Illinois Farmer Faces A Hard Choice That Cuts Deep The costs of raising cattle have gone up in recent years — but the price of cattle has not kept pace. That has put farmer Dave Burt in a bad position in southern Illinois. He says farming expenses are now "so staggeringly high, it's frightening."

Illinois Farmer Faces A Hard Choice That Cuts Deep

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There's an old brand of soda that was originally marketed to build up your nerve. During the Great Depression, its name, Moxie, became slang for gutsiness and determination.


We are starting a new series today on Americans with the moxie to get through the economic downturn. And just as the causes and effects of this recession are intertwined, so are the lives of the people you'll meet.

MONTAGNE: Our senior correspondent Ketzel Levine introduces you to Americans with moxie and their friends, coworkers, clients, and employees, beginning with a man who is giving up the part of his business he loves most.

KETZEL LEVINE: As day breaks in Flora, Illinois, a farmer rouses a huge lump off its bed of hay.

Mr. DAVE BURT (Proprietor, Burt Farms): Hey, boy, come on, get up.

LEVINE: A bull with a bum leg struggles to standing.

Mr. BURT: I think he's ready for breakfast.

LEVINE: And the farmer slips him pain meds along with his feed.

Mr. BURT: So he's all set. He's got his water. He's got his food. He's got his hay. The doctor visit's over.

LEVINE: Dave Burt's going to give the one-ton animal a few weeks to mend, hoping he won't have to put it down. You're going to find this out anyway, so you might as well hear it from me.

Mr. BURT: OK, it's time to go to the pasture.

LEVINE: This farmer is all heart.

Mr. BURT: Come on, girls.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

Mr. BURT: There's just nothing like looking at these cattle out here on this green grass in the morning. They're all grazing and calm. Calves are nursing.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

LEVINE: Dave Burt is a family man - husband, father, grandfather, son. He was a nephew, too, until his uncle died eight years ago. That's when Dave Burt and his two sisters inherited this 1,000-acre farm. He was ready after decades in the seed business and summers growing up on his grandparents' farm. And he looks the part, if a little on the GQ side - long and lean, with a shovel-sharp jaw and a flat rake of a smile.

Mr. BURT: I can't believe we can't find my bottle cow this morning. Usually, she's the first one up here.

LEVINE: Abandoned at birth, this once-helpless calf was weaned by bottle and is still quite attached to the 6-foot-5-inch human who fed her.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

LEVINE: He's out here looking for her among scores of caramel-brown, Weimaraner-gray, and tiger-striped cows. This farmer is so attached to his herd of Swiss Braunvieh, it's hard to believe he's selling each and every one.

Mr. BURT: A cattle herd's a big expense if you're looking at it as therapy.

LEVINE: In the last year, therapy's about the only profit he's taken from his animals as feed and fuel prices escalated and cattle prices stayed the same. As it turns out, though, the real cash cow on Burt Farms is agriculture, which all goes down a drain.

(Soundbite of grain elevator)

LEVINE: This is the sound of money, 50,000 pounds of corn. We're next in line at the grain elevator in nearby Farina, Illinois.

Mr. BURT: Today, corn is 5.27, is what they're actually paying. Beans are 11.17. Wheat's $5.54.

LEVINE: We've hauled corn here today, and the bushel price is looking pretty good. Of course the market's so unpredictable, the price could go even higher tomorrow.

Mr. BURT: I mean, the risk factor is so great. It's enormous, you know. And the only way you can really eliminate the risk is to play the board, which is even riskier.

LEVINE: Dave Burt plays the market as much as any Wall Street trader. He's already risked a half million dollars getting this year's crop planted. That is double what it cost him in 2006. Such a fortune, in fact, that even taking today's perfectly good corn price will still leave him close to $80,000 in the hole. It's all a far cry from the days when his grandparents spent only what they could afford.

Mr. BURT: You know, they just didn't have the expenses involved that we do today, and they weren't farming on as grand a scale. They didn't have debt. My grandfather went to bed and thought - he went to bed and slept. All he knew he had to do in the morning was my grandmother was going to have his breakfast ready, and he was going to go out and feed the cows. That's it.

LEVINE: Cows and a good night's sleep - unaffordable luxuries for him right now. But today, anyway, Dave Burt's feeling lucky. He decides to store his corn rather than sell it, hoping for a better price tomorrow.

Mr. BURT: We're ready to go.

(Soundbite of motor vehicle starting up)

LEVINE: It's still pretty early as we hit the two-lane road back to Flora to partake in the mid-morning caffeinated ritual of Dave Burt's day.

Unidentified Drive-Through Cashier: Can I help you?

Mr. BURT: Dr. Pepper and a water.

Unidentified Drive-Through Cashier: OK, go ahead and drive up.


(Soundbite of motor vehicle starting up)

LEVINE: Now, had the voice in the box known it was Dave Burt ordering, it wouldn't have had to ask what he wanted. Any business is everybody's business in this small southern Illinois town.

Ms. SANDY HIGGS(ph): Hi, how are you?

LEVINE: You greasing the truck tomorrow?

Ms. HIGGS: Yup.

Mr. BURT: Somehow I just can't see you in a - working on a semi, but...

Ms. HIGGS: It's fun.

LEVINE: Dave Burt introduces me to Sandy Higgs, a perky young woman who spends her Saturdays doing maintenance on trucks. Like many folks here in Flora, Sandy Higgs needs two jobs to get by.

Mr. BURT: Bye, Sandy.

LEVINE: Finally, quiet at what may be the quietest place in town, Elmwood Cemetery.

Mr. BURT: My grandmother, grandfather, and my uncle and my aunt are buried here.

LEVINE: Dave Burt was 11 when his grandmother died, his memories of her still as rich and savory as the lard crusts on her fruit pies.

Mr. BURT: And I can see her to this day. She'd have a paring knife, a bowl, an apron, rocking on that porch with a fan that she got from church with a wooden Popsicle handle.

LEVINE: The porch and the house are gone, but the 120-acre homestead remains in nearby Geff.

Mr. BURT: When I go down there, everybody keeps saying, how come you want to go 25 miles to farm a piece of ground? Because the profit's just not there when you start looking at the fuel and all. Why don't you just rent the farm out? And there's just something about being down there...

(Soundbite of Mr. Burt clearing his throat)

Mr. BURT: Excuse me. Farming ground that your grandfather cleared with an axe, where your dad was born, where he walked to school. I mean, I've got an emotional attachment to the ground.

LEVINE: To the ground, to the farm, to his bottle cow, to the very idea of cattle on the land, an idea that is no longer penciling out for 56-year-old Dave Burt, nor for a number of other farmers his age. Still, that's doesn't make his own herd any easier to sell.

Mr. BURT: It's going to be dead silence on that farm. Every morning when I go out, you will not hear that cow bellow in the morning looking for a calf. It's going to be different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVINE: You're sure it's the right decision?

Mr. BURT: It is. I mean, sometimes you hate to do it, but you have to let go.

LEVINE: Another day breaks on Dave Burt's farm, one of the last for this serene herd. He'll miss them, but he is a family man, and his own elderly parents need more of his time. What he doesn't know this sweet morning is that his buddy, Clem(ph), is going to adopt two of the animals he's selling. One is a calf. The other is her mother, Dave Burt's bottle cow. Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can see pictures on Ketzel's blog at And tomorrow on "American Moxie," we'll meet the voice in the box, farmer Dave Burt's friend at that drive-through in Flora, Illinois.

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