Illinois Farmer Faces A Hard Choice That Cuts Deep

Dave Burt with some of his charges at Burt Farms in Flora, Illinois. i i

In the field: Dave Burt with some of his charges at Burt Farms in Flora, Ill. Ketzel Levine/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine/NPR
Dave Burt with some of his charges at Burt Farms in Flora, Illinois.

In the field: Dave Burt with some of his charges at Burt Farms in Flora, Ill.

Ketzel Levine/NPR
Profit-producing crops like sunflowers have helped to bolster Dave Burt's bottom line. i i

Flower power: Profit-producing crops like sunflowers have helped to bolster Burt's bottom line. Ketzel Levine/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine/NPR
Profit-producing crops like sunflowers have helped to bolster Dave Burt's bottom line.

Flower power: Profit-producing crops like sunflowers have helped to bolster Burt's bottom line.

Ketzel Levine/NPR

As day breaks in southern Illinois, a farmer rouses a huge lump off its bed of hay. The one-ton bull with a bum leg struggles to standing as the farmer prepares its breakfast peppered with pain meds.

"He's all set," says Dave Burt, owner of Burt Farms in the town of Flora. "He's got his food, his water, his hay. The doctor visit's over."

The doctor has been pampering the bull for a number of weeks, hoping it would rally. The alternative is, well, extreme. Burt goes all-out for his cattle; fellow farmers say he spoils them. If he does, it's because they are much more to him than a commodity. He calls them his therapy.

"There's just nothing like looking at these cattle out here grazing on this green grass in the early morning," he says, standing among caramel brown, gray and tiger-striped Braunvieh cows. "But a cattle herd's a big expense," he adds, his throat beginning to catch as he considers what he's about to lose.

A High-Risk Game

The real cash cow on Burt Farms is agriculture: corn, soybeans and sunflower seeds. Over the past few years, his farming expenses have skyrocketed. They're now "so staggeringly high, it's frightening," he says, describing fertilizer, fuel and chemical costs that have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in recent memory.

On a good day, the market price for his crops puts him in the black. That's no small trick given what it costs Burt to prep his soil and plant seed. Given that he farms nearly 1,000 acres, he's usually laid out more than a half-million dollars before his crops even begin to grow.

It's a high-risk game. Burt not only has to know how to farm, but he's also got to be a financial wizard with nerves of steel. In fact, he's become a seasoned risk-taker and has learned to play the commodities markets as much as any Wall Street trader with a gift for knowing when to sell.

It also means he knows when it's time to cut his losses — which is why he's giving up his cows.

"Between the feed, vet bills and sales price for cattle, which is the only thing that hasn't been going up," says Burt, who never puts his labor down as an expense, "I came to realize I was physically exhausting myself with no profit. The fun started going out of it."

As it happens, Burt knows a number of farmers who are giving up their cattle because the business no longer pencils out. But that doesn't make his own herd any easier to sell.

"It's going to be dead silence out there," he says, as the deep call of a cow bellowing for her calf resounds. "It's going to be eerie."

Is he sure he's making the right decision? "You hate to do it," he says, struggling to maintain composure, "but sometimes you have to let go."

Bittersweet Sale

Days later, Burt will find himself beginning the long, tiring job of moving his cattle — including the bull — truckload by truckload to the auction barn. The sale itself will go surprisingly well. Despite the ongoing chaos on Wall Street, not only will his animals fetch a good price, but most of them will also go home with farmers who live nearby. That puts Burt within easy driving distance of the occasional hour of therapy relaxing among the quietly grazing animals.