It's 9:30 at night and the sky is wild with stars. But Fauquier County farmer Earl Frazier, up since 3 a.m., is thinking about his $30,000 tractor with the empty fuel tank that's somewhere out in the middle of 500 acres of good old-fashioned country darkness.
Now, how the hell is he going to find it?
"Gotta get it filled before the hired man gets there tomorrow mornin,' " says Frazier, as his pickup tows a trailer carrying 150 gallons of diesel fuel down lane after dusty lane. He glances in the rearview mirror and smiles proudly. "That trailer rides real smooth, now, doesn't it?"
Crash! Suddenly the pickup is swerving and lurching and Frazier only just manages to keep it out of a ditch before it stops. Behind him, buried deep in the dirt and gravel, is the broken left axle of his trailer, shorn of its wheel.
"I knew I shouldn't a been talkin' about it like I was," says Frazier.
Earl Frazier, 42, will tell you right out that he is overworked, underpaid and, like other Virginia farmers, running out of time. From 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. and then from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, Frazier grows corn, wheat, soybeans and hay and raises beef and dairy cattle on 1,500 scattered acres, most of which he leases. He also puts in eight to 10 hours a day as a grain and feed salesman for the Fauquier Grain Company--all for a net annual income of about $15,000, he says. He considers himself one of the lucky ones.
"About 80 percent of my clients are havin' financial troubles," Frazier says, noting that the overdue accounts among the farmers to whom he sells grain and feed run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When things were getting bad three years ago, Frazier and about 25,000 other farmers from around the country drove their tractors to Washington in protest. The resulting traffic jams and devastation to the Mall caused by the tires of 500 tractors won farmers a lot of publicity, but did little to fatten their pocketbooks.
So Frazier, who was one of the original organizers of the Virginia chapter of the American Agriculture Movement and still is the state's delegate to the group's national convention, is concentrating less on protesting and more on survival.
"I couldn't make it without it the job ," Frazier says as he munches his dinner, a bologna and tomato sandwich, just before midnight. "Know how I got it? Boots C. Ritchie, the grain company owner said, 'Hell, you sold people across the state on American Ag, you can sell anything.' So he hired me." He laughs. "Turned out I was a pretty darned good salesman."
Frazier's wife would like him to get out of farming altogether, he laments. "The farm has been pretty depressin' to my wife over the last three, four years. You know, when you put a lot into it and don't get anything out of it. She'd rather I'd get a job. And that's pretty bad."
State statistics support Frazier's dismal view of the economic plight of Virginia farmers. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, each of the state's 58,000 farms earned an average profit of just under $520 in 1981--not much of a return on an average investment of about $28,800. Berkwood M. Farmer, chief economist for the department, is predicting it will be even worse this year with expenses for farmers exceeding income.
Farming is in Frazier's blood, so four hours after downing the bologna sandwich--it is 4 a.m.--Frazier is up again, muttering because he's overslept an hour. "Steve Foushe, his only full-time hired hand is gonna laugh his tail off at me, 'cause he overslept yesterday mornin' and I gave him a hard time."
The pickup barrels down Rte. 15-29 toward Remington where Frazier keeps his dairy herd. Only long-haul truck drivers and buses and a farm pickup or two are on the road now. Even so, a shy, sea-green sky is nudging at the eastern horizon. "Man, it's pretty there. Look--that's a sharp moon, isn't it?," says Frazier, pointing at the narrow scythe of white in the east. "Don't see a moon like that too often, do you?"
In the five hours a night he normally sleeps this time of year, when planting dominates everything, Frazier says he rarely dreams. And when he does, he dreams of, what else? Work.
"I dream about things like what you wanted to do but didn't get done and things like that," he says, as he parks just outside the milkshed. "Can't get away from it."
Inside, Foushe is directing two part-time helpers who are milking eight cows at a time on automatic milkers. He barely looks up as Frazier, a beefy man with soft eyes and graying hair, walks in.
"Where you been?" Frazier demands without so much as a good-morning.
"Wha-a-a?" replies a surprised Foushe.
"Where you been? Been looking all over for you."
Clearly worried he has made a mistake, Foushe grows defensive. "Been here since 20 after three," he begins. Then his boss' ruse dawns on him and a big smile splits his face. "You a damn liar."
Frazier points at a milk cow, one of 97 milk cows he bought for a bargain basement price from a farmer who was going broke. The cow is nibbling at some corn and soybean meal in the milking stall.
"See how raggedy the coat is?" Frazier says, running his hand over the dull fur. "That's 'cause it didn't get the feed it needed. Another 20 days and it woulda died. The man just couldn't afford to feed 'em."
Frazier says that farm foreclosures are up as farmers, caught between stagnating farm product prices and real estate values, are having an even harder time than normal making it. Traditionally, he says, the year-to-year appreciation of their farmland always provided financially strapped farmers with a little extra bargaining power at the bank when they needed loans. Now, because mortgage interest rates are so high, land prices are leveling off, so farmers can borrow less.
"I can count eight gone broke in the last couple of years," he says. "And those are just the ones I know personally." One, he says, pushing his cap back and scratching his head, is chopping wood for a living; another, who was a leader in the Fauquier AAM organization, is managing a Pennsylvania farm; a third is selling fire extinquishers; a fourth is driving a fertilizer truck, and a fifth is doing carpentry work.
"I can't keep up with all of 'em," he says. Hardest hit of all, though, "are the young farmers who have those big mortgage payments."
By this time, the sun is above the silos, and Frazier, turned grain salesman now, is nosing his pickup onto the farm of Jimmie Eustace, one of his customers. "Hey, the competition is here," he cries, spotting a Southern States Cooperative salesman leaning against a pickup with Eustace. "We don't run from the competition. We go head-to-head," Frazier says with glee.
For awhile, as dribbles of tobacco juice pepper the ground, the banter is about the high cost of feed and declining livestock prices. "Hell, I shoulda blue-chipped sold my herd a year and a half ago," Eustace complains. Finally, Frazier stretches and moves toward his pickup.
"Well, I'll tell you," he says with a smile. "I'm gonna go now 'cause he the competing salesman isn't going to talk price while I'm here. Do you need anything?"
Eustace, the third generation to farm this farm, crosses his arms, stares at the ground for a moment and then looks up. "Time. Get me that and we'll get it going again. Before we all go broke." CAPTION: Picture 1, Earl Frazier talks with a customer at the Fauquier Grain Company.; Picture 2, Frazier and his part-time helper try to start a sluggish tractor. Frazier grows corn, wheat, and soybeans and raises beef and dairy cattle.; Pictures 3 and 4, Frazier pumps fuel into a tractor that ran out of gas the night before.; He drives his pickup across one of his fields after leaving his helper with the tractor. Frazier works on his farm from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. and then from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, while putting in 8 to 10 hours a day as a grain, feed salesman at Fauquier Grain Co.; Picture 5, Frazier slips on clean boots in his kitchen after changing clothes for the office. Each of Virginia's 58,000 farms earned an average $520 profit in 1981.; Pictures 6 and 7, In the office Frazier checks his commodity news service for current grain prices and in the afternoon stops by his dairy farm to check his cows. Photos by James M. Thresher--The Washington Post; Map, no caption, By Dave Cook--The Washington Post