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Friday, September 30, 2016

Reflections on working off the farm for one year

One year ago today I started work as a groundskeeper at a small private college in Oregon.
Look! A shrub!

Was it a good idea?
I really don't know...
I applied for the job because the stress of farming was doing me in. My father-in-law lived with us and my father lived with my brother. My father had to move into a nursing home and it looked like it was going to be an expensive proposition.
My father-in-law living with us made it so my wife couldn't work part time so supplement my farm income.
It had also been a very stressful summer. It looked like several of the jobs I do for other people were going to end and I have been finding it difficult to just keep up the pace of doing custom work off the farm to make up for the money we lose actually farming.
Look! A DC-3!

My daughter gets straight A's and wants to go to college.
But mostly it is that farming is changing.
All the good guys are dead.
You can't make it on a handshake agreement anymore.

My intense frustration started that Spring silage season.
We have been chopping silage for a few neighbors and the dairy down the road from us. Our equipment is old and I haven't been keeping up with painting stuff.
We have a 160 hp tractor and a pull-type silage chopper. I get a couple friends to help haul and so it takes a week or two to get it all done.
I've been a little frustrated as it is hard to get our own crops done and the silage chopper is expensive to run. I had to buy a tractor to pull it, repairs are very expensive, we have to have a truck and a driver. But, it brings in good money.
However, everyone else has 600hp choppers and they haul the silage and pack it for the dairy and do in a day what it takes me a week to do.
So I'm working my little heart out and I blow up my tractor and get another tractor hooked up and I don't even lose a day, and I hire a guy to come out and rake the clover that the farmer put in a row too wide for the chopper to pick up (for the fifth year in a row) and all I hear is how the other guy has a new chopper and gets a lot more done than I do. And we get the dairy to chop his grass and all I hear is how that other guy can chop it all in a day and will pack it for him and I'm out there working my little heart out and I wear out my disk mower and truck and bend the cylinder on the dump box and I lose $40 a ton on my hay cause I'm chopping for people that apparently are just giving me the job due to charity.
And then I start stacking and all the bales are crap and the people making the bales don't really care and I kind of forget how much money this all brings in to run our farm.
And then we start chopping our corn silage and all I hear is how this other guy will chop it and put it in the pit and pack it and how he will do the dairy guy's farming for practically free and so I figure screw it...
So I take this job and I figure I that I can do a lot after work and if I make it a year I'll have more vacation time and I can take time off work and still get stuff done and I probably exaggerated all my frustrations any way and people will still trust me cause I've always got their stuff planted and chopped and stacked.
And I have one customer left.
I got all his bales stacked. However, I don't think that is going to be enough to make my tractor payment and that money was supposed to go to supplement my personal income.
All said and done... I'm in worse financial shape than a year ago, but I do get an hourly wage and have my daughter's college tuition taken care of and Monday something like 20 percent of my measly income will go into a retirement account.
On the other hand I'm up at three a.m. because I can't sleep.
I think I will go work some ground before it rains so that we can plant a crop which we won't be able to afford to fertilize and will probably fail anyway...
Monday I'll go back to work and when the loan comes due I'll just have another mini nervous breakdown and perhaps something will work out or it won't.
But, worst of all... The dairy guy will come over and tell me what I nice guy I am and how he sure hated to take the job away from me but he thought it would rain and boy they sure got it done in a hurry.
Look! A $1,100 tire with a split in it and corn in the background which would have paid for the repair!


  1. That is sad to hear. I've said before that farming is not what it used to be. I guess there are worse things than bad weather. Rain coming Sunday and after that, more rain. Then winter? Maybe another flax crop stays in the field all winter? But today is nice so...

    1. I watched your moving the combine in the rain video. We have some small acres of expensive seed in the field. Our forecasted rain turned out to be a mini-downpour last night but I see dry spots under the cars. We shall see...

  2. Farming is a tricky one. I want to be a farmer and make money from the land but being a carpenter is far easier as I know where my next paycheck is coming from. I think farmers are also their own worst enemy, they always seem willing to undercut eat other to make a buck, at least in building everyone expects the same pay and won't work for less.
    I'm keen on Jean Martain Fortier at the moment - the market gardener - where he farms better not bigger, looking at what pays and focusing on that. his main mantra is to far better not bigger and I think he has a point, I'm always taking on the next project when I should be focusing on being better at what I'm doing already.
    That said, I've got a lamb dieing in the field that was worth £80 the day before yesterday and now I'm going to have to get up early before I go to work to drag it out of sight of walkers before I bury it later in the day. All whilst trying to convince my wife that it's worth the effort!
    Keep your chin up. Nothing worse than feeling down.

    1. Kev, losing animals is heart breaking. Years ago I was helping a cow deliver a calf and she prolapsed. Not only was there the pain of potentially losing an animal you raised from a baby, there was also the pain of losing $2,000 just like that. She did recover but I had to sell her for beef.
      I'm working towards the farming smaller but better. We have been selling high quality 75lb hay bales instead of the standard 120lb bales and they are selling like crazy. Takes more time to make them but you get more per acre and you sell by the bale.
      This will work till someone undercuts us, as you said...
      It is a lot harder to have two jobs than I thought.

  3. Sounds to me like the deal breaker is the free tuition. There is no way you could make that kind of money. If you can get her through without a lot of debt then it will be a big win. Maybe then you can go back to subsidizing everyone else.

    Grace and peace.

    1. The free tuition is the key. Plus, the school has a tuition exchange program with other colleges and universities so this is huge. No way around that one...


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