Chapter One

Spring

One more year on the farm

A visual narrative of one family’s fight to save their land

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Alfred Krocak came to Minnesota from what is now the Czech Republic and started farming this land in the late 1800s. He followed the rhythms of the seasons and passed on what he knew to his children. The land and hard work sustained generations of Krocaks and all the people who drank millions of gallons of Krocak milk.

Then came last year, and the family had no alternative but to sell off the dairy herd. The debt had become crushing.

Bob and Liz, in their 60s, and their eldest son, Marty, and his wife, Sarah, and their children were one more family in crisis, among the country’s 2 million farms. The historic floods that disrupted the natural cycle of planting; the collapse of milk prices; the tumult of President Trump’s trade wars — it had all come crashing down.

Yet they still had their land. Surely, they could coax something else from it. Spring would come, as it always did.

Maybe corn and soybeans; that they knew how to grow. More organic crops, a heritage breed of pigs that could bring a higher price per pound. The state farm counselor, whom the Krocaks consulted on their quest to stave off bankruptcy, thought that was a plan. Then the fields flooded and turned to lakes. There were a lot of nights working in the dark, running equipment, fixing this and that. Bob let his 7-year-old grandson Logan watch how to repair the disc harrow for tilling the fields. But the chickens kept laying. Katie, 5, and Daniel, 9, could proudly bring their mother an egg carton that was a paintbox of colors.

Amid the moments of wonder were the hours of worry. Sarah, the daughter of a rancher who fell for her husband in high school, and Marty kept suppertime as family time. But struggle crept in. She worried about her husband. His father, Bob, was an optimist, with a hope in the unseen that most farmers need. Bob got to the point where he could walk around the milking barn again, even though the cows sold for a fraction of what they produced. The fancy pigs were healthy and happy. He loved having his grandchildren close.

But Marty was the fifth generation of Krocaks, the heir to the burden of family and expectations. It was wholly unclear what would work out this time.

Liz wasn’t born into a farming family either. She and Bob built a close family. Most of their five kids live nearby, in this part of Minnesota where the winters are wretched and the summers are a golden balm. Dinnertime is a movable feast, with the family gathering for group meals at different homes.

Earlier this year, the family gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of Bob’s late father, Vladamir, who always wore blue- and white-striped “Dickies” overalls and carried candy corn in a chewing-tobacco can to hand out to his grandchildren.

At one point, there were more than 200 dairy farmers in Le Sueur County, where the Krocaks live. Now there are just a handful, and Bob says he can see most of them from the top of his silo. More than 300 dairy farmers went out of business in Minnesota last year, part of 2,700 nationwide, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. That’s a nearly 7 percent drop.

This spring, the Krocaks were full of practical ideas about coaxing a living out of their land.

Anything that could go wrong did.

It poured, too much too late.

Any time they had a clear night, they planted. The equipment they borrowed didn’t function. They lost $15,000 trying to sell last year’s corn as storms grounded trade routes for grain by rail and the Mississippi River.

The kids made a playhouse out of the hopper.

Summer is another season of opportunity, for a family of optimistic farmers.

And yet.

“Everywhere you turn there’s a new battle,” Liz said. “I’m pretty sure God doesn’t like farmers this year.”

Chapter Two

Summer

Summer came to Minnesota, and the sun dried the wet fields. The crops struggled to grow, especially the corn, so the whole extended Krocak family took to the fields. Weeding the plants, to give them room to breathe, became one of the most important chores. Marty walked the fields and saw with dismay that in some places the corn was chest high, but other rows came only to his knees.

After historic rain, the Krocaks finally got more than 200 acres planted and began cutting hay to feed their animals for the coming winter. But everything was coming in late, and their next worry, in a season of worries, was that an early frost would cut the growing season at the other end. They weren’t alone; the record-setting rainfall caused a widespread agricultural disaster across the country, preventing nearly 20 million acres of crops from being planted, a record, according to the USDA.

By the end of July, the Krocaks were still waiting for the golden tassels atop their corn to appear.

Some days it seemed like they were well on their way from moving on from their family dairy business, sold last year after a downturn in milk prices left them deeply in debt. Marty and Sarah were determined to help his parents in retirement while making a success of their new farm, growing organic crops and meats — despite the lingering pain from losing the dairy operation, which had been in the Krocak family since 1888.

Marty and Sarah, the next generation of Krocaks to take over the farm, live in the original farmhouse with their four kids — Danny, 9, Ella, 7, Katie, 5 and Delaney, 3. But reminders of the past are everywhere, like the shadow of an old Chevy 1946 truck in the field — nicknamed “Louie” — and the antique butter churn still in place in front of their old “milking parlor.”

After the chaos and long days and nights of planting time, there was time in summer to take a breath and relax, to laze on top of a hay bale at sunset, as granddaughter Eden did one July evening. In late July came the annual Kolacky Days festival, which celebrates their town’s Czech heritage and its famous fruit-stuffed pastry. Marty put on a tux for Friday night’s Kolacky Days pageant — where a queen is chosen and gets a shiny tiara — because this year they honored local farmers.

“Do I pass?” he asked Sarah.

“You look great,” she said, and reached up to straighten his clip-on tie.

Summer also meant it was time to butcher the chickens, part of Sarah’s experiment to expand the farming operation into the sale of organic meat. The former dairy farmers had never butchered so many birds at once — some 100 or so Red Rangers that had free range of the organic farm for months. Danny drove the ATV into the fields as some of the grandkids chased the chickens, scooping them up to deliver them to their fate. After Liz and Sarah lopped off their heads, blood spurted and the still flopping birds were covered in hot water and run through a plucking machine, then cleaned and packed to be frozen. “What’s inside?” Ella asked, and then got an anatomy lesson from her grandmother.

But the pressure of this make-or-break-year for the farm never seemed to go away. “I got a second chance here, and the bank is sticking with us, and I’m [messing] this up, too,” an exhausted Marty told his parents at one point during the tough planting season. Marty and Sarah had to go back to the bank to ask to extend their operating loan after last season’s corn brought in less money than expected. It was a sobering moment.

The Krocaks keep going because no one can seem to fathom life without the farm. “It’s a great place to raise a family,” Marty tells friends, recalling fondly the way his littlest, Delaney, had no fear when she grabbed and held the biggest Red Ranger of the bunch.

“None of us can contemplate the idea of not being here,” Sarah said, adding somewhat grimly: “So this better work.”

Post photographer Ricky Carioti is chronicling the Krocak family through spring, summer, autumn and winter. Check back later for more updates.