Dairy Farmer, Activist
“Seen Dad cry for the first time. He says, 'You know I’m going to lose the farm.'”
Joel and I talked in his farmhouse on a wintery and very foggy morning in November. His youngest daughter, Anna, a pre-schooler, sat on the couch and watched us a while, then crawled in and out her father’s lap from time to time. Laura, Joel’s wife who works in the district office of Wal-Mart, was in the living room watching television. Anna divided her time between her mother’s lap and her father’s. Abby, age 7, was in school.
Joel talks about how his father lost the family farm, the loss of his own cows, and his political activism.
Wow. Big question. Tell you about Kendall, Wisconsin. Hard to believe that Kendall used to be a big railroad town. There’s the remnants of the old turntable in Kendall where they used to redirect rail cars. I guess it was a repair shop. They used to side cars and equipment there and work on it and that. Now today, there’s hardly a business left running. There probably wouldn’t be anything if, in the last few months, a smoke shop and a gun shop hadn’t come to town. Otherwise, the grocery store’s closed, the hardware store is closed, the drug store is closed, the clothing store is closed. Started in the last 15, 20 years. It’s been the biggest exodus, and you could probably almost target it exactly to the farm crisis of the 80’s.
I mean, our towns are done for, because all the farms that supported those towns don’t even exist anymore. There’s nobody to go to those towns to keep the businesses going. You have these huge corporations that have perfected vacuuming every ounce of money out of the country. You have one centralized office where all the money has to end up. So it’s like feeding a vacuum cleaner.
I mean, that money is gone, and it’s always been said that the farm dollar turns over three to seven times in the economy. So you went to town, you went to the hardware store and the grocery store and the feed mill and the barber shop, and you know, they paid their employees and then they come back to the store and bought their groceries and their stuff, so the farm dollar just kept working and working until it isn’t here anymore.
Now our feed co-ops have merged, and so their headquarters are 100 miles away. And so farmers go to their local mill and spend money, but it doesn’t stay there anymore. It ends up at a headquarters somewhere. So I mean, it really is a vacuum cleaner effect. The money, the life, has been sucked out of rural America from our farms all the way through our towns.
We lost 50% of our nation’s farms through the 80’s, just extreme financial pressure.
I [hard that] when Jesse Jackson ran for President in the 80’s, he had announced a press conference at a town in Texas. The press was waiting for him, but there was no one there. They were kind of confused and concerned. Then they started to see black flags. I was told that him and his friends marched into town carrying 1,800 black flags that represented how many farmers from a certain area had committed suicide during the farm crisis. The press was shocked to hear that. It’s sad, ‘cause right now, we’re seeing the same kind of percentage of farm losses.
Friends and I watch the obituaries. Almost certain, in cases where they’re saying “died unexpectedly,” a lot of times are finding out it’s suicide.
I grew up here in Kendall. My family has farmed here in Munroe County since 1872. Family has fought in every war and conflict since the Revolutionary War. Then moved to upstate New York for a few years, mostly farming, but part of the family tradition was construction work, so doing brick and block and stone work. My grandpa used to blast stone. He used to actually blast stone and quarry it and move stone to the job site. Build barn walls, house basements, you know, whatever needed to be, just by quarrying stone. And I can remember watching him work. Stone went together for him like Lego blocks do for kids.
I can remember my dad had bought a farm and the barn had collapsed, and we cleaned it up, and we were pushing the old stone walls back into place, and there was one wall that had totally collapsed. So we were rebuilding that from stone, and I was watching Grandpa work, and I can remember Grandpa turning around and saying, “Boy? You can always mix more mud or carry more stone, but you can’t stand still.” And just turned around and went back to work. And Dad said, “Don’t worry, he’s that way with everybody.” (Laughs)
You know, I was just so fascinated with how quickly he could do it, and he always did what he called the 20-inch wall, and his 20-inch walls were solid. He said a lot of guys did a 24-inch wall but kind of left the centers hollow. They would mortar the outside, either side, but then just throw whatever in the middle and just kind of hope it held together, and Grandpa just mortared it all the way through and did a narrower wall but probably a better wall.
I suppose that’s some of where the work ethic came from, and you know, part of the love of farming. The family’s always known hard work. It’s what you been doing, it’s what you know, it’s what you’re comfortable with. Dad’s farms were just up the road here a ways. Growing up I just was always in the barn doing stuff. I remember Mom telling a story.
Farms are inspected by health inspectors, and the health inspector had been to the farm, and he said, “That crib in the milk house has got to go. That can’t be in there.” She says, “Okay, that’s fine. When will I see you, tomorrow?” He says, “What do you mean, tomorrow?” “Well, if the crib’s not here, then you’re coming to babysit.”
So I as a baby was going to the barn. The crib was in the milk house at the barn, since Mom was doing chores. We were right there, too. So you know, can probably remember feeding calves and feeding cows at probably age five. I know Dad said that he was milking cows at age five by hand. And the only person faster at milking a cow was his mother, and he would make his brother so mad and stuff ‘cause they could never keep up. I probably started milking cows at eleven, and that was probably the first break Dad – I know Dad had went 17 straight years and never missed milking his cows twice a day every day in that stretch.
It’s what you know and it’s what you do. That’s what you get in your mind. I know all of us, I think almost everyone, my cousins and everything, the profession their dads kind of were in, that’s kind of the line they went down. I had cousins that, my uncles that had went more to hogs and beef, and so their sons went more down those lines.
My mom and dad’s 29th “anniversary” was a farm forclosure. It’s not really a present to be told you’re being foreclosed on, and to have the sheriff’s department deliver those papers. Had never really seen a lot of emotion out of Dad, certainly never seen him cry. So I was getting in my truck to go that day, and he was like, he says, “I don’t think you should go.” I said, “I need to go, I’m going.” Seen Dad cry for the first time. He says, “You know I’m going to lose the farm.”
And their 30th wedding present was a sheriff’s auction on the courthouse steps. It’s really hard to believe that your entire life can be sold in five minutes at the courthouse. People were saying, “Well, your family’s going to have to make this right.” Like we did something wrong. I was totally shocked by that.
Well, working now with so many different relief groups through the National Family Farm Coalition, it’s an internal defense mechanism. There’s every reason for them to know that they could be in the same boat, but they put you down just to distance themselves from you, so it’s really not even totally a conscious thought, it’s just defense kicking in. They’re just hoping it’s not me, and so they distance themselves. You got people that, I mean, the phone stops ringing, nobody comes to see you anymore, you go to town and everybody leaves.
It’s really hard to put that into perspective, but you lose so much more than the farm. It’s your dignity, it’s your respect, but it’s the fact that you don’t have any friends anymore, no one will associate with you. And people don’t think it can be that bad and that blatant, but it really is. You got nothing. Mom and Dad literally went and got all new friends. You wouldn’t think it.
I think the worst thing, Dad said, was interest rates. People whine today, but they were dealing with 18%. That was just killing guys. There was no way to handle that. It just built up so fast. The really sad part is, is Mom and Dad had kept up on all their bills, they just had fallen behind on property taxes, and they’d went to the bank and said, “Well you know, we’re just a little short, can you help us out?” And they said, “Well, you don’t have to worry about that for seven years.” They don’t tell you the alarming rate at which penalties and interest add up on back taxes.
So it’s like they set you up?
Knowing what the outcome could be?
Yeah. And that was kind of what we found, now in doing counseling and working on the other side of the picture… That’s what they are doing. And now we know that so many cases, because I work with RAFI, that’s the Rural Advancement Foundation International, that’s all they do is crisis management 24/7. They got a team of counselors that work on nothing but financial issues and crisis situations for farmers all over.
In 1990, three years before his parents lost their farm, Joel had bought a 160 acre dairy farm of his own. The farm and the barn were vacant. “People, they had literally stole all the doors and windows out of this house, all the light switches, outlets, fuse boxes, the barn was totally stripped. Got an opportunity, this guy had purchased a communications building at Fort McCoy and he was supposed to have it torn down, and he didn’t. So I made a deal with him and bought lumber. All the lumber that went into building this room and this house was about 300 bucks. Then I had to buy drywall on lot. But you know, I and my dad and brother poured the foundation, laid up the cement blocks, built the room.”
I was the last one that was farming fulltime and still in the dairy business. Some of my cows this last month was, well … it was a hard decision.
I had some surgery last December and ended up, couldn’t milk cows for months, so had to hire it done. My dad and sister and a guy from town did chores for me ‘til I healed up from surgery. I had 48 cows. But just, you know, circumstances. You lose a cow here and there, you sell a cow here and there. But ended up, I had sold my bull just so nobody got hurt while I was laid up, and so I ended up with cows and heifers that weren’t pregnant. And so my milk flow had dropped low enough that it was getting tough to keep up with bills; and equipment breakdowns were next to impossible to deal with, ‘cause there just wasn’t the cash flow.
Laura and I, there was a lot of months and months of just kind of back and forth and trying to decide. This is probably the case on most farms, you know? The guys are out there doing the work and the wives are left stuck at the house with the checkbook, trying to figure out how to make it work. And there’s a lot of months it’s really tough. So the farm wives get stuck with the stress of trying to figure out, you know, how to pay those bills. So it wears on them and stuff. There are just a lot of tough days and a lot of tough months, and you know, just comes that time when you have to decide whether you want to or not. Just for family reasons and whatnot, we decided that it was time to let go and sell the cows and look for work.
Three trucks came. Abby and Anna were watching the cows being loaded down. And the second truck driver told Abby, says “You’re sad, aren’t you?” She just shrugged her shoulders. He says, “You know how I can tell?” She shrugged her shoulders again. He said, “I can see the tears in your eyes.” And she just lost it. And so then Anna hugs Abby and then she loses it.
Well then the truck driver feels bad, so he goes to his truck and gets them each a dollar, and I mean, it’s like, now I’m a wreck. Where’s my dollar? (Laughs) Gee whiz. But it was tough. It was tough. Laura videotaped it, the cows loaded out. The girls crying in the road as the three trucks pulled away. It’s just tough. I mean, it’s like family.
Anna [the youngest] hadn’t been to the barn a lot. She had actually probably only been going to the barn a few weeks, actually. That first time in the barn, it was just… It’s hard to even describe. Abby had been to the barn a lot with me. Pretty comfortable with the cows. [So she took Anna] up front; there’s all these great big 1,200 pound Holstein cows looking down the manger like, what’s going on here? Who are these two? Abby’s like, “Okay, Anna. Let’s look at the cows.” So Anna took Abby’s hand, and they walked down in front of the one row of cows and come back, and they got to the end, and Abby said, “What you think?” And Anna Marie says, “Do again.” So they turned around and made that walk back down again, all those big cows looking at them.
And I mean, it’s priceless. What do you say, and that? You have that joy of a father, your kids starting to make that connection with the cows, and even now they’ll say, “Let’s go milk, Dad.” You know? What do you say? It’s tough and that. I mean, family history. Your legacy. So many things. Hard to put into words. Just so many thoughts and feelings about all the things I didn’t get to complete. I felt like I’d let down every family and person still trying to milk cows, today.
I still own the land. And actually rent one of Dad’s old places back from the owner there and that, so that’s tough every time I go. You look at the house and you look at the barn and see all of Grandpa’s stonework and cement block work and drive through, and there’s just that little bit of awkward hesitation and stuff. But you know, they’re good people, Ray and Marie that live there and stuff. Done wonderful things in fixing stuff up and that and stuff. But just, it’s hard to let all that go.
What did your parents teach you about money?
You know, they never had any, and I never really knew that they didn’t have any. So I guess that’s why I don’t have an obsession with it like so many people, I don’t know, money to me don’t mean what it means to so many people. As long as I got my family and my farm and we got our garden and our stuff, you know, yeah, you can buy stuff, and sure it’s nice to have money and stuff, but you know. How much stuff do you really need? What is the value? Too many people put the value of life in how much stuff they got, and I think that’s really where, like this saying or that one up there. (Points to a wood carved sign on the wall) “Don’t work so hard trying to make a living that you forget to have a life.” And I think too many people have completely forgotten to have a life and that. Not that everything’s perfect here, but.
You’ve got a good life.
Now I work at Ocean Spray. Just started. I basically feed the big machine that makes Craisins. I go in the freezer and get berries and dump them in the hopper and stuff. Spend a lot of the day on a forklift, just bringing product out of freezers. You take a farmer and put him in a really loud concrete building, you know, not the best. Not the environment you would like. But I need work and it’s a good job and a good company.