Down on the Farm Ch. 06byRabbitrunner91©
It was January 26th and I remember looking up from my work to see Chuck drive up to the milk house. Chuck was the local milk inspector who would visit about every three weeks. Even though it was always unannounced all the local dairy farmers knew close to when he would appear on our doorsteps. He stepped out of his truck and I greeted him. Over the past few months I'd come to know him well. He carried his checklist on a clipboard and silently began his inspection. As we always received above average scores, I wasn't concerned. He would often point out something that needed improvement, which I would always do. Today was no different and he passed along the check off list with a couple recommendations.
That's when he said, "Mark, the milk company will be closing down at the end of this year."
That caught my attention real quick.
"It's been loosing money and the owners are considering selling to a corporation in Kansas City."
"So where are the local farmers to sell our milk?" I ask.
"Don't know. This definitely will put some of them under. You've got the largest herd around, so you could likely get some hauler, but it'd be costly. This isn't good news and I'm supposed to let everyone know."
"We have till the end of this year? Is that right?"
"Yeah, that'll allow 11 months to plan. Company had fought hard to stay in business. There simply isno't enough milk around here to make a profit. The owners figured if there were a couple more herds locally, they could make it. But with the cost of starting up, no one'll be doing that. Looks like the dairy business around here's going to die out. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news."
We talked for another hour about conditions, prices, markets and business. It was close to noon when he pulled out our drive. If the milk company closes its doors it'll put a huge dent in the income for Edith. There'd be no way Trish and I could make a 'go' of the farm alone. It's the dairy that was the money maker. Slowly I walked to the house. Our whole world was going to collapse and we could do nothing about it.
I walked in the door and Trish came bounding towards me to give me a kiss. She looks at my face and knows something is wrong. "We fail the inspection?"
"Wish that were all. Looks like we're going out of business before we even get started."
Trish stops cold and is watching my 'long' face. Edith heard the last comment and was standing in the kitchen door. "What'd you say?"
Slowly I explained what Chuck had shared. Edith didn't say anything, but then, she didn't need to. All she and Bud had worked for over these past several years would be gone. No one would buy the dairy, and the small farm couldn't provide income to support any of us. The dairy operation was what made this business profitable. The three of us sat around the kitchen table and talked. It wasn't happy talk, it was talk about the death of an industry. The milk company provided jobs for many folks, plus keeping scores of farms in the 'black'. We had a dairymen's association which met once a quarter. Most of the men ran small herds of 20 cows. There were a couple who ran 30+ head, while Edith's was the largest by far. Right now we milked 78 cows. Edith pulled out some business records and did some figuring on paper. When the milk company closed, we'd need to hire a hauler to carry our milk to market. That would add a sizable cost to the business and in effect eat all the profit we were making. We'd have to shut down.
Looking at the clock on the wall, I ask "What time is it?"
"One o'clock." Trish volunteers.
"I'm going to town. Want to come along?"
"Where're you going?" Edith asks.
"To talk to the milk company. Are you coming?"
"No, I'm staying here."
Trish and I get up and are walking out the door, when Edith pipes up. "Changed my mind. Think I'll tag along."
"Better tell the girls to start the chores, in case we don't make it back in time."
Edith turns around and goes to Sam's room. That done, the three of us jump in the pickup and are down the road. "What made you change your mind and decide to ride?" I asked Edith.
"I didn't say anything?"
"You didn't have to. Good luck seems to follow you and I want to see where this is going."
"We're going to need more than good luck on this problem. We're going to need a miracle."
Lost in our own thoughts we ride in silence the rest of the way. I pull into the parking lot and the three of us walk into the office. The phone is ringing and I hear one of the ladies explain to the caller that the rumor is true, the milk company will be closing by year's end. I figure Chuck had told a couple other farmers and they'd called other members of the association. Now everyone was calling here to verify.
Edith spoke to the receptionist and asked to talk to the owner, Mr. Johnson. "Do you have an appointment?"
"No, we don't."
"Just a minute, let me ask if he can see you." She lifts her handset and speaks a few words, listens a moment, then places it back in the cradle. "Can you give him ten minutes? He can talk with you then."
We agree and take a seat on the chairs. I pick up a magazine and look at the lead article. Some farmer in Wisconsin had just purchased a new herringbone system and was able to turn a larger profit. I'd heard of them but didn't know anything, so was busy reading when we were called to enter the office.
We are ushered in and are greeted by Mr. Johnson. "Edith, it's good to see you again. Mark, how are you doing? I heard that you and Trish are going to be married this summer."
Mr. Johnson was in his 50's, was showing a bit of a 'belly' but otherwise looked fit. What amazed me was that he knew us all by name, even though I'd only met him once. He took a special interest in his suppliers. He shook our hands and invited us to take a seat, which we do. "How can I help you?" He asked. Then he changed gears, "I suppose you're here about the news."
"Yeah, I heard from Chuck, this morning." I said, taking the lead. "What's happening that you have to shutdown?" I asked.
"It's the proverbial 'price cost' squeeze. The price of fuel jump, the power company raised their rates, last year the Union wanted extra benefits, and milk prices have been inching lower. All of this means I'm not making any money. In addition, two farmers will be selling out this year plus Mr. Peterson is old and wants to retire. I no longer can make it. If there were a 50% increase in production I could move into the 'black' column. But that'd mean two or three new dairies. You know as well as I do, that'll not happen in this part of the country. Oh, yeah, there are new government inspection regulations that will cost me a bundle too."
"You just going to close your doors?" Edith asked.
"Unless I can sell. But the only interested buyer is in Kansas City. I've talked to them and the price he's offered me is a mere pittance of what this company is worth. It'd cost me more to sell, than to just shut down. I had a meeting with the workers here today and told them the news. Everyone's still in shock."
"If you close, that'll be a sizable portion of the community with out work. Folks will leave. Only the college and the plastics plant will be the large employers around here." Edith commented.
"Sorry Edith, I don't have a choice. If there were another option, I just don't see it."
We chatted a while longer, then rose to leave. He thanked us for stopping by, we shook and left. On the way home I was silent, thinking. Trish was downcast and Edith was watching me. We reached home before Becky and Sam had started milking, I asked them to go ahead and start, I'd be out in a bit.
"Edith, do you have that annual report from the milk company? And where is that association pamphlet? It was around here the other day."
She dug under a pile of newspapers, retrieving the information I was requesting. Taking a pencil, I began scrawling some numbers and added up the figures. "Mark, what're you doing?" Trish asked.
"Leave him alone, Trish. He's working on a plan." Edith said. "Go help your sisters with the chores. We'll be out in a bit."
Trish dutifully got her coat on and went to the barn.
"What're you thinking?" Edith asked. "You're thinking of something."
I looked up from my work and held her gaze. "Give me a minute." Returning to the figures, I add up the numbers and look at the results. It was a long shot, a real long shot. "You'll not like this, Edith." I finally comment.
"You turn over the deed of the farm to me, and then you and I become full partners with the dairy. All this with no cost." I stopped.
"You're right, I don't like it." She paused. "But that's not all, is it?"
"No. There are a large number of pieces and they all have to come together. If one piece fails, the plan will tumble like a house of cards."
"Let me hear it." She encourages.
"There are a lot of parts, and there is no control over any of them, except our piece. It's the largest one, but it requires everything to be agreed upon."
"First, you would have to give Trish and me the farm at no cost. Next, I would need to get a business loan of $500,000, maybe more, and would double the size of the herd with an improved milking parlor, new equipment, upgrades, etc. This would change it from a family farm, to a business and it won't be easy. Next, I figure each member of the association would have to increase their herds by an average of 3 cows. Some couldn't afford that, but others may be able to pick up the difference. From our meeting today, Mr. Johnson indicated that if, and its a big IF, he had an increase of 50% supply of milk he'd be in the black. By these figures the increase would be nearer 70% which gives a cushion for unknown factors. Also he'd have to agree to a fixed price for our milk for 24 months. That can be dangerous as his selling price will fluctuate. The Union would also have to agree to a wage freeze and benefits cut, better would be a wage cut. Here are my figures."
"Gosh almighty, Mark. You're asking for a miracle." Edith commented as she examined the papers.
"Yeah, I know. Probably won't work anyway. Just an idea I had." With that I left and returned to the cows.
Trish met me at the barn door. The business part she didn't fully comprehend but the loss of the dairy was clear in her thinking. "So what's going to happen now?"
"Our dairy farm shuts down and your mom looses the farm."
"What about us?" she asked wondering about the wedding.
I had an urge to tease but suppressed it. "Our wedding plans will stay the same but what we do or where we go is up for grabs."
The chores were completed with relative silence and we trudged back to the house.
The next several days were routinely performed. I attended classes, however without enthusiasm and farm work was carried out. What was the purpose? Edith called a number of other dairymen to learn their status or strategy. She also called the lawyer as our plans were changing.
"Mark?" Edith called.
I turned to face her where she sat in the living room. "Yeah?" I responded.
"I think your idea can work."
Trish came up beside me and I put my arm around her. I didn't say anything.
"Come here. Let me show you. I've made a couple adjustments but otherwise it's the same."
Trish and I took a seat beside her, she handed 'plan' to me. What Edith had done was itemize events to what I'd shared and put it into an organized manner. There were some highlighted points and notes added to explain more clearly. Edith is talking and I'm listening.
"I talked to the lawyer and he thinks its 'off the wall'. Its legal but whether all would be agreeable, that's the point." She continued, "If we were to send a copy of this plan to everyone on this list," she held in her other hand, "they could offer their input. We'd have to sell them on the idea."
I still haven't said anything but am thinking. Trish takes the papers and comments, "Mom, you'd give us the farm? That doesn't leave you with anything."
"Yes it would. This whole plan is a gamble. If it were to work, I think my son-in-law would make things right. Besides I want to be a full partner with the two of you in this dairy business. If it's to work, all of us will be fully involved plus we'll have to work hard."
"Why do you have to give us the farm?" Trish asked.
For the first time I spoke. "Two reasons; to obtain a loan, the bank'll want collateral. Second the bank cannot come after your mom if the plan fails. With my name on the deed, it's me they come after."
Turning to Edith, "Lets call a meeting of everyone involved and present the plan. All parties could have input."
"What if they don't agree?" Trish asked.
"The milk company closes its doors, the farmers sell out, and the community looses through lost jobs and lost revenue. Nothing would be changed from the current status. On the other hand, should we be able to convince them of the potential, we could all come out winners."
"We're taking the largest gamble, Mark." said Edith.
"I know. And we have the most to loose."
"And a lot to gain." Trish finished. "So where do we go from here?"
Edith and I looked at each other. "Mr. Johnson." We said in unison.
The next morning we had the three girls finish up chores while the two of us went to visit the milk company. Mr. Johnson was in and we were shown into his office. "It's nice to see you again. How can I be of service today?"
"What would it take to keep you in business?" I asked, getting right to the point.
His ready answer told me he'd thought this through very thoroughly. "A 50% increase in the milk supply plus some pressure off my debts."
Looking at Edith and smiling, I turned back to him. "If we could come up with a plan which would guarantee at least that much milk, maybe more, and get the Union to release the burden of the benefits increase, would that suffice?"
Mr. Johnson appeared to be a very genial man; but at that moment I had his full and rapt attention. "And just how would you accomplish this?"
Edith removed the plan report from the folder and slid it across the desk. He opened and started reading. I watched his face which became very animated as he read. He read it through completely and re-read it a second time. Removing his glasses he looked at us. "You're willing to take this gamble?"
"Yes we are, sir."
"This plan could be carried out without the price lock on milk."
"Maybe, But we won't proceed without it. Everyone has to sacrifice something. We're taking the largest chance and if the price of milk doesn't remain steady for the next two years we won't have the ability to become profitable. Otherwise we'll become bogged in debt and the end will be the same. You'll gain in two ways. First you stay in business. Second there is an extra 20% cushion in supply."
He nodded, knowing the reasoning was sound. "What about the union? Think we can talk them into their concession?"
He'd changed pronouns from 'you' to 'we'. "If they don't, their members become unemployed by the end of the year. By agreeing, they gain like everyone else."
"So what do we do next? It's your plan, you should present it."
"Fair enough. Do you have a room large enough to hold everyone?"
"Good. I want you to call a meeting and send a copy of this plan to all involved. We'll have our lawyer attend to answer any legal questions. Along with this information, include a summary of the up sides and the down sides. Here's the kicker, if everyone doesn't agree, then we back out. It's all or nothing. Notice in the plan, there are some things which are negotiable and they're plainly marked. Bottom line, I need the complete support of everyone involved. When I apply for the loan, we'll need full agreement by all parties."
"Son, I like your pluck. The two of you are willing to go out on a limb to help."
Our discussion lasted another half hour before we left. He promised to schedule a meeting by the end of February. This would generate a lot of talk, we were sure.
Driving home, Edith embarrassed me. "Mark, there's something about you that amazes me. It's not luck, but I don't know what else to call it. Everything you do, prospers. You can come up with the strangest ideas, yet they work, and they're good. I'm proud of you. I'm also happy you and Trish will be getting married."
"This plan isn't working yet."
"But it will. You wait and see. I'm trusting God. It will."
Arriving home, Trish met us and gave me a kiss through the car window. "Amy's having trouble walking. I think you should look at her."
Edith follows us and we hear Sam and Becky arguing about something as we draw near. They stop when they see us and we turn our attention to the cow. I walk behind her and urge her to walk around. Couldn't tell for certain but figure she slipped on a patch of wet concrete and was strained. "Put her in the pen, over there. Let's see how she is by morning."
Edith opened the gate and slowly walked her in.
"So what's your disagreement about?" I ask the two.
Becky answers. "We're getting tired of doing the chores all the time while you go to town."
Trish started to answer as I hold up my hand.
"What's the real problem Becky?"
"I want to be the Maid of Honor." She whined.
"We haven't made any decisions yet." Trish answered. "Becky, you'll be in the wedding, and you'll have an important part. We haven't made all the plans. Please don't argue, you two."
Two weeks passed and many visitors drove into our drive. Trish, Edith and I would often be in conversation. When other options were suggested we listened and raised questions to their ideas. A couple days before the meeting, a different visitor showed on our doorstep. The local TV station had heard of the milk company's closure, had received a copy of our idea and now wanted to know more about us. Edith deferred them to me and then went inside the house. She had no inclination to be filmed for a news broadcast.
I greeted the team, a photographer running the camera and the interviewer. Being wary, I agreed to answer their questions off camera and they could film the barn, cows, and milking parlor, but none of us. This wasn't exactly what they wanted, but in the end they were willing. He'd read the proposal and wanted to zero in on the improvements we wanted to do. Giving a general idea, I explained we wanted to double the size of the herd, build a new milk house, milking parlor and all new equipment. The parlor would have a double 8 herringbone; the cows would be divided into two herds and special attention given to diet. All of this would require excellent records so a computer system would be part of the new operation.
The next concern I was asked, dealt with the union. How could I possibly expect them to accept a reduction in benefits or wages? At this point I halted the interview and explained, if this question was to be included in the final report, my answer would have to be included in its entirety and unedited. This raised their eyebrows and they attempted to get me to relent. I held firm, even when they threatened to not run the story at all. "We're not the ones that make the decision on what would be included." Was their argument.
"Then simply inform those who do make the decision, that this is only way I will agree."
In the end they accepted my request. My explanation went much the same I had given to Mr. Johnson. Everyone involved with this proposal would have to give up something. In the case of the union, they'd received a tremendous raise in benefits this past year and according to the proposal they'd have to sacrifice this increase.
"What if they refuse?" I was asked.
"Then about 750 people will be out of work by the end of the year. I'm taking a tremendous gamble and will be bearing the greatest potential for loss. If this plan is to succeed, everyone must make a sacrifice. Everyone; no exceptions."