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Maybe something will grow

As Jeff Deck, an Ellettsville farmer, begins his harvest in the hardest year yet, he faces losses of every kind.



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Jeff Deck drives his tractor at his farm near Ellettsville, Indiana. Deck said he wants to know what his father would think about the technology present in modern farming. Autumn Schoolman Buy Photos

ELLETTSVILLE – Outside Jeff Deck’s window, down the long gravel driveway, a road leads to one of Deck Family Farms’ many fields.

Just months ago, the gravel was submerged under five feet of water. A yellow “Road May Flood” sign poked out of the murk as it gushed like a river.

“Still raining,” Jeff would say each morning to his wife, June. Raindrops pinged into the water covering the field, water that slowly rose each day.

Now it was October, and the driveway was dry and dusty, sometimes forcing June to bring her clothes in off the line when cars drove by too quickly.

Jeff was 60, had farmed this land his entire life, and had never seen a season so bad.

“It keeps getting hotter and wetter,” he said, gazing over the 33 acres next to his home. After the flooding, he never replanted them. The flood warning sign now taunted him in the dry heat.

Jeff blames the changing climate. Each year, more crops die. This year, 400 acres of corn and soybeans drowned. Corn washed away. Soybean tendrils “broke their necks” under drenched soil. 

Deck Family Farms depends on corn and soybeans, as does the rest of Indiana. They are the most valuable farm products in the state.

Jeff is the fourth generation to farm here. But he has to wonder if it stops with him, and when. He doesn’t need a climate study to know that what he grew up with cannot be sustained.

“Something’s changing in the weather,” he said. “After years of looking after it, you get to know it. The seasons are changing.”

Jeff looked over the field next to his house, where his dog now yapped at the tails of sparrows.

He’s had a lot of dogs, but never one like Clyde.

“They all get sick, and they’re gone,” he whispered. “That’s what happens. Things die, and nothing is ever the same.”

***
Jeff Deck combines his first soybean field of the year Oct. 3 in Ellettsville, Indiana. Deck is a corn and soybean farmer and is the fifth generation of farmers in his family. Autumn Schoolman Buy Photos

In the barn is a tractor, similar to the one he used to take June on picnics with after they met at the 4-H Fair. They would lay a blanket over the hood and take a break from plowing, wiping the dust off the paper sacks and digging into sandwiches.

Jeff has lived on a farm since he was born. He learned to drive a tractor before he learned to shave.

His grandparents were born in the house he and June live in, which has been in the family since 1895.

When he cranks the combine out of his driveway, he passes the barn he grew up working in. Splintered wood and fragments of tin roof protrude from its skeleton.

As a young man, he would birth calves when the cow was too weak, reaching inside to his elbow and looping stainless steel chains around the calves’ slippery ankles. He would pull with his entire, 6-foot-5 inch build until the calves flopped out onto the hay.

When his father died at 56, his mother took over the milking. She milked for 14 years, and then she died, too.

Things felt colorless after that. Homemade apple pie never tasted the same.

Now, Jeff eyes the dilapidated barn.

“Soon, they’ll tear that down, and it’ll be nothing.”

On this farm, Jeff and June endured five miscarriages. They adopted Daniel the day he was born. Two years later, they had their daughter, Cassie.

“We could have lived our lives with nieces and nephews, and we would have been fine,” Jeff said. “But the farm – it ain’t like heritage, like handing it over to your own blood.”

Jeff cusses and doesn’t believe in God, so he considers himself an outsider in the farming community. When it comes to the farm, June and Daniel are the only ones he relies on. 

Earlier this year, June’s mother, Betty, was cleaning a grain cart on her farm. Her foot slipped, and she fell. She broke five ribs and punctured a lung.

Farming is not easy, June says, but they have to keep going. “We’re farmers,” she says. “That’s what we are for life.”

Daniel helps with the heavy labor now, stopping by when he can. But he’s 33, married with young children. It’s not clear whether farming will become his livelihood, like it is his dad’s.

None of them can predict the future of farming, but they know people need their work.

“Concrete don’t raise good crop,”  Jeff says. “People will wonder where they are going to get something to eat.”

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June, Jeff and Daniel Deck discuss transporting soybeans to their distributor. The process requires getting up before the sun rises and driving their semitruck 45 minutes to the drop-off location. Autumn Schoolman Buy Photos

Jeff has been disheartened by the farm for many years, but this year kept getting worse. Even June’s small vegetable garden flowered less than usual, offering only a few tomatoes and green beans.

Across a shallow creek bed lies an open field of weeds. Instead of soybeans, the field is a graveyard of crawdads, their burrows cracking in the heat.

In the 50 years he’s farmed this land, rainfall on the wettest days of the year has increased by a third, according to the EPA. Hotter summers are crippling yields of soybeans and corn — Indiana’s top crops. 

Jeff pointed at wild cucumber, water hemp and foxtail — all weeds.

He dropped a screw into one of the crawdad holes and heard a plop when it reached water at the bottom. 

“Maybe something will grow.”

His diabetes is getting worse. He barely gets any sleep. Farming is getting more strenuous each year, Jeff said. And now, this.

“Mother nature went and took a piss on us.” 

He’s not the only one who has noticed. “If you go by a lot of the literature, this topic is climate change,” said Trevor Laureys of the state department of agriculture. “Temperatures have risen and we get more precipitation each year.”

Thawing and freezing patterns in the spring left farmers with a smaller window for planting. Crops had less time to sprout. Heavy spring rains made the ground soggy, bogging down the tractors.

If things continue, farmers like Jeff might have to consider different crops, Laureys said. Something more heat-tolerant — maybe fruits. 

Jeff hates the idea of changing crops or switching to livestock. The smell reminds him of his days of milking cows.

As the rain poured and the heat blistered, grain prices skyrocketed due to trade disputes. With flooding comes replanting, which is expensive.

Insurance covers grain prices for replanting, Jeff says, but doesn’t account for labor and equipment. Farmers typically operate each year on debt, borrowing what they need for the season and hoping to harvest enough to repay it with some left over. The whipsaw of weather and market forces make for long seasons of uncertainty.

Nationwide, farm debt is projected to be a record-high $416 billion this year, according to the USDA. Across the Midwest, farm bankruptcies are up 13% over last year.

Jeff and June break even with farming and live off June’s nursing paycheck.

“We’re okay,” Jeff says. “But farming don’t make us rich.”

June says farming is only worth what people are willing to pay.

Still, Jeff says he’ll farm until he dies.

There are only six people he needs to keep happy in his life, he says, and that’s enough to carry his casket. June corrects him and says eight, because he’s a big guy.

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Daniel Deck puts a cover on farming equipment on the Deck family farm near Ellettsville, Indiana. Deck said he hopes to take over the farm for his father. Autumn Schoolman Buy Photos

Jeff drives forward, the morning’s agenda to check on the soybeans, but he can’t seem to drive far enough to escape his losses. Some of them are not his own, but he feels them all. Every mile of road carries decades of memories.

Jeff drives through a covered bridge so new he can smell the paint. 

He recalls a time he was driving home from a movie in 1976, when he saw a glow coming from one of his fields. He flew down the road, gravel slapping the sides of his truck.

At the end of the road was the old covered bridge, engulfed in flames.

Jeff stares at the new, sparkling white bridge. “This new one goes nowhere and does nothing,” he says.

He passes a red and gray trailer. “Poor 22-year-old kid put a gun in his mouth and ended it right there a while back,” he says.

The path through the woods is steep and lines a 20-foot cliff. Jeff almost lost his life back here, driving the combine up the hill, June following in the car.

The leaves were wet and he got too close to the edge. One of the back tires slipped off the path, and he felt weightless. He managed to get stuck on a tree as the combine dropped about a foot. He pressed the gas and pulled the combine back to the road.

“Were you scared?” June asked as he stepped down the ladder and thudded to the ground.

“When you wash my underwear tonight, you’ll see.”

Neighboring some of Jeff’s fields are vast open spaces where weeds and trees rise from jagged ground. The Sycamore Land Trust has bought the land from neighboring farmers, usually at a price they can’t say no to, Jeff says, especially when their crops are faltering.

He stops the car.

“Look at that!” he says, pointing out a doe with a thick, dark gray coat, speckles of white glimmering through its fur. “Well, it’s going to be a damn cold winter.”

He carries on past a soybean field, the outer corners bright yellow and ready for harvesting. The center of the field is a deep green from where he replanted.

“The low parts of the fields get it the worst,” he says, stopping the truck.

Jeff steps out and picks a ripe soybean and balances it between his index and middle finger, letting his mind wander to a simpler time, when his boy was small and wanted to grow up to be just like him.

***
Soybeans lay in a container on the Deck farm near Ellettsville, Indiana. Jeff Deck has been growing soybeans in multiple fields for his entire life. Autumn Schoolman Buy Photos

“You ready?” Daniel asks his dad.

Jeff gazes out over a golden ocean. This field of 86 acres of soybeans was one of the best of the year, which was why he decided to harvest it first.

“Let’s get started,” Jeff replies.

Jeff climbs into his combine, which is guided by a 30-foot-wide header that constantly revolves to cut and collect soybeans, sending them through a complicated sorter that Jeff doesn’t understand but whose hard work he appreciates. The beans then spout into a large grain tank, piling against the back window and dimming the cabin from the sun.

The cabin sits 10 feet up, with a windshield that wraps around for a clear view of the beans being jerked from the ground.

Despite the windshield’s protection, Jeff always manages to return home after a long day of combining coated in dust so thick it clogs the shower drain.

Today, Jeff looks pleased.

“This is the best soybean field I’ve seen in years,” Jeff says as the combine takes its first bite.

He is surprised. Earlier this year, when the rain wouldn’t stop, he nearly lost hope.

Before he lets himself celebrate, his face falls. He recounts their expenses, which reached $400,000 this year. Replanting was expensive and several tractors had to be repaired.

It feels like he might make a dollar an hour sometimes, Jeff says. 

Jeff turns the combine again. The field is so thick that even three hours of back and forth barely touches more than a fraction of it.

Tiny mice sprint in between the plow lines, scampering away from the combine’s jaw.

Back and forth, back and forth. Jeff turns the combine and heads for another line. 

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