Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Year in Review

It is that time of the year us humans reflect on our lives over the past year, what we accomplished, what we failed, and what we learned. For Zachary and I, it has been a year of change.

If someone told me a year ago that we wouldn't be dairy farming today, I would have found that hard to believe. We had a dream that we could be one of those small dairy farms that could survive in today's dairy industry, where factory farms and volume are favored. Perhaps if we were farming longer before the milk market crashed, we would have had a better base to stand on? Maybe if we were better farmers? Maybe if we were better savers? The downturn caught us at a very vulnerable time. By February, we knew we were in trouble. The sudden sharp decline in milk price took the whole industry by surprise at the end of December. The price was at 30 year lows. Suddenly we had a business on our hands hemorrhaging red, bleeding us dry. We were so stressed out. (A funny side note, Zachary and I both found our first gray hairs during that time. Well earned ones.) We were worried not only the financial implications for ourselves, but also for my parents, for which we were slowly purchasing the livestock, feed, and leasing the equipment and buildings. Our fledgling dairy adventure was first theirs, one they invested their lives into for over 40 years, and before that, my Grandparents. And here we are crashing and burning the legacy. One option was to bargain with the banks and the government for operating loans to cover our growing shortfalls. Most farmers do that, borrow to cover the hard times, and hopefully pay it off during the good times. Hopefully pay it off. The thought of borrowing thousands of dollars to cover possibly a year or more of operating made our stomachs turn. How would we ever pay that back? With our little operation? We have heard many horror stories of farms collapsing under massive debt. We talked with my parents, discussed our options and chose option 2. Sell out. They assured us we were making the right choice. Having them be so supportive made the process less painful. By the end of February, we were calling cattle jockeys and auctioneers for the dairy herd. The last of the milking herd left in the first week in March and we had our cattle sale in mid-March. The price the cattle sold for was very low. With the milk market bad, the prices for dairy cows was also bad. We felt then, and we still believe now, it was right to take our losses then instead of a much larger one down the road. It was few strange weeks after the dairy herd left. Zachary and I didn't know what to do with ourselves during "chore time" night and morning. 5am and 5pm always meant it was time to milk cows.

The remaining young stock stayed on the farm. Today we have 8 steers and heifers. My parents own a few dozen more and my brother Mike is now purchasing calves and keeping them on the farm. It's a little community beef farm. Mike is the main caretaker for all the cattle. It is nice to see the farm buildings still put to good use. The other main strangeness on the farm is the lack of crop making. We all were used to having our spring, summer, and fall revolve around planting, maintaining, and harvesting crops. My parents chose to rent the farm's cropland to area farmers this year, as we didn't need all the land for our smaller group of livestock.

After the we sold the dairy herd, Zachary was out of a job. With the collapse of our business, we have a lot of bills. He found a job at a local factory, but soon after starting, he realized the stress on his back wasn't worth it. Over most the summer he keep busy with side projects, really taking advantage of his building skills. The end of August he found a position at a local auto parts store and been working ever since. He really enjoys his job.

Our kitchen remodel is never ending. Another "if we only knew what would happen" situations. We started the main part of it last fall 2008. But 2009 proved to be a dry year for remodeling funding, as we are and have been focused on bills and essentials. We are slowly putting it back together as we can. Some people think we are nuts living with a semi-functional kitchen for a long time, but believe me it is not by choice. But we are enjoying working together on it and making it our kitchen, reflecting our style. We are patient people, we'll get there.

We learned some hard lessons this year, but we had some great adventures too. We are learning to simplify our lives, cutting out the excess. We are glad we don't have the stress of struggling with our business. Zachary and I are enjoying our new "civilian life". We have our health and each other and really that is all that matters to us.

Happy New Year to you all!


Zach said...

Wow, I am so glad that you shared this with everyone. Not knowing you background, its nice to understand your position. I know that this new year will be great for you guys, and keep your head up.

Michelle said...

I'm very happy for you to have come out of this mess with good spirits. It makes me cry when I hear of what we have done to our own food systems.

Are you considering some other farm business. It seems to me that natural grass fed beef is all the rage now.

Spring Lake Farm said...

I know that 2010 holds some awesome things for you and your family! Happy New Year!


Zachary and Jennifer said...

Thanks all! It was a bit more personal blog post than normal for me, but a year end review felt right to share.

We are just focusing on "hobby farming" right now with our handful of critters and gardening, which is fun. I never knew how much I could adore a chicken...:-) I don't think we will ever dive in agribusiness fulltime again.

Grass fed beef is an interesting trend and I think it is a good one. After reading a few books by Michael Pollan, most would agree too.


Christy said...

Thanks for sharing. I didn't know your whole story either. Hubby would like me to get into farming as a business, but I want to stick with hobby farming. I'm not sure what our future holds.

Ryan said...

I'm from Pelican Rapids, dairy county in Minnesota, and I feel what you've gone through in the past year. If it's any consolation, you are not alone. It's tough across all dairy county and probably best to change direction before buried in debt.