The Farmer: Sometimes breaking even is the best you can hope for living off the land

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If working hard meant getting rich, Ralph Frye of Unity would be set for the rest of his life.

Instead, Mr. Frye, 63 -- who starts every day at 6 a.m. to milk the cows, works through the day until his cows are milked again at 4:30 p.m. and then pays the bills into the night -- thinks he has a pretty good year if he is breaking even around March, not long before the taxes are due and he has to start buying his next round of seeds for spring planting.

It's a lifestyle of hard work without an eye toward any sort of retirement, let alone a comfortable one.

Mr. Frye and his wife, Ann, have been farming since 1976 when they first rented their land. Their son, Todd, was 3 months old when they moved into a trailer on the farm. They figured the trailer would be a temporary home while they became established.

Instead, even as they renovated the barn and added another facility for the calves and heifers, the trailer has remained their home as they put the livestock's needs above their own.

The Fryes' farm pulls in about $200,000 in annual revenue, mostly from the sale of milk but also from selling some of the bull calves born on the farm.

It also chalks up about $200,000 in expenses.

"It's a challenge when you look at it. There's no doubt that in some years there is nothing and in some years there is a profit," said Gary Sheppard, a Penn State Cooperative Extension agent based in Greensburg who works with small farmers on everything from crop assistance to budgeting. "I don't know any small business out there that doesn't struggle."

The state Milk Marketing Board sets the prices for milk. Like other farmers, Mr. Frye is told what the "mailbox" price is. Last month he was paid $21.68 for every hundred pounds of milk and he sold 73,329 pounds.

But the math doesn't add up to almost $16,000 because while the price is $21.68 per hundred pounds, that is not what he actually earns. The cost of hauling the milk to Turners Dairy (about $1.25), 15 cents for advertising and another 5 to 7 cents to the Milk Marketing Board are all deducted from the $21.68.

When all is said and done, Mr. Frye and farmers like him receive about $1.75 a gallon for milk sold in a grocery store.

His list of expenses includes everything needed to run a farm: equipment, seed, veterinarian care, hauling the seed and the feed in, hauling the milk out -- and taxes.

This spring a late frost just after the farm's soybeans sprouted killed most of the delicate seedlings.

Mr. Frye had to replant the four fields. It took him two days and he had to buy another 13 bags of seeds at $56.95 a bag. In other words, the cold weather most people groused about this spring because it was dreary cost him $740 and two days of labor.

The farm income pays for the Fryes' car, and also for their dump truck. It pays for the couple's health insurance premium and the rent on the land they work but do not own.

Mrs. Frye also works three days a week at a local church to buy groceries and incidentals, such as the flowers she plants around the house.

There are no days off from dairy farming: no vacation, no sick time, no personal days.

"He's been so sick that he's laid out in the middle of the aisle out there," Mrs. Frye said, describing how her husband has had to rest between the cows while milking them.

Once, when he had pneumonia, they had just gotten home from the doctor's office and Mrs. Frye was getting something for him in the kitchen. When she went to the bedroom, he was gone. She found him in the barn.

One reason for never taking a day off is that the work needs to be done. Another is that Mr. Frye doesn't want anyone else messing with his systems.

"There's three ways of doing things: my way, the right way and the wrong way," he said, adding that he wants the cows handled his way, on his schedule for them, which other farmers or even his sons may not follow.

It used to be that the Fryes had two checking accounts: one for the farm and the other for the household expenses. Mrs. Frye said they have since merged the accounts since money from her job was always moving over to cover farm's expenses. That makes it harder at tax time but easier the rest of the year.

Over the years, they have found ways to cut expenses. Mr. Frye hasn't bought a cow in more than 20 years. His entire herd was born on his farm.

The struggle, he said, is to raise enough cows to cover those who get old and others who die young. He lost one cow recently to tetanus, something he had never seen before. That meant that, aside from the loss of a milk cow, he also had the immediate expense of vaccinating his entire herd.

Another cost savings was to change his method of farming. He has stopped tilling the soil (turning it over before planting), and he leaves the stalks behind when harvesting so they can become mulch. The soil is now rich and earthy with a healthy population of worms, and his fuel consumption has dropped from 6,000 gallons a year to 3,600.

He grows his own feed corn, soybeans and alfalfa, but he buys brewers malt that he mixes in with the rest to feed the cows.

Although nearing retirement age, the Fryes plan to keep working. They have contributed to Social Security as required by law, and Mrs. Frye puts about $50 a month into her Individual Retirement Account.

Mr. Sheppard, the farm agent who works with the Fryes, said, "People think there is some unseen force pushing out small farmers. In reality, the unseen force is a seen force. It's 'what is the margin?' and 'what am I creating here?' Those forces, those pressures, are really what's driving us toward large farms."

He said the efficiencies allowed by having large farms, such as those out west with 10,000 cow herds milked automatically, make the operations more profitable.

"There's nothing beyond the sheer economics of the industry," he said, that is driving out

small farms.

While money is an issue, Mrs. Frye said it is not the only consideration.

"Our work is our life," she said. "It's not a job, it's just what we do."

The couple raised three sons on the farm. This summer two of their seven grandchildren are working with heifers to show at the Westmoreland County Fair.

"What we have is something you cannot buy," Mrs. Frye said. "We have our health. We have a wonderful family. We have our farm."

mobilehome - businessnews - lifestyle

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM


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