92 / 365 – Gamblers

JACKIE CAMPBELL

Farmers are gamblers by nature. I think you have to be, to stake your whole year’s income on things you put in the ground in the late spring and hope it all turns out and the futures markets are going to be going your way sometime by the time you pull it out of the ground in the fall. Oh, and borrow half a million dollars for the machinery you need to do that, and maybe carry a million-dollar note for your land while you’re at it. I was never the gambling time. I never drive down to the casino on Spirit Lake. I’d rather stay at home and watch something on TV any day.

We tried it for awhile, when we were first married. You could get the land then, reasonably. We had a couple quarter sections. We worked hard and we did OK. We never had a great year of it. When the bottom fell out about twenty years ago, we got out. You’ve got to have a banker to make all that work, all the notes for the land, for the combines, for the seed, for all the chemicals. That wasn’t so bad a cost when we were farming, but my god, you should see what they have to put on now. One chemical for this, one for that. Used to be after you got things planted you were fighting weeds for two months, hiring migrants to do that. Now you’re just driving a sprayer around.

About twenty years ago my husband went in to the bank and we couldn’t get a loan. They were asking something crazy, like twenty percent. I knew some people dug into their savings, and a lot of people had to walk away. There were a lot of farm sales that year, people losing everything, moving away. Some of them, from families around here, it’s like they blew away on the wind. You want to ask how they are. Everybody’s got a cousin or an aunt or uncle around, or their family is still holding onto a farm somewhere. But you don’t ask. You wait for it to come up. And it never does. It’s quiet here, and it just becomes some of the quiet.

We were lucky. We got out a year or so before we were really busted by it, and we were able to buy a house here in town. So many people ended up with nothing. You wonder what they did next.

I grew up on a farm, one over towards Devil’s Lake, and Dan grew up on one north of here. Even though we’d been farming neither of us had it in our blood to do it, the way some do, where a guy always knows he wants to be a farmer. Dan was able to get a job at the plant. I’ve had jobs like at the C-store, here. The kids have grown up in town. Can’t believe it, one is done with school and he wants to come back and farm. Wants to try bison, if you can believe that. I guess all that school didn’t make them smart. Or his wife, either. His younger brother is still at Grand Forks, UND. Then there’s the last two to get through high school. I look at them and I think, I did all right.

And I guess you never get away from farming. Since we’ve been back in town, Dan’s parents passed on and we’ve taken over the farm. It’s up in a little community north of town, Gwyneth, although there’s no town there any more, just a church that was closed when Dan was growing up. Every year they predict that the wind will finally blow the steeple off or the roof in but not yet. I guess once there was a little more there, a store and a bar, Dan says — the bar outlived the church, wouldn’t you know it. But those are gone now. The wind did blow those down.

Dan’s parents’ place was just a quarter section and we don’t try to plant it. The ground on a lot of it rolls too much, hard for these big combines they use now. His dad was just letting it run in cattle. That’s easier to manage with a day job anyway. We’ve been running forty, fifty head, so long as the market’s good. Now my oldest is trying to talk us into bison. Says they’ll do better, and bring in a better price. I can just see Dan hauling in bison to the locker plant. They’d love that.

But that’s farmers. Full of wild ideas and they want to take a chance on them. Up here, though, you have to balance that to make it work. People who settled up here, who did well, the old German and Norwegian families, they weren’t wild people. Pretty conservative, pretty frugal — too much that way, if you asked me, when I was growing up. That helped them get through the bad years, and I’ve been around here long enough, I’ve seen the cycles, the good years and the bad years. We have a lot more of the bad kind and you have to have saved up enough to get through them. The people who first settled here, came with nothing, nothing much. My grandmother used to tell me stories, stories from her mother and grandmother. They were taking the big chance coming here — that was their gamble. They were careful. Now, though, people aren’t living so carefully. You hope the next down cycle doesn’t come and bankrupt everybody.

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