Sunday, December 27, 2015

My dad was a farmer

He was born on a farm in the small farming community of Hastings, Minnesota in 1909. His dad, an Irish immigrant, was also a farmer, and so was his brother.

downtown Hastings

When dad was 11 years old, his mother passed away, which forced his father to raise his 2 sons and 5 daughters by himself.

When dad was 20 years old, his dad died of a heart attack, just a few months before the start of the Great Depression. Dad and his brother Clem bravely kept the farm going, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor inspired dad to join the Army in 1942, shortly after his 33rd birthday.

Clem and his young bride Miriam kept the farm going for another 20 years of so, before shifting into semi-retirement in the small town of Forest Lake, Minnesota.

The year that dad was born was considered to be the Golden Era of farming in the United States. The vast majority of the workers in America earned their living as farmers, and most of them were considered prosperous. The number of family farms in America peaked at 6.4 million in 1910, but has dropped dramatically since that time. Today, there are only about 2,000,000 farms in America, and many of them are no longer family farms.

An article in this morning’s Chicago Tribune highlighted the problems facing a particular type of farmer, the cranberry farmer of the Midwest, primarily those in Wisconsin.

Cranberry prices, due in part to over-production, are now at their lowest level since 1959, the year of the “great cranberry scare” . It costs about $30 to produce a 100 pound barrel of cranberries, but retail prices are now hovering around $8 a barrel, a steep drop from the $40 a barrel they were selling for just 5 years ago.

The salvation of the cranberry farms lies in two unlikely sources: insurance companies and exports.

Large life insurance companies (like John Hancock of Boston) have agricultural investment groups. The returns from those agricultural groups have averaged 14 percent over the last decade, nearly twice the return on investments in the Standard and Poor 500 list.

The average American eats about 2 pounds of cranberries a year, primarily during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. That amount has remained unchanged for more than a decade. However, more than 30% of our cranberry production is now exported, and China is now the fasting growing market for our cranberries.

Roughly 4 years after his death, Paul Harvey reminded us (in a 2013 Dodge Superbowl commercial) that God made a farmer. It’s worth watching again, and it may bring a tear to your eye.

2013 Dodge Superbowl commercial

Farming is not an easy life, but the blood, sweat and tears that are needed to sustain a farm also enable the folks that “bust the sod” to lead long lives. My dad lived to be 85 years old, and his younger brother lived to be 87. My dad never had any buildings named after him, he never held political office, and he really never made a pile of money. Although he was known for a lot of years simply as “Larry the mailman”, deep down he never really changed, and I’m proud to say what he was.

My dad was a farmer.

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