2000s Archive

Betting the Farm

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The economic and cultural heart of American farming is found in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, where family farm values were shaped and where profits are higher and more sustainable. But farming in South Dakota could not endure without industrial methods. The landscape of Walworth County, shaped by 75 years of federal policy, is a vast, flat expanse of high-tech agriculture, where grain is not so much food as a standardized unit of production, and where growers keep afloat by participating in the farm program.

In 2005, government payments to Walworth farmers totaled $10,414,000, and the ’06 payments were even higher. The recipient of the largest federal subsidies in the county—more than a million dollars between 1995 and 2005—was paid $213,288 in 2005 alone, including $62,352 in disaster relief. The numbers are big, but the payments didn’t make him rich. They allowed him to persevere and plant another crop.

A century ago, this was cattle country. Millions of western cattle moved into the niche left by the slaughter of the buffalo. Those cattle were fattened on the native grasses of the northern plains and then trailed to the railhead at Mobridge (Missouri-Bridge) for eastern markets. But ranches that operated on the massive scale of the Great Plains could not compete against the Jeffersonian promise of the Homestead Act, which offered settlers small tracts of hardscrabble land in exchange for five years of backbreaking work. Once parceled and plowed, it was impossible to restore the large ranch landscape. Most homesteaders failed, sold out to neighbors or land speculators, and moved on. Not the Stiegelmeiers.

The family—Russian-Germans who fled the tsar’s draft—came to Walworth in the 1880s with the first wave of homesteaders. They were self-reliant and, unlike most homesteaders, knew how to grow wheat on windswept plains. Matthew is the sixth generation. He knows the family history back to his great-grandfather Jacob, who passed the land to his son Milton. Milton expanded the farm. “You could make money farming in the ’50s,” Matthew ex­plains. “But people didn’t want to farm. They wanted jobs in the cities. So there was good land available to buy.” When Milton’s sons came of age, he gave them land and loaned them money to get started. “That’s the crux of it,” Matthew says, his voice rising to emphasize the first rule of family farming. “If one generation won’t help the next get started, these farms can’t sur­vive.”

Today, the Stiegelmeier farm is 4,000 acres. Driving slowly through a rocky pasture, behind the wheel of a 1975 Ford F-250 pickup, his blue jeans torn at the knee and his jacket caked with grease and diesel, Matthew reflects on the family ethic. “This pickup was part of my education. I’ve pretty much rebuilt the whole truck. I’ve always said, ‘Why go to college to learn stuff I can get paid to learn?’ I’ve gotten paid to learn how to weld and paid to learn how to shear sheep.”

Every five years Congress affirms that federal farm policy should make it easier for farmers like Matthew to get started. But Wayne Schmidt, executive director of the local Farm Service Agency (FSA), can’t remember a single young farmer in the past decade who has purchased land in Walworth County. The value of farmland today is more than $1,000 an acre. With federal subsidies built into the land values and wealthy pheasant hunters eager to invest in private preserves, the value of land has risen 15 to 20 percent every year for the past five years, far more than agriculture can support on a sustainable basis. In today’s market, Matthew Stiegel­meier could not purchase his own farm.

For the past half century, wheat has been king in Walworth County, but in 2007 farmers went into the ground with a record planting of corn: 53,000 acres, up from 40,000 only a year before. The corn market has been booming. Corn for cattle feed. Corn for high-fructose corn syrup. Corn for 3,500 industrial products. Corn for export. Most of all, corn for the shimmering, subsidized promise of ethanol. But it wasn’t an easy decision for the farmers. The 2006 harvest was a disaster, one of the worst in memory, and nobody wanted to go through that again. Over a cup of coffee at the Cloverleaf Bar & Grill, in Selby, Stiegel­meier neighbor Steve Sawinsky looks back on the withering drought. “In 2006 we barely grew twenty bushels of corn [an acre],” he says. “We couldn’t survive without crop insurance.” He shakes his head and laughs. “They call this the lunatic fringe of the Corn Belt.” Persistence and short memories—that’s what it takes to exist on the edge. Disaster is a way of life. Federally subsidized crop insurance and disaster payments are the handmaidens of survival. So last year Walworth farmers crossed their fingers and planted corn—genetically modified, pesticide-resistant commodity corn.

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