Barry Gutierrez for NPR
Terry Walter grows hay, wheat and corn and runs well over 2,000 cows on about 3,000 acres in Colorado.
Terry Walter grows hay, wheat and corn and runs well over 2,000 cows on about 3,000 acres in Colorado. Barry Gutierrez for NPR
Part of a series, Living In The Middle
The past decade has not been kind to the middle class in this country. The median household income has fallen by 5 percent from its peak in 1999, to just under $50,000.
Among those living in the middle is 49-year-old farmer Terry Walter. In rural Weld County in Colorado, he runs well over 2,000 cows and calves across dry, sprawling prairie. He also grows hay, wheat and corn.
In all, Walter manages about 3,000 acres but owns only about 10 percent of that. He leases the rest.
For more than a few years now, finances have been difficult. Walter estimates that his family of five earned about $48,000 from the farm last year.
"I've asked the good Lord several times, 'Should I get out?' " Walter says. "Because there's been struggles where it would've been easy to step out. And I never really felt like he closed the door."
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So Walter stays in agriculture. He's the third generation to work this land, and he hopes his kids will be the fourth. But there are financial challenges Walter faces that his dad never had to; profit margins are very thin, and he's carrying a lot of debt.
"Right now I owe more than $500,000," Walter says. "Some of this is from losses sustained in a downturn in the cattle market a few years ago. And then we had a pretty good drought going in the early '90s, and we're still pulling debt through from then."
If something like another mad cow crisis were to come along, Walter is not sure he could survive. Meantime, he runs a tight operation. Expenses could get out of control if he doesn't watch them closely.
Walter has a cavernous shop on his ranch so he can do repairs himself.
"About the only thing we don't do on this place is fix fuel injection pumps," Walter says.
His son Ty is 18 years old and a senior in high school. Next year Ty plans to go to college to major in agricultural business, then come back and run the family business someday.
Barry Gutierrez for NPR
Terry Walter (right) and his son Ty stand next to one of the horses they use to round up cattle. Next year, Ty plans to go to college to major in agricultural business in hopes of running the family business.
Terry Walter (right) and his son Ty stand next to one of the horses they use to round up cattle. Next year, Ty plans to go to college to major in agricultural business in hopes of running the family business. Barry Gutierrez for NPR
Ty knows farming and ranching may be even more financially difficult in the future. But he says this isn't a career people choose because they want an easy life.
"We have our days where we'll work 15 hours a day. Other days it's a little more relaxed, but we are always working," he says. "It's fun work. It's not going to your office every day. We experience the outdoors and everything God has to offer."
Terry Walter says it seems like he and his wife, Becky, have cleared a long series of financial hurdles during their 25 years of marriage. Now that he's nearing 50 years old, there are new things to worry about.
"We have no retirement. We have no savings. We don't have a 401(k)," Walter says.
The couple is building equity in their business, though, and someday they hope to sell — maybe to their kids — and that'll be their retirement. Becky Walter warns against focusing on just the downsides of working in agriculture.
"Well, I think there's a lot of rewards that overcome the difficult parts — the experiences we have that city people don't have," she says.
The Walters say they feel privileged to be growing food for people, and they want to pass on that pride to their children.
"All of our kids have an interest in [agriculture]," she says. "And that's one reason we keep pressing on — for them — so they can carry out the tradition in our family."