Feature

How to manage debt

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Are you borrowing money to operate your farm? If you’re a commercial-sized producer, the answer is probably yes. Especially if a new generation is interested in carrying on the family business.

“If you’re planning to transition to the next generation, you’re trying to grow,” said Keith Bodenhausen, community president of the Bank of Gower in northwestern Missouri. “Expansion usually requires that you borrow.”

We called on Bodenhausen and other farm lenders and economists to outline farm debt in our region. We also asked for tips on how you can manage debt to help your farm succeed.

How much debt do you need?

According to USDA, U.S. farm debt fell to $240 billion in 2010, down from $245 billion the previous year. What does that mean to the average farmer?
To get a handle on farm debt, it’s tempting to take the total U.S. farm debt of $240 billion, and divide it by the number of farmers in the U.S., 2.2 million. That gives you $109,090 as the average farmer’s debt. But you might have to look long and hard to find that average farmer.

Our experts suggest that credit needs vary depending on your position within four basic groups. 
•    Farmers who work full-time off the farm don’t usually require much debt.
•    Older farmers with no one in line to take over are winding down. They usually don’t borrow much.
•    Older farmers bringing in the next generation need debt to expand.
•    Young, beginning farmers need financing, but often can’t qualify for loans on their own.

A December 2009 USDA Amber Waves magazine article titled Debt Landscape for U.S. Farms Has Shifted explains that your operation’s size may also determine your credit needs: “Larger farms, with a greater asset base and higher revenues, are now much more likely to use debt than are smaller farms. The majority of smaller farms surveyed indicated that they have sufficient funds to finance their operations.”

Daryl Oldvader, CEO of FCS Financial, a Farm Credit association that provides financing to Missouri farmers, added to the demographic portrait. “About one-half of the farms in the U.S. are debt-free,” he said. “Most are owned by absentee landowners, retirees or investors.”

The Amber Waves article went on to say that farmers in intensively farmed areas including the Corn Belt, Northern Plains and the Southeast have relatively high debt levels compared to other regions.
Mike Duffy, an agricultural Extension economist at Iowa State University, offers a simple explanation for these trends. “A larger operation will borrow more because they have greater expense to cover.”

The case for borrowing
If you subtract out all the retiring, small and absentee landlords who don’t borrow, you end up with a relatively small number of producers borrowing the lion’s share of the $240 billion in farm debt. It’s common for these operations to owe a million dollars or more.

As Oldvader said, “It’s difficult to imagine a growing and profitable commercial-sized farm in today’s environment without some debt.” Doug Hofbauer, CEO of Frontier Farm Credit in eastern Kansas, agreed: “If you’re bringing on another generation, growth to generate additional revenue is likely to be necessary.”

Kevin Dhuyvetter, professor and Extension specialist in farm management at Kansas State University, said debt makes sense for expanding operators. “If your goal is to run an ongoing business, why would you desire to be debt-free?” he asks. “If managed properly, debt is often one of the lowest-cost sources of capital.” 
Dhuyvetter and his fellow K-State economist, Michael Langemeier, work with the Farm Management Association, which provides accounting and economic analysis services for 2,300 Kansas farmers. Langemeier sees more farms moving from one operator to two or three operators as younger generations return to the farm.

“There’s more opportunity these days for more family members to be involved,” Langemeier said. “Being debt-free is not meaningful to these operators. It takes a lot of cash today to buy land and equipment, and you have to incur debt to grow.” 
He worries more about farmers who don’t borrow. “Some farmers have expanded aggressively in the last five years. If they’ve been good managers, their returns are even higher today, so they have all this cash on hand that they can leverage to expand even more. Unfortunately, there’s a group that hasn’t expanded at all, and I’m a little concerned about their future.” 
Farming takes big bucks

No doubt about it, farming is a capital-intensive business. And hold on to your tractor seat—land prices are trending up.
With its rich, productive soil, Iowa land brings some of the highest prices in the nation, and Iowa can be a bellwether for other farm states. Duffy conducts an annual farmland value survey at Iowa State. His most recent findings, released in December, reveal an average 2010 sale price of $5,064 per acre, an increase of $693 per acre over 2009. 
The other experts don’t see that much increase in their areas, but they report that land values remain strong and sales activity steady, with more buyers than sellers available. In addition, land rent prices appear to be rising. 
Dan Coons, executive vice president of the Macon-Atlanta State Bank in northeastern Missouri, holds strong views on renting versus purchasing: “While we consider cash rents to be high, the cost to amortize a loan on the same land at high sales prices costs significantly more.”

Coons recommends that landowners put land on the balance sheet at a conservative value and not change that value for five to ten years. “This allows a farmer to make meaningful comparisons of their debt-to-asset ratio over time,” he said. “When they show increased net worth, it is truly earned.” Coons goes further, suggesting a concept that might seem sacrilege to farmers. “Bankers and many farm economists think we may have lower land prices in our future. Why not sell some acres, reduce debt, ensure your survival and maybe make a little more profit that goes to family instead of debt service?”

Beyond long-term financing for land, farmers also need short-term loans to cover operating expenses. “We have seen operating lines of credit get larger over the past few years and we expect that trend to continue,” Coons said.
Livestock producers need funds for feed and livestock inventory. In eastern Kansas, “Livestock producers tend to carry larger operating lines due to inventory and input costs compared to crop operations,” Hofbauer said. “Of our top 10 largest loans, five are livestock and only one grows crops.” Livestock producers have been more cautious about borrowing recently, he added.
Crop growers need capital to purchase seed, fertilizer, fuel and equipment. Bodenhausen recommends caution when buying new paint. “Be careful to keep equipment investments in line with your level of production.”

While our Farm Credit sources provide loans to thousands of farmers, Bodenhausen’s and Coons’s banks serve smaller areas and fewer agricultural customers. Still, as a Nov. 30, 2010, USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) report, titled Farm Income and Costs: Assets, Debt, and Wealth, pointed out, it’s the nation’s commercial banks, like the Bank of Gower and the Macon-Atlanta State Bank, that collectively continue to be the largest lender to agricultural businesses.

Farm income looks good
No matter where you borrow, and whether you grow animals or plants, things look fairly rosy for farm income these days, making it more likely that you can repay your debt. The ERS report predicted net farm income would rise by 31 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, and total production expenses would rise by just 2 percent.
Livestock producers took a shot to the chin when feed prices shot up in recent years, but they’re catching up. The ERS forecast: “The rise in the value of livestock production (16.6 percent) is expected to be more than five times the rise in the value of crop production (3.1 percent).”

Partly due to these positive trends, farm assets continue to rise faster than farm debt. Are farmers borrowing less, or are lenders tightening credit? It’s probably a combination of both. As Oldvader said, “The current volatile economic environment has made both farmers and their lenders more conservative regarding credit.”

The ERS report offers more details. “Interest rates have declined slowly throughout 2010, while credit has remained available through major lenders. Nonetheless, farm businesses faced tightened credit requirements throughout 2010 as a consequence of increased local collateral requirements and/or shortened loan repayment time periods. While debt capital is likely to be available to highly qualified borrowers at relatively low cost, less qualified borrowers are likely to face higher interest rates.”
While U.S. farm debt declined in 2010, all of the lenders we spoke to report a slight rise in farm lending recently, even though many producers have taken the opportunity during these positive times to pay down debt. “While 2010 started relatively slow, lending activities have reached record peaks as we approach 2011,” Oldvader said. “Loan activity seems to be gaining steam as more producers reflect confidence in the economy.”

Learning from the past
We’ve established that expanding commercial farmers need loans, that credit is available, and that producers have a better chance of repaying loans than in past years. Still, a certain percentage will not make their loan payments. What’s the difference between those who succeed and those who struggle? 
To find the answer, we turn to the farm credit crisis of the 80s. Iowa became the epicenter of the crisis when lenders provided loans based on escalating land values. “People learned that what goes up can come down,” Duffy said. “It only matters that you can make debt payments.”

Both farmers and lenders learned from the crisis. “We learned that you can’t borrow your way out of debt,” Oldvader said. “Even though assets are appreciating today, sound borrowing principles should always center around adequate earnings for debt repayment—liquidity for periods of extreme price volatility and manageable debt levels relative to total assets.”
Hofbauer gets right to the point. “It might take collateral to borrow money, but it takes cash to repay it,” he said.

What lenders want today
Fortunately, our experts think today’s farmers are more savvy than in the past.
“The worst managers see debt as a way to cash flow—they borrow money to pay bills,” Dhuyvetter said. “The best recognize that debt is simply another input, similar to buying seed. Successful debt managers understand how leverage and interest rates relate to financial measures such as return on assets and return on equity. You can keep debt manageable by not over-extending yourself, and by managing production and market risk.”

Honing marketing skills is key. “It’s not necessarily a college degree that makes the difference.” Bodenhausen said that while some farmers might not have attended college, the ones who succeed seek continuing education. “They’re self-motivated to study how markets, contracts and futures work,” he said.

Most large operators depend on accountants to track finances. “If you know your cost of production per bushel of corn, you can make a better decision on when to sell it,” Bodenhausen said.
Beyond understanding financial principles, Oldvader said the best managers develop a business plan that addresses credit use and repayment sources. “These producers also maintain current and accurate records to support constructive dialogues with their lenders,” he said.

If ever there’s a time when you should be able to manage debt, it’s today. Interest rates hit historic lows recently, allowing you to lock in low fixed rates on longer-term debt and low variable rates on short-term operating debt.
“Managing debt today is easier than other aspects of the farm business,” Hofbauer claimed. “Managing the cost and volatility of inputs, marketing decisions and risk management are all more difficult than managing debt.” He believes farmers who fail run into problems in three areas—managing expansion, handling market volatility and controlling expenses. He suggests you ask yourself these questions:

How have you handled growth and expansion?
Have you incurred losses from a production problem or a risk management program gone awry because of extreme market volatility?

Are you living within your means?
Managing debt may be easier, but lenders still want farmers to share in lending risk. That’s why they ask you to invest your own equity capital in your operation—in other words, you must have money to borrow money. “We’re seeing operations grow more rapidly today than ever and funding that growth should come from a combination of earnings/equity and borrowed funds, not just from borrowing,” Hofbauer said. “As operations grow it is critical to maintain capacity and liquidity in the operation.”
Another important skill—working with employees and family members involved in the business. “Managing human resources is even more complex than managing production,” Hofbauer said. “Successful commercial operations focus on having the right people in the right jobs doing the right things.”

Coons believes farmers should build liquidity during good times. “Proper loan structure means keeping a significant portion of your debt long term, and paying down operating lines and machinery debt faster,” he said.
It’s a good time to be a farmer

If you need a loan, and you develop good management techniques, you can probably pay it back. Farmers are enjoying the best profits in decades.

“The mid-1970s was the last comparable period when U.S. farming enjoyed multiple years of sustained levels of high output and income,” said the ERS report. Soybean farmers are benefiting from record exports, especially to China, and corn sales will rise with expected increases in bio-energy demand.

If it’s a good time to be a farmer, it’s also a good time to be a farm lender. Most ag lenders weren’t involved in the worldwide banking crisis a couple of years ago, and they’re well-positioned to provide debt financing.

But Dhuyvetter reminds everyone to stay grounded. “This is a great time to be a farmer—but it’s no time for the faint of heart. There is tremendous variability in markets for both inputs and outputs, and the dollar amounts being managed today are larger. The need to treat the farm operation like a business is more important than ever.”

Bodenhausen throws in a final piece of advice. “Keep costs in line with revenue—and keep on top of it,” he said. “We’ve enjoyed positive commodity prices for a while now, but use more conservative pricing forecasts in your budget. Today, demand is strong and supplies are low, but world events could change that. The market won’t support these prices forever. Use these times of good prices to get your financial house in order.”

Where to get help
The Extension service offers courses on debt management. Contact your local agent, or, in Missouri, visit extension.missouri.edu and click on agriculture. In Iowa, extension.iastate.edu/farmmanagement. In Kansas, agmanager.info.
Farm Credit University offers an online course featuring David Kohl, a nationally respected farm economist. Visit their Web site, fcuniversity.com, or contact your local Farm Credit association. Your community bank can also help.

How do you measure up?

Many farm lenders use three main ratios to measure a customer’s financial health, but in today’s environment, liquidity is the critical measure. Lending on assets that are not easily converted to cash doesn’t work like it used to. Your ratio may vary based on your type of operation, your size and scale, and your long-term business plan. Ask your lender where you stand. 

Liquidity (Working Capital): This compares current assets or capital on hand to debt. Strive for a ratio of 1.25 to 1 or better. For every $1 of current liabilities, you should maintain $1.25 or more in liquid assets. If you owe $1 million in current liabilities, you should maintain $1.25 million in current assets. Current assets include cash, crop or livestock inventories, accounts receivable, and marketable securities such as CDs, stocks and bonds. Current liabilities include obligations due in the next 12 months.

Repayment Ability: The Capital Debt Repayment Capacity Ratio measures your ability to repay loans. Lenders like to see this at 1.25 to 1, where for every dollar you owe in term loan payments, you should earn at least $1.25 in net income for the year. If you owe $100,000, you should make $125,000 or more. Net income is the amount of earnings remaining after you subtract expenses such as labor, fuel, feed, seed, fertilizer, family living costs, taxes and rent.

Debt to Equity: This measures your leverage by comparing your debt to equity levels. At least 55 percent of your assets should be in the form of equity. If you have $1 million in real estate, you should maintain $550,000 in equity or net worth, and owe no more than $450,000.

 

MFA Incorporated Annual report for August 31 2010

Written by Bill Streeter and Don Mills on .

MFA Incorporated’s fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31, 2010, reflected a sound recovery from the world-wide market volatility of 2009. Our profitability of $9.7 million reflected an acceptable level given last year’s operating environment.

Last year’s wet fall delayed harvest and field activity. Continued wet weather through the winter months and into spring kept farmers inside and delayed spring fieldwork. Nature relented in mid-April and MFA’s employees busily did what they do best.

They moved record amounts of seed, crop protection and plant foods. In a record-setting timeframe for April, MFA achieved a $14.7 million profit. Never before has your cooperative moved so much in so short a period. MFA has a loyal and dedicated employee workforce. Employees are the backbone of this organization. No one in our trade territory has a better group of individuals.

This past fiscal year we focused on what we know best: grain origination and sales of agronomy and livestock products. We set in motion a constant review of risk management. We divested ourselves of much of our pork production. We focused on improving our balance sheet and reducing capital requirements. We renegotiated our loan agreements.

We are now positioned almost two years ahead of realistic internal targets set in July of 2009. What’s more, we have excellent lender relations. We also have very good bond sales and outstanding customer confidence. In fact, pre-pay at calendar year end 2009-10 was a record $69 million. Furthermore, farmers delivered a near record $431 million of grain to MFA locations.

As shown by our customers’ actions, MFA enjoys strong customer confidence in addition to strong supplier support and excellent support from our corporate board of directors. MFA continues expanding, although at a slower pace. The budget announced for fiscal year 2010-11 reflects profitability of $12.4 million, which is a very achievable goal.

Many positives were reflected in our trade territory as we entered this new fiscal year. An excellent fall saw farmers complete corn harvest well ahead of normal. Soybean harvest followed suit, and winter wheat plantings were 90 percent complete, 22 days ahead of normal. Prices for grain, beef and milk spurred the agricultural economy.

Today, MFA has high ownership of grain with very good margin potential, favorable plant-food movement compared to the five-year average and excellent marketing programs in place (both macro and micro). We have customer faith, strong bondholder faith, excellent employee morale and attitude, and favorable interest rates. The future holds promise. We have the policies in place, the confidence of all involved and the determination that the company’s best days are ahead.

In a few months, MFA will celebrate its 97th anniversary. Our success will continue because we enjoy an interested membership, an involved and engaged corporate board, and loyal and dedicated employees.

Cattle produceers fight one mean 'Trich'

Written by James D. Ritchie on .

About 35 years ago, the buzz in cow country was the bull-of-the-year, as calf producers rounded up European and other “exotic” bloodlines to add to their herds. More recently, a chief concern has been the disease-of-the-year, as first one then another malady plagued the industry.

“Five years ago, trichomoniasis was virtually unknown to Missouri cattlemen,” said Dr. Craig Payne, veterinarian with the University of Missouri Extension’s Commercial Agriculture program. “Today, the disease is a likely culprit in cattle herds with low pregnancy rates.”

Trichomoniasis foetus (trich for short) is a venereal disease caused by a single-celled protozoan parasite and transmission of this organism during breeding can cut the calf crop by as much as 50 percent due to early embryonic death or abortion. The trich organism colonizes a cow’s reproductive tract (the inside of the penal sheath in bulls) and attacks the embryo that begins to develop after a cow is successfully bred. The cow typically aborts the damaged embryo and returns to heat.

“Other things can cause cows to fail to settle or to lose their calves early, but trich may be the culprit that often gets blamed on something else,” said Eldon Cole, University of Missouri extension livestock specialist. “If you have a high percentage of cows coming back into heat 50 to 60 days after breeding, suspect trich.
“This disease can be expensive because of strung-out calf crops, poor breeding rates and the cost of getting rid of trich once your herd has it,” Cole added.

The initial trich infection in cows usually does not interfere with conception but rather results in death of the embryo or abortion at 50 to 70 days of gestation, explained Dr. Payne. “As a result, cows and heifers typically return to estrus one to three months after breeding, but a period of infertility may last two to six months as a result of the infection.”

Cows and young bulls tend to “shed” the organism and clear themselves of the infection eventually. But bulls three years of age and older may become permanent carriers. “A small percentage of cows, though themselves still able to deliver normal calves, may become permanent carriers and spread the infection to other bulls in the following breeding season,” Dr. Payne said.
There’s currently no treatment to cure trich, nor a vaccine to prevent it. Individual animals—both bulls and females—show few or no obvious signs of infection. “The main symptoms of an infected herd appear as an excessive number of open cows—40 percent to 50 percent on average—and a calving interval prolonged over several months,” the veterinarian continued.

Fortunately, there is a new quick and accurate way to diagnose trich—usually made by testing the bulls. Modern tests using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) are more sensitive than traditional methods of culturing samples and looking for the trich organism under a microscope—which typically required three tests for a firm verdict.

“One PCR test can either clear or incriminate a bull,” said Eldon Cole. “I’d suggest always testing new bulls coming into the herd.”
How widespread is trich in Missouri herds? No one seems to have a good handle on that just yet.
“Between March and August, 2010, at least 18 Missouri counties were known to have herds infected with trich,” said Dr. Payne. “Most of those counties were in southwest Missouri—that’s where the largest concentration of beef cattle is—but no part of the state appears to be immune.”

“If we were testing bulls more extensively, we might be surprised at how widespread trich is,” guessed Cole.
“Testing for trich is not widespread yet,” said Dr. Mike Bloss, Countryside Animal Clinic at Aurora, Mo., who with several colleagues, conducts two bull breeding soundness clinics each year in spring and fall. “We offer to test for trich at these clinics, if owners request it, and several do. So far, the percentage of positive tests is pretty low. But we are seeing cows that don’t settle or those that return to heat after they’ve apparently been bred. Trich is one of the more likely suspects in these cases.”
Where trich is concerned, an ounce of “keep clean” is worth a ton of “clean up.” Prevention is the goal of animal health divisions in Missouri and several other states: they require a negative trich test on all non-virgin bulls being brought into the state. Oklahoma and Texas go a step further by requiring tests on bulls transferred within the state.

Preventing trich in your herd:
•    Isolate and test all new bulls.
•    When possible, buy only young, tested bulls and virgin heifers.
•    Consider using artificial insemination and manage for a defined breeding season.
•    Be wary of using leased or borrowed bulls, and keep fences in good repair. “A neighbor who lets you use his bull may not be doing you much of a favor if the bull carries in trich,” said Eldon Cole.
•    Keep accurate records.
•    Once your herd gets trich, management of the disease can be costly, involving culling infected bulls and open cows and replacing them with tested bulls and virgin heifers. But not managing trich can be even more costly, with open cows and strung-out calf crops.

Solid footing for the future

Written by Steve Fairchild on .

Anyone managing an agricultural business—from farmers to suppliers and manufacturers—looks at the past few years as a stretch unprecedented in its volatility. MFA Incorporated has endured the peaks and valleys of that volatility and, in the process, shaped its business operations to reflect agriculture’s changing economic landscape. After record profits in fiscal year 2008 and record losses in fiscal year 2009, your cooperative spent the past fiscal year with extreme focus on: implementing risk-management strategies, continuing to control operating costs and intensifying focus on its traditional business strengths. The result was reasonable profit for the year.

Financial performance

MFA’s net profit for the fiscal year was $9.7 million, up from a $62.1 million loss the previous fiscal year. Total sales for the year were comparable to last year and once again exceeded $1 billion. The net profit was a result of good earnings in most of MFA’s divisions. While profits were in line with the budget goals for the year, earnings were dampened by losses in MFA’s hog operations and a wet fall that was followed by a wet spring limiting movement of field crop inputs and services to a narrow window.

Grain sales

Grain sales totaled $431 million compared to the previous fiscal year mark of $365 million. Because the fiscal year ends Aug. 31, these numbers reflect the 2009 harvest season. The region’s great harvest bounty was reflected in an increase in grain handled by MFA with 63 million bushels moving through the system. This was an increase of some 9.7 million bushels compared to the year prior, a 19 percent spike. By commodity, volume increases were 7.1 million bushels for soybeans, 6.2 million bushels for corn and a decrease of 3.7 million bushels for wheat. Volume shifts mirror crop production reported for our trade-territory.

Field crops

Field crop sales (plant food, seed, crop protection products) produced revenues of $396 million, down from $485 million the previous fiscal year, an $89 million decline. Of the $396 million, plant food sales represent $266 million, a 14 percent drop from last year. Tonnage sold at Wholesale and Retail increased compared to the previous year, but lower average unit values reduced total sales dollars. Crop protection volume was $132 million, down $5 million from last year. There was considerable decrease in unit values, especially among glyphosate products, which was largely offset through an increase in units sold.
Seed sales were $74 million, up $1 million from last year. Soybean seed volume was down 6 percent compared to last year and totaled 727,000 units. Seed corn sales increased about 10 percent at 86,000 units. Both of these results reflected the change in planted acres in MFA’s trade territory. To no surprise, MFA wheat seed sales were down substantially as wheat acres in the region plummeted.

Livestock supply

Livestock supply sales (feed, farm supply and animal health) totaled $163 million, an increase of $13 million. In a challenging market and with the beef herd continuing to shrink, Feed Sales tonnage increased 7 percent to 323,000 tons.
Finished hogs marketed in 2010 were comparable to 2009. Sales dollars increased 9 percent, reflecting higher market prices received in 2010.

MFA sold its swine operations to Cargill in July 2010. Ownership of the weaned pigs at closing remained with MFA. MFA will raise these animals to market weight and recognize sales through December 2010.
The increased sales value was due to higher market prices received for fat hogs.
Farm supply product sales remain flat with last year’s measures. Under current feedstuffs and livestock input prices, producers continue to limit discretionary spending on farm supply products.

Margins and Expenses

Margins (gross margin on products sold and service revenue income) totaled $145 million, an increase of $84 million. 2009 margins were reduced by the losses incurred on the devaluation of plant foods and losses on market hogs sold. Increased volumes in most of the operating divisions added to this increase.
Operating expenses were up $2 million to a total of $136 million. Increases are attributable to increased sales and service volumes.
The net operating losses incurred in 2009 that could not be carried to previous tax years were carried forward and used to offset all of 2010 member earnings. Even with the loss carryforward, alternative minimum tax regulations resulted in a small tax expense.

The balance sheet

After a very difficult year in 2009, MFA made managing the balance sheet a priority with the goal of limiting risk, bank debt and the associated interest expense. Current assets reflect a decrease of $23 million due mainly to a reduction in receivables. During 2010 MFA entered into a financing arrangement with ProPartners whereby they assumed a portion of the producer input loans. An early grain harvest resulted in increased inventory, this increase was offset by a lower cash balance.

Investments (our ownership in interregional cooperatives and joint ventures) increased to $38 million. Recapitalization of AGRIServices of Brunswick and positive earnings in our three joint ventures supported this increase.

Fixed assets (land, buildings, equipment and rolling stock) decreased to $81 million in 2010. Capital expenditures were reduced approximately 50% to $7 million. Reducing fixed assets was the sale of some redundant, inefficient and non-operational assets with a book value of $2 million and depreciation expense of $14 million.

Total assets are $358 million, down from $381 million for fiscal 2009. Most of the reduction is attributable to reduced accounts receivable, particularly the credit arrangement with ProPartners.
Net worth improved by $9 million, to $94 million as a result of earnings. Member equities account for $62 million and retained savings make up the remaining $32 million.

When Christmas is a new beginning

Written by Mitch Jayne on .

 

A holiday and a puppy to mend two hearts

 

 

It wasn’t that Ben McInnes “wore a hard name,” which, in the Ozarks, is said about people either mean or dishonest. Ben was neither one. But what the McInnes name called up, when Chester Kiley mentioned it around the winter stove in the country store, was about as disturbing.


It was the last week before Christmas, when every neighbor stopped by the store before dark to talk about the snow, the price of gasoline, and to relive the deer season just past. Ben’s name came up because he had quit hunting after his wife and son left him. He had missed the deer season camaraderie and worse, never came to join the gathering at the store anymore.


“Now, I just don’t know what to tell you. I’ve known miserable folks in my time,” Chester said. “But Ben McInnes is the only one who works at it. He thinks if he gets pleasure doin’ a thing, like deer huntin,’ it must mean it ain’t work. I blame that for the downfall of his marriage.”


The strangeness of that idea sank in as the men thought of walking all week through the brown hollows and biting wind to earn a chance at winter meat. Even now they listened to the north wind playing the stove pipe and remembered what work it was.


Several of Chester’s listeners nodded, but Joe Case, the oldest of them, shook his head. “It ain’t so much misery as stubbornness,” he said. “Ben cain’t see but one side of a thing, just like his Pa. So he don’t understand why she left and it makes him miserable. Somebody should do something about Ben.”


“I don’t believe Ben McInnes can see two sides to a flapjack,” was Walter Cope’s comment, and that got a laugh. Joe Case grinned too, but his mind was still on what Chester had said about his old friend.


“Stubborn!” he repeated. “And look what it’s got him. His wife Julie’s left and took their kid with her.”


“Small wonder about that,” said Walter wryly, “Ben wants a family operation like his Pa’s—just him, her and when he gets his size, Cody—doin’ it all, tradin’ big work with neighbors, maybe some day save up enough for two farms.”


“Somebody should do something about Ben,” said Joe again, but the late deer hunters weren’t listening. Enjoying the stove’s heat, it was easier to just think about how stubborn Ben McInnes was—alone in an empty house.


Russell Phelps, who hadn’t said a thing, pulled a bent cigarette from his pocket and rose to light it from a box of wooden matches by the stove. A tall wiry man whose wife taught school in town, Russell always thought before he spoke.


“My wife and Ben’s are friends,” he began slowly. “Julie told her before she left, she didn’t mind Ben’s stubborn ways when it was just the two of them against the odds.”

He sat back down to reach the ash pan and flick his ashes. “But when Cody was born, she began to see how Ben being mule-headed could affect a kid; how could he grow up curious and open minded if his daddy had all the answers? How could he try a thing his way, if his daddy knew the only right way? How could his opinion count in that house?”


“Or,” said Walter, dryly from his corn sack perch, “how could he have a cute, no account puppy for a pet when his daddy wouldn’t have nothing but working dogs?


“So you knew about that, too?” said Russell. “My wife says it was kind of the straw that busted the camel down. Julie, she grew up on a farm and loved it, but never had an animal of her own. It had to be useful or productive or sold to pay its way. She didn’t want Cody to grow up thinking everything in life has a market value. She’s got a point there.”
“Seems to me she’s thinkin’ kind of a long way off,” said Chester, to nobody in particular.


“That’s what I said about Christmas a month ago,” said Joe. “And now here it comes and I believe somebody should do something about Ben.” Joe Case, in his own way, was as stubborn as anybody.


The next day, Joe Case showed up at the town animal pound.


“I want a friendly pup, don’t matter what make,” he told the girl attendant, “long as it likes people and kids.”


“Well, most of our puppies have found homes,” she said. “It’s so near Christmas. But we have a young dog, you might want to adopt, I think it’s part Keeshond, one of those little Dutch dogs that likes everybody. They call them, ‘The smiling Dutchman.’”


“Nobody stubborn as the Dutch,” growled Joe. “Let’s look at him.”


They went back in the building past pens of barking, jumping dogs to a pen that held a small scruffy looking dog who got up politely to greet them. “His name is Bear,” offered the girl.
Bear had tiny feet, a great mane of sand colored hair and a bushy tail that curled up over his back. His black ears perked up and his black mouth opened in a grin of interest. He looked at Joe with soulful brown eyes, sizing him up.


“That is the sorriest looking dog I ever saw,” said Joe, and at the sound of his voice, the dog’s tail made a slow, tentative wag. “What’s one of these ‘Case-honds’ good for?”
“Just good company I guess,” said the girl. “Sort of a common ‘for better or worse, richer-poorer’ dog. Bear’s old owner died last week and he’s about lonesomed to death.”
“I believe he’ll do,” said Joe.


It was late afternoon, Christmas Eve, and definitely looking like snow when Joe Case pulled his pickup into Ben McInnes’s driveway. He let out Bear, who was wearing a new collar and leash. The collar, red, with showy rhinestones, was startling peering out of that ragged mane, but Joe didn’t care. It was almost Christmas, his mind was set and it was starting to snow again. The little dog looked around at this new place in the world and sniffed with interest.


Ben McInnes came to the door showing signs of the wear and tear of new bachelorhood. He had dark circles under his eyes and his grip trembled some as he shook hands with his old friend. There were no lights on, no tree up and the house looked as dark and forlorn as the man.


“You look like a hammered cow pie,” said Joe to open the conversation. “I brought a Christmas present for you to take to town and give Julie and Cody,” said Joe. “This here is Bear dog. His only job is that he loves people. So do you, so you should get along.”


Ben McInnes took the offered leash in a daze and looked down to see Bear sniffing his shoe. The dog raised his head to observe this new friend and they looked each other over. Bear wagged his curled banner of a tail and smiled, and Ben, despite himself, smiled back.


“Well, thanks Joe,” he began, and the dog ran out his tongue at the sound of his voice, smiling even more around it. “But, Julie and me, we got some big... we don’t agree…well she needed to be by herself to… Anyway, thanks, but I don’t think a dog can solve our…” His voice drifted away as he bent to brush a giant snowflake from the dog’s nose.
“Course he can’t,” snorted Joe who was on his way back to his truck to beat the snow home. “But even a muleheaded fool like you can see he’ll make a good reason to start someplace!”
Longtime Today’s Farmer contributor Mitch Jayne passed away earlier this year. We run this reprint from 2004 in his honor.

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