Kansas farmer Hoops meets hard times with caring family

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

How do you picture farm life? A quiet back road, comfortable house, spacious lawn, an old barn, acres of land with rich soil, and the peaceful satisfaction of a hard day's work in the sun?

Except for the peaceful satisfaction, these words come close to describing the farm Harvey Hoops and his wife, Deloris, have here, just below the Nebraska border.

Serious financial strains have hit the family, as they have many farm families, in the past several years, and the ''fun'' of farming has faded for him, he says. Whether it will ever come back remains to be seen.

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A gravel road runs by their one-story house. The house was expanded as the family grew. A closely cut lawn wraps around the house on three sides. On the fourth side, beyond the driveway and the garage, which supports a basketball hoop that has seen years of use by the children (five boys), is open, bare ground, where tractors and other machinery are often temporarily parked. Beyond that is an assortment of pointed-roof grain-storage bins, sheds, and an old barn. And beyond that lie some of the approximately 1,300 acres the family farms (including several hundred acres of rented land) in corn, soybeans, and wheat.

But the cattle yard is empty. Prices got so low he sold the last cattle this spring. They still have some 600 hogs, but hog prices have not been high either. Early this month, wheat harvesting was good, but now, wheat prices are low, too. Corn and soybean prices are a little more encouraging.

Fairly low crop prices, high interest rates, huge yearly debts, and rising equipment costs have combined to make farming more of a chore than a joy, Harvey explains in a lengthy interview with him and his wife. As we talk, seated around the kitchen table, sons come in from working the fields; one of two daughters-in-law plays with her baby on the living-room rug.

Says Deloris of her husband's attitude toward farming: ''He doesn't have his heart in it anymore.''

''All you're doing is just barely staying alive,'' he says. ''It's survival time. And it's going to take years before we can get back (to more favorable income).''

He is tired of yearly debts of more than $300,000 - on land mortgages and loans for production costs (for fertilizers, chemicals, parts, electricity, among other things), high interest payments (more than $30,000 last year), the uncertainty of crop and livestock prices, rising equipment costs, including $950 tires for combines he uses to harvest wheat.

Is he making or loosing money? ''Just holding our own,'' he says, leaning back in his chair. He gives an example: You may make $40,000 one year on cattle sales, then lose $40,000 the next year as cattle prices drop. ''What did you make? Zero. You just worked . . . two years for what? Why does anybody want to do that ?'' he asks.

''If I didn't have any kids, I'd of just walked out of this thing five years ago, which I probably should have done anyway.'' But, he adds, he is stuck with big debts - and some of the kids want to farm.

Nationally, net farm income this year is projected to be about what it was last year, about $20 billion, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and less by American Farm Bureau Federation figures. But it was about that level in 1972, though there are fewer farmers today to divide it up. In between there have been some good years, with total income twice reaching above the $30 billion mark.

Bankruptcies, still rare, nearly doubled, from 453 to 885 farms under Farmers Home Administration programs during the past year. Still, less than 1 percent of the nation's farmers were forced out of business for financial reasons last year , including bankruptcy, according to one national survey.

But there is no doubt that many farmers ''are hurting,'' says Allen G. Smith, a farm income specialist with the USDA.

Farms with gross sales of $40,000 or less (72 percent of the nation's farms) actually lost money on farm operations last year, but came out ahead thanks to off-farm income sources, says Smith. Larger farms came out ahead on both counts, but off-farm income was important, he says. ''If you live off your farm income, you're hurting,'' he says.

In this Kansas-Nebraska border county, the Hoopses live almost entirely on their farm income.

In spite of this, the four oldest boys have all had or are getting college educations, and the youngest will be offered the same. The oldest boy, Lonnie, and the third son, Layne, are already farming with their father. The second son, Kerry, is a farm loan officer with the Federal Land Bank. Kevin, like Layne, is still in college and is working on another farm this summer. He says he'd like to be a farmer. Lynn, the youngest, a high school senior, says a ''9-to-5 job would be all right'' with him.

Deloris says she feels a ''lot of stress'' in farming today, but still appreciates ''the closeness to the earth. It makes you feel close to the good Lord. You can see plants coming up and you can't help but see a miracle.''

Harvey, at least these days, sees a plant growing and worries if it will ''get too many weeds, or too many chemicals, or too much wind, or too cold, too wet, too hot.''

But both appreciate what Deloris calls the ''closeness of family, on the farm.'' What is her job on the farm? She drops her head gently on her arm and laughs: ''jack-of-all-trades.'' That includes housekeeping, baking for when the boys come home, driving up to 80 miles round trip in an afternoon to get spare parts for farm equipment, and being ''supportive'' to her husband.

After the interview, Harvey drives to a field to check an irrigator and adjusts the cultivator Lynn is pulling behind a small tractor. Then he returns home and slides under Kevin's car to fix the clutch and helps Lonnie prepare the combine for wheat harvest.

The long, busy day finally ends - with a family gathering with other relatives in the living room. The room fills with laughter, sounds of children playing and silverware clanking against dessert plates. Outside, in the fields, corn, wheat and soybeans await the morning sun.

Next: life on a large farm.

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