Wilson and Mary Greenlaw regard themselves as a typical farm family with a typical farm problem: They are going broke. They farm nearly 600 acres of land in Hartwood, Va., a few miles northwest of Fredericksburg. In the past, they have raised sheep, hogs and cattle, as well as the usual hay, corn and soybeans. And over the last decade, they have gradually gotten deeper and deeper in debt.
Part of their debt was, typically, taken on to buy more land adjacent to the acreage Greenlaw bought from his father in 1964, after he graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg with a degree in animal science. The remainder of the debt was incurred to cover losses in several years and for investments, such as two large new cattle feeding barns, that they thought were needed for the farm's long-term survival.
Speaking generally about farmers, Wilson Greenlaw said, "We have been selling the produce we have raised at less than break-even costs. We have borrowed against the equity of our farms.
"You can't turn off the spigot of a farm. You always think, next year it has to get better. No, it doesn't have to get better next year," he declared.
The Greenlaws and Tim Tarr, manager of the Warrenton Farm Credit System office that holds the mortgage on the farm, agree that the way out for them -- again as is typically the case for many financially troubled farmers -- is to reduce their debt. Greenlaw is a member of the board of the Warrenton Land Bank Association, a mutual organization owned by its borrowers.
Unlike most farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains regions who also are going broke because they can't make enough money at current farm commodity prices to cover their interest payments, the Greenlaws have at least a chance of shedding some of their debt by selling part of their major asset, their land.
The strength of land values is one reason that the three Baltimore Farm Credit Banks, of which the Warrenton association is a part, are solvent and healthy, unlike some of the other 34 banks in the nationwide Farm Credit System. Last year, FCS lost $2.7 billion, while the Baltimore banks, with about 4 percent of the system's assets, made $12.7 million.
Stafford County has become part of the Washington metropolitan area, with a substantial number of homes occupied by people who commute northward to jobs in and around Washington. As a result, there is growing demand for building sites and land in chunks suitable for small, part-time farming operations. There is also some demand from families looking for recreational land.
This demand has helped shore up land values in the region, though Tarr said that in areas where land is really only useful for farming, values have declined somewhat.
The Greenlaws have put up for sale all of one 70-acre farm across the road from their main farm. A portion has been sold, but a 31-acre parcel and a number of three-acre lots remain.
But their debt load is so great that more will have to go. Altogether, they hope to sell between 175 and 200 acres over the next couple of years, they said. "I hate to sell it," Wilson Greenlaw said, "but we have to raise some money. We have to liquidate some assets, and that is land. One of the hardest things for a farmer to accept it that he can't make a living farming."
The planned land sales are "upsetting to some of our neighbors, who perceived we aren't in difficulty," Greenlaw continued. An application for a rezoning was withdrawn after it met opposition, and any sales will be in line with current zoning allowances, he said.
In pursuit of making a living farming, about three years ago the Greenlaws decided to concentrate on feeding cattle -- that is, taking small steers and fattening them for slaughter -- and trying to do it as efficiently as possible. That was when they went further into debt to build two very efficient feeding barns.
One byproduct of the barns is a system for collection of all of the manure produced by the cattle. It goes into a lagoon and later is spread in slurry form on the Greenlaw fields as fertilizer.
Even with the barns, enough land to provide much of the feed for the animals and "free" fertilizer, Wilson Greenlaw estimated that at current prices for "fat" cattle, he is not quite breaking even on his operations. Faced with such arithmetic in 1984, he and his wife decided to try another avenue not open to most farmers: They opened a retail meat market in Fredericksburg.
They say that they buy feeder cattle in the area and give them no hormones or growth stimulants, and they advertise that fact. In addition to their own beef, all of which is now sold through the shop, they buy locally raised pork, some local eggs and freshly killed chickens.
"It's a little soon to tell if it will work or not because we went to a lot of expense to open this new business," cautioned Mary Greenlaw. What they need, added her husband, is more customers so that they can use the cash to increase the number of cattle they are feeding and more fully utilize their facilities.
Meanwhile, the Greenlaws keep looking for ways to add to their income. They are selling alfalfa hay and corn silage to horse farms, and they are selling manure for gardens.
The Greenlaws hope they will emerge from their financial troubles with a smaller but viable farm and a successful retail outlet that will be the key to that viability. But they also acknowledge that they may not.
"I do not feel I failed as a farmer," Wilson Greenlaw said. "Where we did fail was failing to recognize the trends." His list of "trends" is long, including the much higher interest rates of the 1980s and the significant loss of international markets for U.S. agricultural products, which were the product of a number of developments, including the sharp rise in the value of the dollar, occasional grain and soybean export embargoes and foreign competitors' export subsidies.
"All these factors contribute to the plight of the Greenlaws and other American farmers," he said.