Spencer, Iowa — When grain prices fell a few years ago, Iowa farmer Calvin Law decided that the surest way to stay in farming and keep the bills paid was to take a second job.
He signed on for the 3:40-to-midnight shift at a transmission manufacturing firm here in Spencer and promptly became what agricultural statisticians refer to as a "part- time" farmer. He still does many of the chores on his 260-acre grain and hog farm before making the 13-mile commute into town. His wife and six children do the rest. As he tells it, the added income from the town job makes all the difference.
"It really does help," Mr. Law says. "Otherwise it's about impossible for the little farmer to compete with the big boys."
Every year many farmers with small or medium-sized acreage have found that sheer economics forces them to consolidate their holdings or sell out to the "big boys." Yet some agriculture trend is easing off slightly.
One reason is that thousands of farmers are deciding, like Mr. Law, to hang onto their farms and take second jobs in nearby towns or cities instead of selling out.
US Department of Agriculture farm income statistics for the last several years indicate that more than half the average farm family's income is from work away from the farm.
Many farmers desperately need the added income of a city job. For many others the regularity of a steady paycheck -- particularly during the lean months of winter when expenses usually overtake revenue -- is a welcome cushion.
Much of Iowa's 1979 corn corp now is stored in cribs and elevators along the roads as farmers wait for prices to improve before they sell. Yet most face mortgage payments in early March, plus tax bills and the costs of spring seed and planting.
"It's money in, money in, and money in at this time of year -- before most farmers can get any money out," notes Duane Skow, statistician with the Iowa Crop and Livestock Service. "I think most of the motivation for part-time work is the need for cash flow."
"I wish I saw more farmers taking two jobs. Our accounts receivable situation is terrible," says Tom Arndorfer, manager of the West Bend Elevator Company in Mallard, Iowa. "Banks are short on money, and it's forcing a lot of farmers into refinancing agreements. . . . At present prices, based on last year's yield, many of them are going to end up with a net loss."
Some young couples are also finding a city-farm job combination one way to break into farming -- to see whether or not they like it and could ever make a full-time living off it.
Debbie and Larry Dietrich, both of whom lived and worked in Spencer until a year ago, decided they wanted to try hog farming. They bought some property 17 miles out in Gillette Grove, invested in two dozen sows, plenty of feeders, farrowing crates, sleeping sheds, and a used tractor and manure spreader. Both Dietrichs have kept their jobs in town. Debbie is deputy clerk of court for Clay County, and Larry works at a commercial grain elevator one mile from the farm -- close enough so he can look in on the pigs every few hours.
The Dietrichs work long hours, often postponing supper until chores are finished around 10 p.m. But both are sold on the added privacy and independence of life in the country. Their hope now is to see some returns from the many dollars their off- farm jobs enabled them to put into the farming operation.
"This first year we've had a lot more expenses than income," says Debbie.
"I've seen more young people come back into farming in the last three or four years than in the last two decades," observes David Hessman, Clay County extension director with Iowa State University.
Spencer, in Iowa's rural northwest, has a population of only 10,000. But it has a meat packing plant in addition to the transmission factory where Mr. Law works. Last fall, when hog prices went down, there was a sharp increase in farmers job-hunting here, according to Jim Reed, manager of the job placement division in town. Some residents say so many farmers are commuting to and from town jobs along the four-lane highway running through town that they have created a rush-hour traffic jam.