Several years ago, Joseph Tripp watched his money, but he wasn’t short on funds.
If he needed to buy feed or chemicals, he could just do it. He was able to operate as needed on his family farm from day to day.
These days, he scrutinizes every decision. Things he would have just done in the past, he has to put off.
Challenges and uncertainty are nothing new to farmers, but several years of bad weather, coupled with weak commodity prices, unpredictable trade disputes and other challenges, have taken a toll on Oklahoma farming families like Tripp’s.
It’s been “a perfect storm,” he said.
“We’ve cut back and we’ve cut back and we’ve cut back,” said Tripp, 45. “There’s only so much you can cut back on. If you can imagine, we’re standing on top of a cliff and it’s behind us and we’re backing up and backing up, just trying to get us away from another dangerous situation. … Now our feet are at the edge of the cliff and we can’t back up anymore. We can’t back up financially or cut anything anymore, there’s nothing left to cut. And yet we can’t seem to make any money.”
Tripp has cattle and grows wheat, soybeans and other crops in western Kay County and eastern Grant County in north central Oklahoma, as well as in southern Kansas.
A fourth-generation farmer, he feels extra pressure to protect his family’s legacy. His great-grandfather came to Oklahoma and homesteaded during the 1893 Land Run. Tripp’s three sons, ages 16, 14 and 11, will be the fifth generation if they choose to come back and farm.
“If I lose it, there’s nothing for my kids or their kids or their kids,” Tripp said. “I am a steward of what we have to pass down to the next generation so they have an opportunity to be a steward for the next generation. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
‘I know the mountain I’ve got to climb’
Tripp remembers standing at his dad’s leg watching neighbors’ farms being sold off in the 1980s when farm foreclosures rose dramatically. In many ways, what’s happening now is similar, he said.
Tripp feels fortunate to be able to do what he does. He said his family is blessed to have the opportunity, and they don’t take it for granted.
He can’t put a value on the freedom his job affords. Flexibility with his schedule allows him to be actively involved in his sons’ activities. He’s president of the Blackwell Quarterback Booster Club and the Blackwell 4H and FFA Ag Boosters and vice president of the Blackwell Youth Football League. He’s the public address announcer at basketball games and works the play clock during football games for Blackwell High School.
But some days he questions why he’s farming.
“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity and I enjoy it, but right now it’s not enjoyable,” he said.
Tripp’s house, built in 1978, needs repairs.
He’d like to upgrade equipment and put away money for retirement.
But those things will have to wait. The family has bills to pay.
Tripp said their life right now is forced to revolve around the dollar, not because they’re trying to make a lot of money but because they can’t pay back what they’re using to try to sustain the farm.
He isn’t the only one dreading the day his furnace quits or his pickup breaks down. He’s heard from some farmers that things they’ve done for decades and built their entire operations on aren’t making money anymore.
“Morale is kind of broke for farmers as a whole,” Tripp said. “Things that have worked traditionally for years financially aren’t working. Guys are scratching their head as to what to do.”
For years, stocker cattle were Tripp’s bread and butter. But in the past several years, he’s lost money on cattle. He’s also not able to be as aggressive with his crops, making sure he only spends for fertilizer, spray and other inputs that his insurance will cover if he loses the crop.
He’s gone through times when he didn’t sleep because of worry about finances. But that doesn’t fix anything. Instead, he tries to focus on what he can control.
“I just get up every day, I go about and try to make the best of it,” Tripp said. “I know the mountain I’ve got to climb. I can’t worry about what happened yesterday other than I can learn from it. … The only thing I can sort of control is try to make the right decisions today and for tomorrow as I climb that mountain.”
Like many farmers, his faith helps get him through.
Recently, he’s also found support from a group of fellow farmers.
A few years ago, Tripp started talking shop with a fellow farmer at a junior high basketball game. Afterward, the two decided to invite other farmers to get together. What started out as a way to brainstorm and bounce ideas off one another about ways to innovate became an avenue for them to talk about their struggles with people who would understand.
They meet over breakfast at a restaurant in north central Oklahoma, sometimes every week, sometimes less often when life is too hectic and demands of the job intervene. They talk about what they’re going through and their families. They pray together. Farmers in the group understand things that even his wife doesn’t understand, Tripp said.
“It’s become a family group,” he said.
‘A tough pill to swallow’
For Martin Williams, others in the group have provided a shoulder to lean on.
He woke one day last year in “a bad mental spot.” Williams was faced with having to sell some of his land. He didn’t know if he was doing the right thing. He sent a text message to the group and told them he needed to meet. The next morning, everyone was there.
“It was just a place to let it go and nobody judged you,” he said. “They just listened. It takes a special group of guys to do that, and they certainly are.”
Even when they aren’t meeting regularly, they talk on the phone often and text each other about every day. They like to razz each other. Typically, the person who’s had the most rain that week foots the bill for breakfast.
“It’s meant the world to me to have those guys,” Williams said.
Williams, 38, has cows and stocker cattle and farms a rotation of wheat, corn, soybeans, oats, sesame, canola and milo near Red Rock in north central Noble County, as well as in part of Kay and Pawnee counties.
Like other farmers, he and his wife, Crystal, who helps on the farm, have been forced to make some tough decisions during recent years.
For a few years in 2010 to 2013, they were able to buy land and expand operations. Williams said they were fortunate during the oil boom to get a few oil leases and pipelines going across their property.
But hard times came on fast.
In 2014, Williams’ grandfather died. Williams took on some of his land, which was better suited for cattle. He bought cows at about $2,500 for a cow-calf pair. Six months later, they were worth about $1,100 a pair.
In 2015 and 2016, crop prices dropped drastically and production costs were high, Williams said.
“All of a sudden, we couldn’t pay back bills for a year, then the next year it compounded and then the next year it compounded,” he said. “By late 2017, early 18, we were just virtually broke.”
They were forced to sell some of their land — land that Williams had poured his blood, sweat and tears into, toiling over fencing, cutting trees and building a pond.
“That’s a tough pill to swallow because you spend your time trying to buy land maybe and think of that as your future, your retirement,” he said. “It’s a place where you spend all your time and energy and get really emotionally connected and then, boom, it’s gone.”
They reached a point last year where bankruptcy was an option. But Williams said after a lot of talks with his wife and with God, they decided they would try to crawl out themselves.
If they had filed for bankruptcy, many of their unsecured lenders, like their chemical supplier or the co-op, wouldn’t have gotten paid. They didn’t want to ruin those relationships.
“We just decided we got into this mess, we’ll get out of it,” he said. “It’s going to be a long row to hoe. My banker and I and my wife, we call it basically treading water. Right now we’re treading water, but things have gotten a little better.”
One of the parcels of land they sold was the first farm Williams ever bought. He prayed for an answer, and a surgeon wound up calling him out of the blue and buying the land. He now rents the land to Williams.
“It was an extreme blessing,” Williams said. “I was able to pay some bills. … We have extremely strong Christian values and however you look at it, I feel like that’s what saved us. And by any means (we are) not out of the woods yet. There’s a long way to go.”
Crop insurance worked well when commodity prices were high, but it’s not a very good safety net anymore, Williams said. Trade disruptions also have caused challenges for farmers. Market Facilitation Program payments were designed to help farmers who’ve been impacted, but the payment Williams received was about $15 an acre. Meanwhile, an average crop of wheat costs about $150 to $180 an acre to plant, he said, and corn costs about $220 to $250.
Williams said his landlords have adjusted rental rates down to try to help him get through and paid for some improvements on the farms, things he was doing before.
He and his wife have had to remortgage property to get cash just to keep the farm going.
The decisions they make affect three other families, not just their own. Williams has three employees who have remained patient through tough times.
Williams sold a lot of his newer equipment and replaced it with older equipment that’s less computerized. It gave him extra money to help pay bills. A lot of his equipment now is from the 1990s. It breaks down more, but Williams can work on it.
He traded a couple new pickups for six or seven “old, junky pickups.” There’s a certain way to start each one of them, and it’s never the same. They have a shop on the farm. Every day, there’s a pickup in the shop, Williams said. Almost every day, one of his employees stops at the auto parts store.
“I’ve always been mechanically inclined, and I don’t mind doing that,” Williams said. “There’s sometimes I’m covered in grease and oil and I’m just mad because this could be so easy if we did it the other way and it used to be easier, but it’s OK. My time’s been free for the last few years anyway, so it might as well continue to stay that way.”
His family had to drop their health insurance, which was costing $2,000 a month. They now use SoonerCare.
Williams and his wife had dreams of building a house for their family. Nothing opulent. Just something with a little more space. They had to put that dream on hold when tough times hit.
Their family lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house Williams built when he and his wife got married in 2004. Back then, it was just the two of them. Now, their 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son share a 12-by-12-foot room.
The tough times have served as a reminder of what’s most important in life. They’ve taught Williams to take more time to be with his family and friends, to put work secondary and to have faith that everything will be OK.
He tries not to miss a ball game or a choir performance. Wednesday night, he was headed to the field with the combine to pick corn but his son got off the bus and wanted to jump on the trampoline for 20 minutes.
“The combine’s running, I’d spent all day working on it to get it there, but you just stop and you do those things,” he said. “I used to not do that.”
Williams said he wakes up every morning and tries to be as positive as he can be.
Looking ahead to the future, he said he sees some bright spots. They were able to make a little bit of money this year and last year, but they’re paying back old debts and interest.
“Every time I say it can’t get any worse, somehow it does, but I really honestly think we’re coasting at the low and there’s at least enough things out there to be cautiously optimistic for the next three or four years,” he said.