James Perley

James Perley

The 1970s and 1980s were challenging years for agriculture. The period began well enough as a drought and crop failure forced the Soviets to buy grain from the West. The psychological impact, combined with a dislocated supply, sent soybean prices, for example, from $3.50 per bushel to over $12.

The rules of economics, it seemed, had changed as farmers, bankers, and other parts of the economy took advantage of the new age. Farmers bought more land and larger machines as bankers urged them to take advantage of new opportunities. Farm magazines also encouraged their readers to take advantage of new opportunities.

Life was good until it wasn't. Drought and high interest rates decimated bank accounts as the economy began to run out of money. Most farmers held on with larger loans and good credit, but in time, more were forced to go out of business, and even banks and implement dealers could no longer exist as they had.

Like other farmers, our family struggled to hold on. One year, we needed a better combine and some other machines, but implement dealers charged more than we could afford. I was afraid to put us at the mercy of a high interest loan our bank offered us, so we looked at farm sales.

I noticed that parts of Northeast Nebraska were suffering more than our area was, and I reasoned that used machinery there would be cheaper than locally, so I did some research.

I found a combine we should be able to afford northwest of Norfolk, Neb. The farm sale would be held the next day, and I called to make inquiries.

The farm wife answered the phone, and she was nice to visit with. We talked about the state of the economy, the weather, and the combine I hoped to buy. She said their 4-year-old daughter rode in the combine at harvest and considered it her machine.

The mother had not yet told her daughter she would never again ride in her combine or that their days on the farm were numbered. She recalled the thrill she and her husband felt when they made the first payment on their farm and how much they enjoyed farming. It was their future and maybe something to pass on to their children.

She told of the wrenching emotions they felt as it all began to slip away. Then she said, "You are fun to talk to. I hope you get our combine. Look for me. I will be the blonde standing by the cottonwood tree south of our house." 

I replied, “I hoped we see each other again.”

"What are you going to do now?" I asked.

"We are thinking of moving to Arizona,” said the blonde. “Our neighbor told us jobs were down there."

I meant to say something hopeful, but, "I'm so scared. Do you think our neighbor is right?'' beat me too it. 

She began to cry as she told me holding it together was becoming too difficult. She felt she and her husband had failed themselves and their children. She apologized for becoming emotional and sounded like the cheery woman I had first met.

Though over 30 years have passed, I sometimes wonder about the family and its fate. I should have attended their farm sale, but I didn't have the heart. I bought a combine at another foreclosed farm.

(James Perley of Little Sioux is President of the Harrison County Historical Society.)

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