DOWN ON THE FARM

By Robert Schwabach

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer July 29, 1973

Quarryville, PA. – On the high branches, birds call. And in the yard, puppies romp. Up on the slopes, the tassels of the tall corn are moved by soft breezes. From somewhere down in the dell, the cattle are lowing — or whatever it is cattle do.

Farmer Groff is plying his trade. Raising milk.

He raises it by pumping it out of the swollen udders of cows — registered Holsteins. Sixty of them. Forego the visions of bright metal pails, three-legged milk stools and the patient pulling of teats. He does it with a Surge Electrobrain Vacumaster, which sucks the cows dry automatically and delivers the milk through glass tubes into a refrigerated stainless steel vat. Untouched by human hands.

Robert Groff, and Mrs. Groff, and five smaller Groffs, sell this milk to the Abbott Dairies for about 55 cents a gallon. After some processing, you buy that same milk for about $1.10 a gallon, give or take a few cents, depending on where you shop. That is roughly twice the price, as you’ve already so quickly noted, and it has no doubt further occured to you that somewhere along the line, somebody is making a buck out of this tranasaction. But you doubt that it is the farmer.

THE IMAGE of “Lo, the poor farmer” has become ingrained in national folklore, and the picture is filled out with background details of long hours, backbreaking labor, outdoor privies and a long slope of years down into a wasting penniless doom. It is a comfortable image to call forth the carefully appripriate measure of distant syjmpathy for the poor wretch.

If it ever was really that way, it is not that way now. The situation has changed a lot, especially in the last year.

It is true that Robert Groff works 12- sometimes 14-hour days. His wife and children work, too. The work is often hard, and usually dirty, and there have been years of struggle– up from sharecropping to owning their own farm.

But at the end of that struggle– and even along the way— there has been a reward. The American dream has come true for the Groffs and the thousands that work farms just like theirs in Lancaster County. They are men of property.

Robert Groff does not want it publicly known how much he is worth, so we respect that wish and will not tell you. Let’s just say that if one were to make a graph of the top one percent of the American population in terms of their tangible assets (land, buildings, equipment,livestock) the Groff family would be comfortably within that one percent. They are neither the wealthiest nor poorest of Lancaster County farmers, but about average.

URBAN HOTSHOTS WHO are making their bundles in real estate or used cars or ladies underwear would be floored to learn what a typical Pennsylvania farmer, especially in eastern Pennsylvania, is worth, on the hoof. In Delaware, for example, when figures on this were compiled a couple of years ago, it was learned that the average farmer had a net income of only $3,000 to $4,000 a year — right down there around the Federal poverty level. But the average net worth was a quarter of a million dollars ($1.2 million today).

Robert Groff has an average net income of about $6,000 a year, (around $28,000 in today’s dollars) fairly typical for his location and type of farming. “Of course,” he says, “you have to realize that the farmer has a lot of things he can charge off against his income for tax purposes.”

He farms 127 acres, 14.5 acres less than the Pennsylvania average. He grows his own feed for the cows now that the price of corn has climbed so much in the last couple of years. Before, it was cheaper to buy corn from Illinois. He recently invested $30,000 in a new silo that mulches the corn, cob and all, in a moist feed that’s easy for the cows to digest. The silo will pay for itself in savings in two and a half years, Groff says. Not many investments will clear themselves in that short a period.

He recently put in a new barn and other equipment that came to around $70,000 more. He has borrowed the money on a 20-year loan– “though I could pay it off in half that, if I wanted to,” he says. He does not brag, he is a calm and measured man who simply states what he knows he can and cannot do.

M.M. Smith, the County Agricultural Agent for Lancaster County, says farmer Groff is quite typical for his area and specialty. Even his name is typical: It is the third most common in the county, after Herr and Hess.

HE IS 46, SHORT and muscular, with clear blue eyes, rosy cheeks and a happy smile that would need no retouching to honestly grace one of the Dairy Association’s promotional posters advising people to drink milk. He and his family attend a fundamentalist church and believe that whatever good fortune thy enjoy is apportioned from the infinite grace of God.

He is typical also in his conservatism, and like his neighbors will, when pressed, acknowledge that he cannot understnad why some people are on welfare when any many who is willing to work can do as he has done. “I believe in work,” he says unnecessarily. He has no interest in politics other than to remark, “all politicians are crooks,” an opinioin that would undoubtedly be seconded by most of his neighbors.

He is known as hard-working, sensible and honest, in a culture where a man’s reputation is hard earned and still more valued among his neighbors than gold. If he were in trouble they would help him, as he has helped when others were in trouble.

He is the sales agent in his area for the Pioneer Seed Co., a national firm based in Indiana that sells mostly corn seed. He sells 2,500 50-pound bags a year, from only 30 or 40 bags when he started. It took 20 years to reach that level. “Used to be a 56-pound bag,” he remarks with a kind of shrug that seems to take in the whole way in which things have changed beyond what some men would consider reasonable comprehension.

ONLY IN HIS ORIGINS is he not typical. His father was not a farmer but spent his working life as a maintenance supervisor for the Pennsylvania Power and Light Co. in Lancaster. Robert Groff turned to farming because he liked going to his grandfather’s farm. He joined the 4-H club and met his wife there. He wanted to be a veterinarian, but he could not afford the training. So, with his new wife, he went on someone else’s land and farmed it for a 50-50 share of the crop.

By careful management, he was able to gain the land on a money rent, thereby taking the additional risk and the potential gan should he do well. After six years of renting his present place, he took what he had, borrowed some more, and bought the farm. He paid $30,o00 for it, 10 years ago (1963). As with most things from 10 years ago, it would take many times that amount to buy the same farm today.

Robert Groff and his wife Millie had four girls before they had a boy, the son that every farmer must have. “For a while, I thought we’d never get there,” Robert Groff says.

LESS THAN 4 PERCENT of the workers in America are farmers like Mr. Groff. It has come to that figure in a slow and steady dwindling of more than 200 years which may just now be beginning to reverse itself. Among the young, there is a nascent back-to-the-land movement, of uncertain tenacity. And it would appear that in this decade, we are seeing a resurgence of the farmer’s share in the national prosperity to a degree that has sledom been known.

In a drive through the back roads of Lancaster County, one sees the unmistakable signs: a new barn, a new and automated poultry house, shiny new cultivators –these things are very expensive capital investments and the men who make them do so in the expectation of a return.

At a livestock auction near Lancaster, where supposedly experienced men are bidding two and three thousand dollars apiece for rather ordinary cows of no special breeding distinction, many men know Robert Groff and stop and chat for a moment. They confidently expect a rise in milk prices soon.

Another man stops to impart the information that hog prices closed that day at 55 cents a pound for the whole hog, and no top was in sight. They shake their heads wonderingly at this folly of wholesale bidders, but with a certain satisfied smile. They know that three years ago, hogs sold for 15 cents a pound and the new price represents a nearly fourfold increase. Not many things have increased fourfold in price in three years.

It is a new time for the farmers. Men stand around the bidding ring with heavy checkbooks and long confidence, Robert Groff among them. Not long ago, he bought his wife a new Pontiac. He paid cash.

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