BUTTERFIELD — On a muddy spring day, Brian Romsdahl brings a couple of visitors for a ride in his side-by-side recreational vehicle. It's the kind of machine he always coveted but could never justify buying, but he won it at a sportsmen's event.
The house, built by his parents for their retirement, is perched on a hill, a sweeping view of a marshy lake below. The original homeplace, with traditional farmhouse and outbuildings, sits next door. His daughter and son-in-law live there but aren't involved in the farm operation.
Green John Deere machinery is in the Quonset shed. "We used to have some red ones on the farm, but I told my dad I'd rather drive them than fix them," he said with a grin.
In a pasture of lime-green grass stained with mud, a few horses and beef cattle nuzzle through hay spread on the ground.
Romsdahl drives down a long field road and over a wooden bridge his dad built several decades ago.
He gets out and gestures with his arm over the large expanse of green, hilly pasture land intersected by a stream and dotted with old trees.
"This is my happy place."
In recent years happy places have been hard to find for Romsdahl, 54, and his wife Therese, 58.
Corn and soybean prices tanked years ago and are now below the break-even point. Farmland prices that soared during the farming boom a decade ago have increased real estate taxes. The final blow came when they had to buy health insurance on the private market.
"Last year, out-of-pocket we paid $41,000," Therese said. "There was a $7,000 deductible for each of us plus the premiums."
Brian said rising costs leave him unable to see a future with any profits.
"We pay $20,000 a year in property taxes. You take that and $40,000 for health care costs and it's a blow," he said. "And the input costs, the fertilizer and everything goes up," he said.
"In the household we have pared down our living to the absolute basics. We pay our utilities and maintain machinery and don't do much else," Therese said.
They said the investors and large farm operations that drove land prices high also drove up taxes.
Therese said that while the biggest farms may get through rough times more easily, she worries about where it's all headed.
"There are some big farms around, but there's always someone bigger than them. What worries me is the corporate giants are going to own the land and animals and seed and they'll control the whole food supply. That's frightening to me," she said.
The Romsdahls have been losing equity the last three years and their banker has been up front with them.
"I have an exceptional banker. He's brutally honest," Brian said. "He says 'I'll keep borrowing you money, but you might want to consider if you want to keep burning equity.'"
While they may be land rich and cash poor, getting out of farming and renting their land to another farmer could be problematic.
"If you quit and sell the machinery and rent your land, you get a job in town. But when you're in your 50s, 60, you're not a real hot commodity in the job market," Brian said.
"You feel like an abject failure. I worked hard my entire life and felt like I was making progress and when the health care cost skyrocketed and the prices went in the toilet — it's tough," Brian said.
Loss and love
Therese's former husband died in 2000 from cancer and she was widowed for more than a decade before meeting Brian, whose wife had died.
"I lived in Shakopee but had family members in Butterfield," Therese said. Her cousin is also married to a friend of Brian's.
"When Brian's wife died — she struggled many many years with breast cancer — it was a long trail for Brian and his two girls. After his wife died, he talked to my cousin and said he'd really like to talk to someone about his loss and she said he should talk to me because I'd been through it," Therese said.
Eventually the friendship blossomed and they were married in 2011.
"I'd worked in Shakopee for 30 years and I knew Brian could never leave the farm."
When they were first married, the ag economy was booming and Therese stopped working outside the home.
"Farming was at the top, prices were really good. Then it started going down hill," she said.
Brian's daughters are in the mid 20s and Therese has a daughter in her late 30s.
The last crisis
Brian's dad, Harold, started farming between Butterfield and Odin on a picturesque spot near School Lake, raising crops, beef cattle, dairy cows and hogs.
"There was no sitting around the house saying you were bored," Brian said of he and his siblings growing up.
"We played by the lake a lot and there was always a lot of work to do," he said.
His late mother worked hard and sold thousands of pounds of lefse over the years to help the family budget.
Brian maintains his Scandinavian pride, flying the Norwegian flag one day a year on Syttende Mai (May 17), the date the Norwegian Constitution was signed.
"Dad lived here until three years ago when he went to a nursing home when he was 89. He still worked in the cattle yard and drove grain truck. He's 91 now."
In the late 1970s they purchased 80 acres from a neighbor, but when the farm crisis of the 1980s hit, they had to let the land go — a brutal blow to Brian's parents.
"They were so frugal and put everything they had into that land. They were paying 18% interest. They were fortunate they hung onto their other land," Brian said.
"It's 30 some years later and my dad still can't forgive himself."
Lack of political will
The Romsdahls expect little will be done in Washington to end the health insurance crisis being faced by self-employed businesses or others who don't get insurance through their work.
"Politicians say they're going to get something better and cheaper, but nothing ever happens," Brian said.
"You can see why these lawmakers don't want to do anything. They don't think it's a big problem," he said. "Yeah, if you have good, cheap insurance it's not a problem."
The couple is paying less for health insurance this year but not for the reason they'd like. "We're making less money so we qualify for the MnSure subsidy," she said.
While the premiums are lower, they still have the $14,000 deductible.
While they've managed to maintain insurance, they know those who haven't. "There are people in our neighborhood who have lost their health insurance. They could not pay the premiums. They're going uninsured or they are doing alternative type of health insurance," Therese said.
Brian often has breakfast or lunch at the cafe in Odin, a town of 104 known as the hometown of Bruce Laingen, a former diplomat who was taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held with dozens of others for 444 days.
The cafe, open for breakfast and lunch, carries a few grocery items and is operated by a community club, created after the town's only grocer closed. With a manager/cook and one waitress, customers often get their own water and clear their own table to help out.
It's a comfortable place, mixed with young families and old farmers, telling jokes, lies and local gossip.
Therese said it's a place her husband can get away from the isolation of farm living and be with friends.
"The farm community is a very tight community, and he has a group of farmers he gets together with every morning and they support each other. I think they know we're all in the same boat."
Brian recalled a tough stretch when his late wife was battling cancer. "I came home one day and there were a dozen combines out in my fields. People help each other."
Therese worries about the strain on her husband.
"What keeps me up is worrying about my farmer and the stress he is under. It affects him a lot. He worries about his friends and neighbors and how they're doing. We worry about each others' mental health. The stress is crushing. If you're not a farmer, you don't know what it's like until you talk to people and hear them talk about it," Therese said.
Despite the strain, the couple said they have plenty to be thankful about, enjoy family and friends, and find joy in life. But the financial strain is always in the background and the future uncertain.
"I feel better when I'm outside working," Brian said. "But this is probably the least excited I've been about putting a crop in.
"Farmers like to talk about 'next year,' but you start running out of next years."
Brian, who like his dad is a longtime member of Farmers Union, shows a Farmers Union button that says simply "It's the price," a statement that the farm economy can't improve without higher crop prices.
But most ag economists predict low commodity prices will last for years.
After opening up about their struggles, with nothing left to add, Brian pauses and thinks.
"You know, people will read this story and shake their heads and go on to the sports pages. It doesn't affect them personally."