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Going Against the Grain, Iowa Boy Wants to Farm

Originally Published in The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 2002

LA PORTE CITY, Iowa -- Rich and Shelly Docekal are wondering where they went wrong in raising their 17-year-old son. His trouble isn't drugs, gangs or fast cars. It's a rural temptation: He wants to be a farmer.

"I almost feel sorry for him," says Rich Docekal, 49, who farms about 900 acres of soybeans and corn. "This is what he wants to do. But it's just not possible."

Down on the farm, times are so hard that a desire to raise crops is viewed as a sign of misguided youth. Not that it afflicts many young people here. Half the students at Union High School, located deep in crop country, have grown up on farms. Yet a recent survey showed that of the 97 Union High seniors this year, only one wants to be a farmer: Joe Docekal.

The boy's reasoning is simple. Farming is what his father, grandfather and great-grandfather did. It is what he knows. "As soon as you get into high school they start bugging you: 'What are you going to do?' " says Joe, a Matt Damon lookalike. "Well, I already know how to be a farmer and I know I like it."

Back when Rich Docekal graduated from high school, almost every kid wanted to be a farmer, and parents worried about those who didn't. But today, corn sells for about $2.50 a bushel -- a good 50 cents less than when Mr. Docekal started. Increased production has suppressed prices, ensuring profitability for only the highest-volume players. The number of farms in Iowa has declined by more than 25,000 to 93,500 since 1980, while the average farm size has jumped to 350 acres from 284. Mr. Docekal believes he is one of only two members of his high-school class still farming.

When Joe first said he wanted to be a farmer, at age 14, his parents hoped this dream would pass. But as senior year started this fall, Joe still talked of somehow running his own farm, even as his classmates began preparing for college or the military.

A farm girl herself, Shelly Docekal, 43, used to love working the fields with her husband. "Rich could always count on me and I could count on him," she recalls. "There wasn't anything I wouldn't do to help. Hop in there and spray and drive and keep your rows straight. It's a family effort."

But then the economics of farming deteriorated. Mrs. Docekal had to quit the farm about six years ago and go to work in Waterloo, a city of 67,000 about 20 miles from her home. She's now a manager at a department store. She recalls how hard it was to explain this career move to her grandmother, to tell her how the family farm no longer yielded enough money to support a family. She wants her son to avoid any such heartache. "A big part of me, as his mom, doesn't want to see him go through the pain and frustration of trying and not making it," she says. "I see the small farm being a thing of the past."

Rich Docekal blames himself for his only son's desire to farm. When as a young boy Joe showed interest in farming, Mr. Docekal was glad. It meant he could have his son move machinery around the barn and take over in the fields for short stretches. He enjoyed the companionship and the free labor.

But it never occurred to him that Joe would want to farm on his own. He assumed Joe would be scared off by the same things that had been scaring farm boys for 20 years -- the news reports, the Farm Aid concerts, the TV shows and movies that always seemed to portray farmers as struggling mopes. Even Future Farmers of America, an agricultural education group for young people, says the overwhelming majority of its members are not future farmers at all. The 75-year-old nonprofit organization now calls itself FFA -- just the initials -- and only 4% of its 461,000 members are considering a career in ranching or farming, according to a recent survey.

So why did Rich Docekal's boy get the urge to farm? "It kinda grew on me," Joe says. He can remember when his mother, father and grandmother all worked the same land, how they all operated on the same schedule, full of hope in the spring, sweat in the summer, and, finally, relief in the fall.

Looking back, Mr. Docekal wonders if maybe he should have let the boy sit on his lap while he balanced the checkbook instead of when he drove the tractor. "It takes so much money," he says. "Somebody from the business world would come out here and think we're insane."

Mr. Docekal borrows about $200,000 every year from the bank for everything from seed to diesel fuel. He receives about $20,000 a year in government subsidies. After expenses and debt repayment -- and assuming the crop grows well and prices stay firm -- he is lucky if as much as $35,000 falls to the bottom line. This is why Mr. Docekal, like his wife, works a job off the farm. Winters, he is a truck driver.

Farming isn't just "the hands-on, mechanical, get-dirty kind of work anymore," he says. "You gotta use your head a little more, I guess. I went to some marketing classes. I wish Joe'd went with me." Without that help, Joe will be lost when it comes time to sell his crop, his dad says. "A lot of it's watching the market, watching trends. It's not an easy task."

When Mr. Docekal was beginning his career, young farmers often raised pigs. The start-up costs were low, and as the animals multiplied, so did the farmers' collateral. But now swine are raised in huge, factory-style operations. Upstarts can hardly compete.

The farmer has pulled his son aside several times this fall and tried to explain his concerns. Mr. Docekal pointed out that he owns none of the land he farms. About 160 acres belong to his wife's family, which means it could someday belong to Joe. But that's not nearly enough to support a family. Mr. Docekal rents the rest of the land he works from neighbors, and that means he couldn't leave it to his children if he wanted to.

Mr. Docekal is also in no position to make Joe a partner. He and his wife have three other children -- two girls in college and "a tail-ender," as Mr. Docekal describes his six-year-old daughter. He doesn't plan to retire anytime soon.

Yet unlike his wife, who flatly tells their son that farming is not an option, Mr. Docekal is conflicted. He can't hide his love of farming, or the pride he feels in his son's desire to follow him. Sometimes Mr. Docekal wavers and encourages Joe not to give up. Maybe you should knock on doors and hand out your phone number, he suggested to his son just the other day, so that everyone in town knows you're looking to rent farmland.

The community itself sends a mixed message to its children. On the one hand, it venerates farmers, celebrating their values, work ethic and way of life. Farmer Appreciation Day is an annual tradition at Union High.

On the other hand, if a student enters the office of Phil Winther, Union High guidance counselor, and expresses an interest in farming, "the first thing I do is I take his temperature," says Mr. Winther. He laughs, but he doesn't think it's funny. He wishes he could encourage students such as Joe to pursue farming.

"For someone right out of high school, I wouldn't say it's impossible," says Mr. Winther. "But, boy. ... First of all you'd have to get a banker to go along with you. You have to have some capital. But a tractor costs so much you've got nothing left to put in the field behind you."

Joe hasn't spoken to a banker yet. But if he were to call Bruce Clark at Union Planters Bank in nearby Dysart, where his father banks, Mr. Clark would tell him he needs to start out with a nonfarm job, then gradually work his way into raising crops. There are federal incentive programs for young farmers, Mr. Clark says, but they're not generous enough to jump-start someone who hasn't already saved some money. This is why only 1% of American farms are operated by people under age 25.

"Look at Joe's dad," says Mr. Clark. "He's been farming quite a while and he still works off-farm and off-season. And his mom works off-farm too."

Joe gets much the same message at school. His first class of the day is agriculture, taught by Louis Beck, who also leads Union High's FFA chapter. Bumper stickers attached to file cabinets in his classroom express Mr. Beck's position on the industry: "Hogs are Beautiful."

But few students hear Mr. Beck's thoughts and lessons on agriculture. Joe is one of only nine students in the senior agriculture class this fall. And those who do take the elective don't receive encouragement from Mr. Beck to become farmers. Since farming itself offers few prospects, Mr. Beck tells his students to try to find jobs that allow them to work around agriculture and stay in their hometown. "I see the future for these students not in producing but in supporting those who produce," Mr. Beck says.

This fall, Mr. Beck tells Joe there are plenty of good jobs in agriculture beyond farming. The agriculture teacher himself is an example of that. Mr. Beck grew up on a nearby farm. He and his four brothers all were active in FFA, but as they graduated from school none felt he could make a living at farming. If Joe got a job supporting agriculture -- perhaps in sales or maintenance -- he could always help his father on weekends, Mr. Beck tells him. At age 45, Mr. Beck still helps out at Porkland Farms, his father's operation.

Mr. Beck says he's not trying to discourage Joe, but he wants him to know exactly what he's getting into.

Joe listens to his teachers and parents. He doesn't get angry. But he tells his parents that he thinks they're wrong. It's not as if his goal is to become a professional athlete or a brain surgeon, he says. That would be unrealistic. He lives entirely surrounded by farms, and he wants to be a farmer. He can't understand why it should be so difficult.

"I just think they're being too skeptical," he says. "Yeah, it'll be hard, but it's not going to be impossible."

Some small farmers are surviving, even thriving, these days by serving niche markets -- crops that are organic, for instance, or not genetically modified. Joe has no such plan. He hopes to get started the same way his father did, by borrowing his old man's equipment and renting some acreage, then saving enough to start buying his own land and his own machinery. At the moment, Joe has about $2,500 in his savings account. A new model of the John Deere combine his father owns sells for about $110,000.

Doing anything else could raise the scary possibility of leaving a community he loves. A desire to stay close to home is what defines the clique of boys to which Joe belongs at Union High. One day this fall, as Joe worked in the shed behind his parents' house on his mud-caked pickup truck, a '78 Chevy with 44-inch wheels, a car sped by on the two-lane road in front of the house and the driver honked. Joe could tell from the sound of the horn that it was his friend Jeremy Grimm, on his way home from work. Jeremy plans to attend Hawkeye Community College for two years and then try to get a job hanging and repairing power lines. He'd like to stay in town so he can continue hunting and fishing with his friends.

His friends accept Joe's aspirations. "I don't think there's much money in it," says Jeremy, "but it's what he likes."

During harvest this fall, Joe rushed home from school each afternoon and changed into his farming clothes -- grease-stained jeans, steel-toed boots and a faded blue baseball cap -- just for a chance at spelling his father for a couple of hours in the combine.

What his classmates think is unimportant to Joe. Their name for Farmer Appreciation Day is Hick Day, and on that occasion they come to school in dirty coveralls and plaid woolen shirts. But what is Joe to do? That's a lot like the outfit he dons every evening after school. On Hick Day this fall, he wore his usual school clothes: freshly washed jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers.

Yet as the apples fell from the trees in the yard late last month, there were signs that Joe was beginning to get the message. He still insisted that he would be a farmer, but he acknowledged that he would probably need a second job while he tries to get established.

"I'm not saying it's my first choice," he says. "It's more like a necessary choice."

His parents were relieved.

Another breakthrough came on a recent date with his girlfriend of a year, Rachel Knipfel. She lives on a farm, too, but she wants to go to the University of Iowa or the University of Northern Iowa and find a job in retail fashion. Once, Joe invited her to sit with him in the cab while he drove his father's combine. She read magazines the whole time.

During a trip to the Red Lobster restaurant in Waterloo, Joe talked about his desire to farm.

"I'm not guessing you can make a whole lot of money -- right, Joe?" Rachel asked.

On their way home, they talked about the Homecoming dance and the school football team's chances of breaking its long losing streak. As Joe steered onto East Orange Road, the bright yellow lights of Hawkeye Community College came into view.

"I'll probably take some classes there in the fall," he said.

He wasn't conceding anything, he said. He was just thinking that it might be wise to learn engine repair or carpentry. For a farmer, he said, those are useful skills. And if he can't find any farmland right away, at least he'll have a steady income while he waits for something to come along.


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