The Next Generation
Chapter 15

Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd

December, 1985

As soon as the last guest had left, Ken staggered out into the rain to cross the road; he hadn't slept in nearly two and a half days. When Judy came home, she could track him from the back door to the bedroom by the trail of sodden clothes he left behind.

Judy allowed herself the luxury of sleeping late the next day, but Ken was still lost to the world. Eventually, she got up, took a bath, and hunted through the drawers for her sexiest lingere. Putting on a robe, she went to the living room and turned on the television. It was Saturday morning, and there was nothing but cartoons. She found herself getting interested in the adventures of the Smurfs; she had enjoyed them when she was younger.

Eventually she heard the toilet flush. She turned off the television and went toward the bedroom. As she got there, she heard the shower running, so she went to change the bed linen; Ken had been filthy after two days on the Oliver.

Ken came out of the bathroom, to find his wife laying on the bed, wearing some lace that covered nearly nothing, and a "come hither" look. There was a blue ribbon with a bow tied around her waist. "Happy Anniversary, darling," she said.

"Why the bow?" he said, smiling at the scene.

"I didn't have time to get you a present, so I'll have to be it," she said. "We've got the day off. Your mother even said she'd do the chores." Ken could see her firm breasts straining against the transparent black fabric, and suddenly more sleep didn't seem as important.

They were still only partly dressed some time later, when they invaded the kitchen for lunch. The blue ribbon with its now-matted bow was still around Judy's waist, but Ken could see it through her open robe. He glanced out the kitchen window, then took a longer look. It was still raining. "All right, get it out of your system," he said to the sky. "Rain all week. See if I care."

"It sure was nice of Roger and the others to help," Judy commented.

"Yeah," Ken said, setting down an armload of lunch meat, potato chips and bread. "We couldn't have done it without them. That's what scares me."

"How's that?" Judy asked, grabbing a package of lunch meat.

"Ken sat down. "Next spring, we get to start all over again," he said, opening the bread. "And, we can't depend on the neighbors helping us out every year."

Judy nodded. "It wouldn't be right," she agreed.

"I'll tell you what, Crip," Ken went on. "I spent an awful lot of time out there thinking while I was driving the Oliver this fall. If we have to struggle like this every years, sooner or later a bad year will wipe us out. Even if we can pull through a bad year, it'll set us back with the bank. The way we're going, I don't know if we'll ever pull even."

"So what can we do about it?" she asked before biting into a sandwich.

"I don't know," Ken said. "I've got a gut feeling that something isn't right about the whole operation."

Judy swallowed and asked, "What do you think it is?"

"I don't know." Ken admitted. "But I've got all winter. Maybe I can figure it out."

"Do you think your Dad or Tom knew that?"

"Maybe," Ken said. "Maybe not. They might have been too close to the forest to see the trees. One thing's for sure: I don't want to go through another fall like this one."

Judy set her sandwich down and looked at her husband. "Promise me one thing," she said.

"What's that?"

She smiled, peeled back her robe and said. "Think about it tomorrow. We've got other things to think about today."

It was still raining Monday, and Ken stayed inside. About 9:30, Judy's father called from his job at the feed mill. "They just cut the checks on the November grain deliveries," he said. "If you want to save yourself some interest, come on down and pick it up."

"Thanks, Norm, I'll be right down," Ken said, knowing that if they mailed the check, it would take a day or two to get to him.

Down at the mill, Norman asked, "You want to talk about contracts for next year yet?"

Ken mentally flipped a nickel and then said, "I don't know that I want to raise all that much corn next year. Look, talk to me like a relative, not like a grain buyer. What do you suggest?"

Norman lowered his voice; it wasn't something he wanted breezed around. "Hold off, I think," he said. "I think November and December deliveries are going to go up next month."

That had been Ken's gut feeling, but Norman had the data to back him up. "Well, let me see how much corn I'm going to run," he answered.

Back in the pickup, Ken started for Geneva. On the outskirts of town, he stopped at the library and picked up an armload of books. They were mostly US Department of Agriculture "Yearbooks," and Extension Office publications, as well as a lot of recent farm magazines. But, in searching through the stack, s he found an old book he'd heard about at college, but never read: "Malabar Farm", by Louis Bromfield.

Done at the library, he drove downtown to the Farmer's and Merchant's State Bank. Henry S. Daly had been to Sorensen's banker for years. Ken had met him several times, but had never had to talk business with him. He thought to touch base, just to get the ball rolling for next year.

"Sorry to hear about your father," Daly said. "I've done business with him for years. Did you get your corn in all right, with all this rain."

"It was a struggle at times," Ken understated.

"I heard about you leasing out your new combine," the banker went on. "Then, when I heard you were out picking corn with that old Oliver, I could hardly believe it."

"It was a lot of work, but it saved a lot of money," Ken said. "We've already got part of the production loan paid off from last summer. I've got a check here that will pretty well take care of the rest of it. I've got January sales contracted that will pay for the rest of it, and the rest of the annual payments."

"Are you going to have anything left over?"

"Some," Ken admitted. "Not a lot. I'm going to hold off a while and see if the corn market goes up any before I sell what's left. I'm sure we'll have you paid everything as agreed." He took pride in the statement; three months before, the cause had looked hopeless.

"Well, that's good to know," the banker grunted. "Look, I think you ought to know now. I'm not sure we'll be able to front you production money next year."

Ken stiffened. "What?"

The banker's voice softened. "Look, I know you've done an admirable job this year, but you've got problems, First, money is a lot tighter. The bank board is getting a lot stiffer with marginal loans, and considering your indebtedness and lack of experience, you're a marginal loan."

Helplessness arose in Ken. "We've taken a big bite out of our indebtedness," he argued.

Daly nodded. "Yeah, but to do that, you've taken a big bite out of your production capacity. You don't expect that Oliver to hold together forever, do you? Besides, the bank is going to be reluctant to approve anything with your father's will not probated yet, and you're going to have problems there."

"The last I heard, our lawyer, Ray Needham, didn't think there were going to be any problems."

Daly shrugged. "I keep my ear to the ground in a lot of places. Have to, in this job. I shouldn't tell you how I know, but believe me, you've going to have trouble getting your father's will probated."

Ken was even angrier. "What are we supposed to do, just give you the farm?" he said in a loud voice.

"Calm down," the banker said. "I didn't say things were hopeless. Look, if you can come in here in a month or so with a good, tight plan for next year, for a smaller production loan, and contracts for enough of your crop to meet interest payments and take something off the principal -- well, we'll see."

Ken found Judy with his mother at her house. He sat down at the kitchen table and repeated the distressing news from the bank.

"I didn't expect that to be a problem," Lydia said.

Ken was still upset. "All I can say, is I want to go in there with a plan that's so tight that we don't have to go back there again for production money," he said. "We're going to cut every corner we can to keep the costs down this year, too."

"When you go back, I think I'd better go with you," Lydia said.

"He said something about problems with Dad's will being probated," Ken said. "Have you heard anything?"

Ken's mother nodded. "I heard Friday, but I was so busy I didn't pay a lot of attention. Mr. Needham doesn't think it will come to anything, but Carolyn's contesting the will."

Grimly, the three drove back into Geneva, to Needham's office. The lawyer was in court, and they had to wait seemingly forever before he showed up. "She wants a quarter share, same as you," the lawyer told Ken. "Failing that, she wants half your share."

"Can she get it?" Ken asked.

"It's possible," the lawyer said. "The claim she has is kind of dumb, but she has a good lawyer, and the judge we've got on this case is kind of dumb, too. On the other hand, you stand a good chance of beating it."

"How long is this going to take?" Lydia asked.

Needham shook his head. "If we can get this through by this time next year, we'll be doing well."

Ken winced. One of the ideas he'd been thinking about since the bad news from the bank was selling out now, before the time came to get the next crop in. It wouldn't leave a lot of money left over for Lydia, but it was an idea. Even so, with the will still up in the air, they couldn't sell if they wanted to. "Is there any way to speed things up?" he asked.

"If you want to settle with Carolyn for half your share," the lawyer said, "She'd probably take it. We could have things settled by spring."

"No way," Lydia said. "She didn't contribute anything to the farm, and now she wants a big bite out of it. If she wants a quarter of the farm, she also has to pay a quarter of the bills."

"What do you think, Ken?" the lawyer asked. "It'd be your hide it comes out of."

"Fight it, I guess," Ken said.

"Look, let me give you some advice. As your estate is set up now, Mrs. Sorensen, even if Carolyn loses, she's still going to have a good case set up when you die," Needham went on. "Your husband just wrote up that will and had it notarized, without coming to me. If I'd had something to do with it, we could have set up some way to do what he wanted without these kinds of problems, and could have avoided most of the tax bill, too. You still can, for the majority of the farm."

"I can't believe she would have that kind of gall," Lydia told the younger Sorensens back at home in her kitchen. "She told me there was nothing for her here. She didn't have the decency to come to Chet's funeral, and now she wants a big piece of this farm for free."

"I'm darn near ready to let her have it, anyway," Ken replied, still upset. "She doesn't think I have the experience to manage her share of the investment. Neither does the bank. Let her fight it out with the bank and let her see how far she gets."

"Well, there's not a lot we can do about it now," Judy said, "Except hope it works out for the best. It's like these," she said, holding up her crutches. "We don't have to like it; we just have to make the best of it."

Ken started to say something, then stopped to reflect on what Judy had said. Even if they lost the whole thing, what would that be like measured against what Judy had been through? Judy had been the only one who had kept their head that long day. "You're right," he said finally. "It's like picking corn this fall. The only way to do it is however you can."

"So what are you going to do?" his mother asked.

"Like I told Judy Saturday, I don't know," Ken told her. "All I know is that we've got a month or so to figure out what to do with the farm next year. I thought about it an awful lot this fall, and I do know there are some places where we've got to make some changes."

Over the next hour, they talked around the problem. Judy finally found a scratch pad, and started taking notes.

She made a note when Ken said, "Somehow, we've got to cut costs, even if it cuts yields back a little. We've got to start thinking in terms of profit per acre, not just yield per acre."

They talked around the problem some more. At one point, Judy said, "I hate the thought of you out there killing yourself on the Oliver again next fall."

"Yeah," Ken said. "I don't want to, either, but now, we don't have any way to harvest small grains at all. At the same time, I hate to go long in corn again, because of the cost and the Oliver."

"You two worked awful hard this season," Lydia said. "I don't know how many hours you put in, but I'll bet you didn't make much per hour."

"Right," Ken said, as Judy started to make another note. "I'd love to come up with some way to cut down the hours, especially the field time. But, if we have a choice between spending time or money next year, I think we'd better spend the time."

"I know you've talked about getting rid of the 4630, and the equipment that goes with it," Judy commented, "But that'd make things a lot worse."

Ken nodded. "We've about got to stay with what we have, unless we can find a cheap replacement that will do the job without adding too much time," Ken agreed. "One of the problems is that we can't do anything that's too different from what we're doing now."

"How's that?" Judy wanted to know.

"Well, say we wanted to raise apples," Ken said. "We don't have the time to let the trees grow, the money to live on in the meantime, or the money needed for the equipment that goes with apples. We can change what we're doing around a bit, though. Like, if we wanted to triple the size of the beef herd, we pretty well could. We could convert grain to pasture, and pasture some beef."

"I don't see how we could do that," Lydia said as Judy made another note. "We haven't got enough time to increase the number of calves, and feeder calves are expensive. Maybe we could cut the beef out altogether; we'd at least save some work."

By the time they talked themselves out, Judy had a list of a dozen items or more that needed attention. The problem was that most of the items were interconnected; it wasn't simple to work on one problem without making another one worse. "The thing of it is," she said, "Is that whatever we do, we're guessing. We really don't know what works and what doesn't."

"You're getting at something," Ken said. "I don't see what."

"Lydia," Judy asked. "Did Chet keep good records of what his costs and income were?"

"He always was pretty good about keeping records," Lydia said. "But I don't know what you can learn."

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