When we started considering raising turkeys, we were told it was a lifetime commitment. We couldn’t just try it out for a while and quit if we wanted. We were in it for the long haul.
And for the most part, our decision has paid off. We’ve had it good – truly been “living the dream.” Although Bart works long hours and has a lot of responsibility, we’re comfortable financially, and I’m able to prioritize flexibility and family over finances in my career. Our boys get to work side by side with their dad and learn the values that are important to us – hard work, dedication, and faith.
Faith. Farmers have to have faith. Our livelihoods are full of risk, but most of the time, we are able to keep the faith that everything will work out. Every spring, farmers take out loans and make an investment – one that’s riskier than almost any on Wall Street. They risk their family’s financial future on tiny little seeds in the ground, praying that the weather and pests cooperate so they will have a crop to harvest (and a return on their investment) in the fall.
As bird flu rages in Northern Iowa, we are trying to keep the faith. Like the grain farmers around us, we continue to make an investment in the future – every two months, we get a new flock of turkeys and try to have faith that nearly 6 months later, they’ll be healthy and ready to go to market.
The news seems to focus on the financial implications of the outbreak. And those are important. The poultry industry in Iowa is huge – we’re #1 in the nation for layer hens (eggs) and #9 for turkeys. Poultry eat corn and soybeans, which means that devastation of the industry could have drastic effects on grain farmers, too.
But what’s really at risk? Farms like mine – family farms who have been raising poultry for generations. If this epidemic continues, poultry farmers may not make it.
So is it worth the risk to keep raising turkeys? Should we put another new flock in our barns in a few weeks, or is it smarter to wait it out and see if the epidemic subsides?
The answer to that question is that we don’t have a choice anymore. We chose, in 2009, to raise turkeys for the rest of our lives. Instead of taking out a loan in the spring and hoping it pays off in the fall, we took out a loan for 5 new barns and hope to pay it off in 2019. We are committed to this, financially and emotionally.
If bird flu hit our farm, it would mean 12-18 months without income from the turkeys. We live off our turkey income, but we also use it to pay the debts we owe on our barns. Quite frankly, we can’t make loan payments if we don’t have healthy turkeys going to market.
Bart and I have been playing out the scenarios in our mind since we heard about the first outbreak in Minnesota, more than 2 months ago. What would we do? What equipment could we “liquidate” to help us make payments? What would we do if we go bankrupt?
We’re trying really, really hard to keep the faith and believe that bird flu will NOT hit our farm. We’re also trying really, really hard to stay positive about the outcome if it does.
We could move to town, and live in a 1 story house with the washer and dryer on the main floor. Bart could have a “town job” where he would work normal hours and wouldn’t carry stress home with him (like when we were first married and he worked for the USDA.) I could get a full-time job – our boys will both be in school next year, so they don’t need me home during the day. The boys could ride their bikes to the park with their friends and play pick-up games of basketball with the neighbors.
But we couldn’t live where we’d have to drive by our farm – emotionally, we wouldn’t be able to handle seeing it regularly. It would just be too hard.
We’ll fight to the end for our farm. We will keep raising new flocks as long as we can. And if we get bird flu, we’ll do our damnedest to get through it and raise turkeys again. Because, as hard as it is at times, we have faith that everything will work out, and that the risks we take will someday pay off, hopefully in the form of a farm (and legacy) to pass down to the next generation of Iowa’s turkey farmers.
(Family photo by Joe Murphy)