From his cozy kitchen, Darrell Miller looked with ease at the spot just beyond his barns where the fields begin, the gently undulating squares, some of America's richest, most fertile earth.
"It don't make any difference to me if it's worth $5,000 an acre or more. I don't want to buy it or sell it, just make a livelihood off it," he said.
The voice was firm, strong, settled, like the man himself: school-board member, father of three, Methodist, Mason. This is a pillar of the heartland speaking.
His dreams are modest but perhaps beyond his reach. After 30 years of careful husbandry, Miller is skirting financial ruin.
A few miles away, banker Jerry L. Lage leaned across a table in the Perry Federal Land Bank, his face reflecting his anxiety.
"The situation for individual farmers is, it hurts like hell for them and their families. They are going through some real tough situations, financially and emotionally. And in the end, I don't know where it's going to come out," he said.
Banker and farmer, lender and borrower, secure businessman, imperiled family man. The distinctions are important, and yet both men, like thousands of others in the Farm Belt, are buffeted by forces far beyond their control.
At issue are monetary policy, global markets, federal subsidies, interest rates, partisan politics, naked greed and shameful folly as the full impact of rural America's credit crisis crash rushes headlong into the consciousness of a nation that somehow seemed to looking the other way.
Perhaps nothing touches so closely the major issue, what is in danger of disappearing in the heartland, than the words of Darrell and Joyce Miller, who through 27 years of marriage have raised a family and worked 240 acres of Iowa bottomland in Miller's family since 1914.
In counterpoint and harmony are the words of Lage, a former Air Force officer who was raised on a farm, runs a farm and frets about fears, frustrations and foreclosures that he must handle.
Until she came to this farmstead in 1957, Joyce Miller knew little about American agriculture. She had grown up in small Iowa towns in a household with "a regular monthly income and a regular budget."
In contrast, farming is often an all-or-nothing seasonal gamble involving weather, pests, costs, distant markets, competition and even plant and animal genetic engineering.
"It was very hard for me. It was quite an adjustment," Joyce Miller said over coffee and cake. "We've seen a lot of changes in nearly 30 years. We've really had just three real good financial years in that time . . . .
"But I think a farm grows on you, too. There's a peacefulness . . . and now . . . to me, it's always sort of a miracle to watch him put the seed in the ground and there's nothing, and then . . . it comes up . . . . "
Year after year, the Millers toiled and thrived, raising daughters Melissa, Susan and Kristy. Melissa attends the University of Iowa, and her sisters are in Ogden public schools.
"I feel like I'm a respected person in the community," said Darrell, a slight, wiry man with rimless glasses and a straightforward manner. "I ran for the school board and won hands down. I had kids in the school, so I was hesitant to do this . . . . But I felt it wasn't fair to live in a community all my life and set by and just take. And maybe it was time to serve as well."
In the early years, Miller raised cattle and hogs for market.
"I never participated in any government crop programs," he said. "Everything I raised, I fed through my livestock. And with all the rules they laid down, I couldn't do it anyway. I was in crop rotation -- corn, beans soybeans , oats and hay. But after a while, I couldn't do that anymore. My banker advised me, 'Your gonna lose your shirt.' So I got out of that."
He said he misses the animals but not the endless work. In 15 years with livestock, he said, the couple never had a vacation.
So, like thousands of others, Miller turned to corn and soybeans. Cash-cropping means less work but great vulnerability to weather and market conditions. Since income accrues only after harvest, cash flow is a problem. Annual spring "production" loans are crucial for buying seed, fertilizer, herbicides.
In 1977, drought scorched central Iowa, leaving the Millers no income. "It took five years to pay that off," Darrell recalled, with a rueful look. He kept his operation small: no $120,000 combines, no $110,000 tractors, no new land. Even so, his annual cash-flow needs exceeded $100,000, modest by current standards.
The mid-1970s brought good prices, and heavy farm borrowing against soaring land values helped raise interest rates. As Lage said:
"The blame is shared. No lender ever lent a dollar that wasn't used. But everyone was aggressive: farmers, lenders, land-grant universities. They said you should replace labor with machines, that a farmer has to control enough land to have a good base of operations. We had an agriculture secretary Earl L. Butz who pushed for world production . . . . From that standpoint, the farmer has a legitimate complaint."
Credit costs crept upward. The 1980 embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union sent prices tumbling. "I feel like the government took the damn market away from us, and I feel they got a hand in it now. They have a responsibility to help," Miller said.
When his mother died in 1980, Miller said, he felt responsible for working two other farms inherited by relatives. Cautiously, he added machinery. Grain prices continued to drop, inflation drove costs up, interest rates climbed.
"People who made sound decisions at 8 and 10 percent interest rates saw long-term rates go up 50 percent and short-term rates up 100 percent," Lage said. Then, with crops bringing far less and credit tight, land prices plummeted. Commodities prices continued to fall.
Before the bubble burst, Miller's net worth was pegged at $1 million by college loan officials. He was struggling to earn enough money to send Melissa to college, but she was not eligible for a student loan. "Our society is absolutely screwy," he said.
Land deflation continued, from a top of $3,500 an acre for prime cropland in late 1981 to about half of that today.
"In four years, my net worth was devalued by 50 percent, and I haven't done a thing different," Miller said. "A city person can have $1 million net worth and get $200,000 in annuities a year for it. But what about me? If they feel they can give financial help to others, why not take a look at me?"
The Millers are refinancing their operation, and Darrell said he believes that, if all goes well for a few years, he can survive with farm and dreams intact.
"But, if the economy slides further, that's the end. You know, I could sell the machinery and the land, cover the debt and have money left over. I could take it and run, get a house somewhere else. But I don't want that. I like my work," he said.
"I'd like to use the land until my retirement and, after I die, give it to my kids."