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Close Up: Family farmers persevere against trends

8/1/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: "Close Up" is a regular UMNS and UMC.org feature that takes an in-depth look at issues and trends. Sidebars - UMNS stories #391 and #392 - and photographs are available.

A UMNS-UMC.org Report By Kathy L. Gilbert*

















MEDFORD, Okla. - The big, red truck looks like a traveling gray cloud of dust as it passes the house.

Beryl Kindred, 78, is on his way to the grain elevator in nearby Jefferson, Okla., with 12 tons of wheat. He will make quite a few runs down the dusty road today because it's a good day for cutting.

Kindred, his son, Lynn, and grandson, Russell, are cutting one of their last quarters (160 acres) of hard red winter wheat for the 2003 harvest season. Lynn's wife, Sheron, and their daughter, Jennifer, help drive loads of wheat to the grain elevator. Shirley, Beryl's wife, is home preparing supper to bring to the field. On the weekend, Beryl's other son, Richard, and his wife, Carlan, will be down to help with the harvest.

June is harvest time. The hours are long, and the work is dirty and hot.

The Kindreds are one of America's farm families, providing food for the world. They live and work on land that has been in their family for generations. Beryl and Shirley are the very definition of people who are the "salt of the earth."

The life of a family farmer is not easy, and it is getting harder for a variety of complex reasons. Control in many areas is shifting to large corporations. Farmers must contend with low market prices as well as increased competition from imports. And young people are moving out of rural areas, leaving many retiring farmers without a successor. The percentage of the U.S. population living on family farms has fallen from 25 percent in the 1930s to about 2 percent today, according to Oxfam America.

The United Methodist Church has long affirmed the value of family farms. In its Book of Discipline, the church recognizes that the survival of independent farmers worldwide is being threatened by "the increasing concentration of all phases of agriculture into the hands of a limited number of transnational corporations."

"We call upon our churches to do all in their power to speak prophetically to the matters of food supply and the people who grow the food for the world," the church states in Paragraph 163h of its Social Principles, which are included in the book. The church's Book of Resolutions also calls for justice and equitable prices for farm families.

Providing our daily bread

Ask Beryl how much land he owns and he says, "Too much to work." But he is smiling when he says it. He has been on a tractor or some kind of farm equipment since he was about 8 years old. His father and grandfather farmed the same area of north central Oklahoma.

He married a "town girl" in 1945 and brought in his first crop of wheat when he was 21.

He took time away from the farm from 1943 to 1945 to be a tail gunner in a B-17 bomber during World War II. He was with the 8th Air Force, 303rd Bombardment Group, in England, flying daylight raids across the English Channel into Nazi-occupied Europe.

"I was 19 years old, up in the sky flying backwards, without a worry in the world," he says.

His fiancée, 18-year-old Shirley, was back home praying for his safe return.

Shirley has done a lot of praying over the years.

"I wasn't used to the struggle of farmers," Shirley says about the early years. "There were times when I was tired and I wished he was in some other business."

Like the year they couldn't afford insurance, and hail devastated the entire crop.

"I didn't buy many dresses that year, and we didn't go to many movies," Shirley says. That's about all she offers on how tough times were then.

Sitting under the shade of their carport, Shirley and Beryl talk about their years together.

"There have been some good times," she says. "The best time was when I got him."

He laughs when she says that. "Oh, yeah?"

It's equally hard to get Beryl to admit to any hard times. He will say farming is a "rat race."

"But that's life," he says. "You don't weaken."

Brilliant managers

Jake Kellin, the farm service agent for Grant County, will tell you about the hardships farmers today are facing. Grant County is a leader in Oklahoma agriculture production and is usually the state's largest producer of wheat.

The price of wheat is at a 1970s level of about $2.70 a bushel, so every harvest counts, and farmers can't afford to make any mistakes.

"Marketing is crucial to a farm," Kellin says. "It can be the difference between handing the farm down to the next generation and foreclosure.

"It's a fight sometimes. Some farmers are winning, and some are not."

The farmer's share of each food dollar has fallen from 41 cents in 1950 to 20 cents in 1999, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. The income is so low that many farmers are forced to work an additional job or rely on their spouse's paycheck. In 1998, U.S. farmers earned an average of $7,000 a year from farming operations.

Though they help out on the family farm, the Kindreds have diverse careers. Sheron works for Cyrus Oil Co. in Enid, Okla. Richard and Carlan both work in nearby Blackwell; he is at Cox Cable, and she is administrator for the Department of Human Services for Kay County. Their sons, David and Brian, also work away from the farm.

Those who remain in farming must have a wide range of skills in order to survive.

"These guys are brilliant," Kellin says. "They should be in a think tank somewhere. They have to be good managers, engineers - you name it. All the equipment that farmers have today was dreamed up by them to increase the production of their fields. They continue to do that."

Kent Prickett is the manager of the Farmer Grain Co-op in Pond Creek, Okla. The Kindreds are among the co-op's 1,400 members.

"We have all farm families in this area," Prickett says. "Most of the land around here stays in the family. We also have several farmers who are under 40 years old. That is not typical of the rest of Oklahoma."

Nor is it typical for much of the United States. Instead of taking over the family farm, many young people are leaving their rural communities for careers in cities. Nearly half of all farmers are older than 55, and only 8 percent are under 35, according to Department of Agriculture figures from 1997.

Retirement was responsible for the loss of U.S. farmers throughout most of the last century, says Bill Heffernan, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri and farmer.

Without their children succeeding them, many retiring farmers sell their land to neighboring producers, increasing the size of the family farms that remain in business.

Lynn and Sheron's daughter, Jennifer, has already said she doesn't plan to farm when she graduates from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. They are not sure Russell will want to stay on the family farm after he finishes at Oklahoma Northwestern College in Alva.

"We are not pushing him," Sheron says.

But Russell, who owns land and co-owns equipment with his grandfather, seems to have his heart in farming. If he does pursue it as a career, he will be working in an industry that has changed markedly from the time when his father and grandfather began.

"There have been significant changes in farming over the last 20 years," Prickett says. "Farmers are being forced to farm on a larger scale and depend more on technology."

Area yields for the last couple of years have been normal to below normal. Prickett and Kellin are optimistic about the 2003 crop.

"Things are looking good in Grant County," Kellin says. "The farmers are looking a little bit happier."

Faithful living

Faith and farming go hand in hand.

"I think farmers must be the most faithful people on earth," says Sheron Kindred. "They are totally dependent upon the land and the weather, and they just keep at it year after year."

The Rev. Terry Koehn, who had served until recently as pastor of Pond Creek United Methodist Church - where the Kindreds are members - sees a seamless connection between church and community.

"We are caught up in the sense that this is not a 9-5 workday," he says. "… We depend upon the cycle of nature, and that is a good thing."

Koehn points out the irony of sitting in a district that is one of the state's richest agricultural areas but is also sparsely populated. "There used to be a farm house on every quarter," he says. The farmland is plenty, but the number of farm workers is decreasing.

The rural farm community is not untouched by some big-city problems, such as the presence of drugs on nearby Highway 81 and Interstate 35, he says.

"There are no romantic notions out here," the pastor says. "We have our own problems. Yet at the same time, my keys are laying on the front seat of my car right now."

Being a pastor in a rural community means being aware of the seasons and the hardships.
"I have learned when to show up at the co-op and when to stay away," he says.

Just as called for in the Book of Resolutions (192.2), Koehn stands as a caring bridge between the church and the community.

"I pray for the safety of the harvest. I get told when to pray for rain and when to pray for the rain to stop," he says, laughing. "I tell them the good Lord has been making weather forever and He knows what to do."
# # #
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. UMNS writer Joretta Purdue contributed to this report.

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