and save the equipment, Roger had intended to shove the planter out the door by brute force with the combine, ignoring the damage, but the combine had been reluctant to start. It made quite a story.
They finally got down to business. "What did you have in mind?" Ken asked.
"Well, to make it simple," Roger said, "The insurance is paying for everything, but I've got a lot of work to do this fall, now, just to get on line for next year. I haven't got time to hunt up a new combine, and then get corn in, too. I know Tom was asking around last fall about custom work. Would you like to take that big new 8820 and get my corn in?"
"If you want me to, I will," Ken said. He thought for a moment, and then added, "I'll tell you what, though. I'd sure like to get rid of that darn thing altogether."
"How's that?" Roger asked.
Ken paused. It wasn't right to pass on some of his suspicions about the motives for his father and Tom buying the big combine; he guessed it would be better to tell Griswold only part of the truth. "It's too much machine for what we have," Ken said. "And it costs too much for how little we use it. Besides, we're probably going to be leasing the whole thing out in another year or two, and we'll just have to get rid of it sooner or later."
It took several more cups of coffee and two large slabs of cherry pie to hammer out a deal. Since the Sorensen's couldn't actually sell the 8820 until the will had been probated, Ken agreed to lease the machine to Griswold until such time that he could give him clear title to the machine. The insurance company would pay off the old machine, and Griswold had the option to continue paying the lease payments, or refinancing later. The lease payments were enough for the Sorensens to pass them on to the bank on their own payment schedule.
"One thing bothers me," Roger said. "You've got a lot of corn out there. How are you planning to get it in?"
"You want to do some custom work?" Ken asked back.
Griswold smiled and shook his head. "No way. I've got enough to do this fall. I'm going to be all winter getting a new barn built, and replacing all the stuff that got burned, and now you beat me into picking my own corn."
"Well, someone ought to be interested," Ken said.
"Yeah," Griswold nodded, "If you want to pay ten, maybe twelve cents a bushel."
Ken winced. That would run six, seven, maybe eight thousand dollars, and would just about cost what he had just saved by leasing out the 8820. "I dunno," he said. "Got any ideas?"
Griswold drummed his fingers on the table. "I might have a way out," he said. "Come with me."
Ken got into Roger's pickup, and they drove south and east out of Willow Lake. They pulled into a farm Ken had never seen before. Griswold drove right up to the barn. "When Old Man Avery sold out to me a couple years ago," Griswold explained as he opened the door, "He sold me lock, stock, and machinery. Most of what he had was little old stuff I don't have any use for, but I've still got most of it."