The year of 58-cent calves


HAVRE DE GRACE -- We sold a load of steer calves earlier this month, which for me brought on a case of post-harvest depression.

Usually, when the calves leave each fall, it's a moment to celebrate. They're a major crop for our farm, and provide an important part of its revenue. And when they've gone, our responsibility for them is over. We know we've done our job well, and have earned the right to relax for a while. It's nice to take the check to the bank, too.

For most farmers in our area, this harvest season looks very good. In fact, 1996 is shaping up to be a memorable year. Wheat did well and brought unprecedented prices. Now, as grain supplies tighten around the world, our local cornfields are about to produce record yields. After a summer rich in rainfall, stalks are straight and tall and ears are heavy.

Even the soybeans are flourishing. In fact, if you take a drive through our local countryside now, in almost every planted field you can see money. It makes me think of the way Maryland's abundance must have looked to the hungry Confederates of 1862 -- "the meadows rich with corn, clear on the cool September morn."

But the richness is in the cornfields this fall, not in the pastures. The cattle business is bad. Our steers brought 58 cents a pound, two-thirds what they would have been worth a few years ago -- and that was a pretty decent price in this market.

Now, I think I'm a realist. I know perfectly well that the cattle business is cyclical and that after a while things will improve. Hamburger consumption isn't going to cease, and cattle will eventually be worth more to the hamburger makers because there will be fewer of them. There will be fewer of them because farmers and ranchers are already selling off brood cows.

They're doing this for various reasons. Some want to cut costs, realizing that if a weanling calf weighing 550 pounds is only going to bring $319, it's barely going to cover the cost of keeping its mother for a year. Some need to raise cash. And some, getting old or maybe only discouraged, are just getting out of the business. This year in particular I can see why they might.

A friend of mine who farms nearby recently gave me a book which paints the usual grim picture of the future of the family farm. As a rule I don't read such things, but this one I did, just after we sold the calves. That may have been bad timing. fTC Anyway, I found it at once insightful and disturbing.

The book is called "Fields Without Dreams." Its author, Victor Hanson, has a family farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California. The farm produces raisins, a crop about which I know nothing. But I do know that Mr. Hanson has farming, with all the despair and heartache it so often entails, down cold.

The learned farmer

Oddly, this may be because, in addition to being a farmer, he is a professor, teaching Greek and Greek history at a California university. But this makes him no less a farmer; rather, it authenticates him. Today in America, if family farms survive at all, they only survive because some family members have off-farm incomes.

In fact, according to Mr. Hanson, the Census Department decided three years ago that there is no point trying to count America's farmers any more because the number who make a living by working land which they own and live on is now "statistically insignificant." Their imminent extinction, he suggests, may be the present generation's chief legacy to the future.

As a classicist, Mr. Hanson can cite Virgil's Georgics on the wonders of rural life -- but also the poetry of Hesiod, not nearly so popular or well known today, on its rigor, its austerity and its frequent bleakness. Hesiod understood farmers' instinctive and often dour conservatism.

As Mr. Hanson sees it, through the prism of a failing raisin farmer's sometimes bitter perspective, agrarians contribute more than food to the world. They also serve as "brakemen on an affluent, leisured and rootless society." And the day is in sight when they'll be gone.

Each agrarian generation is increasingly torn, as it considers the future, between staying put for the benefit of the children, or accepting failure and cashing out for the same reason.

Many, helped by jobs in town or little inheritances or working spouses, just keep on going no matter how rough it gets, giving up, as they do, first luxuries and then comforts and finally what they once thought of as necessities.

Mr. Hanson and others like him who hang on, he writes, have concluded that it's better to have fields without dreams than dreams without fields. So, just as he stoically accepts the calamities of the raisin business, we cattlemen have to endure the years of 58-cent calves.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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