End of the Line

End of the line

By: Ted Kemp

(Winner of the 1996-97 Department of Journalism’s Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Award, also published in The Illinois Times, July 4, 1997)

Author’s Note:

End of the Line was the story that made me a believer, convinced me that I could pull off that type of journalism. It taught me to keep my eyes open for details. I guess you could say that what I leaned from that story was self-confidence. The story was co-winner of the first Marian Boruck-Brody award.

– Ted Kemp

STEVE EICHELBERGER gazes at the bright gold numbers scrolling across his FarmDayta computer screen as the cool of morning seeps through his office window. A typewritten message taped to his monitor reads, “Conclusion: Dear Lord, let my light shine brightly for You today. Amen.” The monitor shows that hog futures are selling at 48½ cents a pound. Steve thinks he can probably get a little better than that. It’s almost 7 a.m. The day’s cycle is about to begin.

The door from Steve’s office opens directly onto his farm yard. The morning light glows from over the Sangamon River in the east. A grain crib with lichens growing on its green roof rests just beyond the perimeter of trees that cluster around his house. Two long, low white barns spread across the black earth just to the east. A silo rises between them. A tractor shed stands just to the south, its wide doors open to reveal the brown slat ceiling and bowing wooden arches of its open interior. Sparrows, nesting in the rafters, dart in and out. Hundreds of thousands of frayed but orderly corn stalks, no more than 8 inches tall, march to the south and west horizons, lining the ground to the east almost as far as the Sangamon, flowing less than a quarter mile away.

This is Steve Eichelberger’s world — a world that has, in many ways, stayed the same in the three generations of grandfather, father and now son who have owned and worked it. But Eichelberger’s world is changing. The farms that spill across the open flatlands of northern Champaign County are less diverse than when Steve began the work his father taught him. He remembers a time when most of the farmers he knew raised livestock. He is now one of only a few who endure the rigorous, year-round labors of hog farming. Steve’s sons seem not to want to inherit those demands, either. Both in their 20s, they work as landscapers in Indiana. Steve faces the likelihood that he will be the last of his line to farm the land his family has worked since 1910. He would like to pass the mantle on to his children but knows that probably won’t happen.

“I think that if we had just been in grain, it would have been a possibility,” Steve says. “Pigs on a scale like we’re doing — it just isn’t appealing to them. If one of the kids came back because they really wanted to, I would enjoy that. But if they didn’t really want to, that would be a bad situation.”

Steve pulls on his black coveralls and rubber boots, emerges from his cellar and walks purposefully across the farm. The brim of his black “Terra Fertilizer” cap, sprinkled with the white powder of ground feed, is bent into an inverted V. Yellow gloves cover his thick hands. He looks young for a man of 50. His black hair is barely flecked with gray. He walks with an even, quick gait across the soft ground.

Steve farms 865 acres, and his extended family owns most of them. Corn, soybeans and wheat grow on 800 acres. More than 360 acres of the corn go back to his hogs as feed. His hog operation is large by Champaign County standards — 230 sows — but small by national standards, especially compared to the corporate hog farming operations in other parts of the Midwest, which can run more than 4,000 sows.

Steve climbs onto his tractor behind the corn crib. A feed wagon is hitched to its back end. The tractor, a green and gold 1961 John Deere, was the company’s first six-cylinder. Steve also owns three antique tractors, all John Deeres: a 1936B, a 1937A and a 1940G. He would like to take in an antique tractor show in Goshen, Ind., this weekend, if he can find the time. His sons and daughter live there, and he and his wife, Connie, hope to visit them. But first he’s got some problems to solve.

STEVE IS DISAPPOINTED at the still-soaked ground underneath his tires as he drives to the second low barn where the hogs reside. The manure pits beneath the hog pens are filling up, and he has to empty them, but he needs frozen ground first. His spreader — a huge pressurized cylinder on wheels that he must use to spray the manure on his fields — weighs more than 24,000 pounds when filled. If he pulls it onto the fields now, it will sink. It’s early March, and he needs another freeze to harden the ground before spring sets in. He knows he can’t count on one.

To make matters worse, the spreader isn’t working. Manure has backed up in the pressurized pipes that run through the spreader, destroying the pump. Like many of the mechanical difficulties he encounters on the farm, it’s not the type of problem he can call on someone to fix. He and one of his hands will have to repair it themselves, and it has to be done before he can journey to Goshen.

Steve parks the tractor alongside the outdoor pen’s white fence. The black and pink pigs inside watch as he maneuvers the wagon’s feeder arm over their pen, a black semi-solid pool of muck. The silver metal arm stabs up into the blue sky like a howitzer as it slowly pivots into position over the pen. The words “Feed Commander” glimmer on the side of the hog feeders. The hogs clamor around the first feeder. The feed sprays into the tall bin from above and settles into individual troughs at its wide base. The 5-month-old pigs scramble over each other, barking and squealing, to get at the feed.

Last year, Steve sold 4,200 pigs. They are a commodity with a quick turn-around time. Steve farrows pregnant sows every three weeks, taking them to a separate barn to give birth. In the time that corn runs through one broad seasonal cycle, hogs run through 17 or 18. He must work year round, but the tighter cycles bring steady income. Steve plans on selling one truckload of 46 “finishers” — about 250 pounds each — at the Gibson City buying station late this week, and two more early next week.

“They’re at the end of the line,” he says.

STEVE’S FAMILY has raised hogs for most of this century. Steve’s grandfather raised hogs. Steve’s father nurtured that business, always staying on the cutting edge of farm technology and hog-farming methods until he retired in 1985. Even as other farms in the area dropped livestock to invest more of their rich Champaign County ground into growing corn, Steve’s father stayed with hogs, eventually becoming one of the county’s larger pig producers.

The Eichelbergers are Mennonites, and Steve was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He served as a surgeon’s orderly at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, driving to Champaign every free weekend to visit Connie, the woman he later would marry. After Steve attended a church-affiliated school, Hesston College, in Kansas for one semester in 1966, his father asked him to join him on the farm. He agreed, and under him the business has grown more. Some Mennonite farmers eschew technological advances, driving tractors with steel wheels, or using only a few modern implements. Not Steve, nor his father, nor his grandfather before. They mechanized with a vengeance, using the most advanced techniques and strategies.

But now Steve has broken that lineage. He knows of a promising method that reduces illness among hogs by shifting them from site to site as they mature. Ten years ago, he might have changed along with the industry. But repeatedly relocating his hogs would mean $250,000 in remodeling costs. Steve may be the last of his family to raise hogs on this ground, and as he sees it, there’s no sense in making long-term investments in an operation with a short future.

“We’ve been on the cutting edge,” he says. “We’re not doing that now.”

But for the next decade anyway, his livestock operations will be robust. Steve also owns cattle — calves that he buys in the spring, when they are less than a week old. He’ll keep them inside for their first winter, filling their troughs with feed and rolling oblong green and gold bales of hay out of the loft every morning for their fresh bedding. He’ll run them on permanent pasture the following summer. By the time he sells them at Thanksgiving, they will weigh 950 pounds.

FEEDING THE CALVES this morning, Steve is sprightly and quick in his work. He slips up a ladder one moment and disappears under a slat into a pen the next, brushing past the white dust-filled cobwebs that litter the musty wooden corners of the barn. He counts the soft docile cow-heads that poke into the trough from within the dark pen to make sure they’re all eating.

“This is the morning ritual,” he says, as he moves into the hog pens, kicking at the pigs to make sure none of them is too sick to move.

Tom Parks, a big farm hand whose paunch stretches his torn red sweatshirt, moves among the hogs with a penicillin-filled syringe in his hand. When he hears a hog cough, he stabs it behind the ear, sending it screaming through the throng to escape the sting.

Tom has been with the farm for about three years, and he’s one of Steve’s three farm hands. Sterling Corey, who mixes the hog feed and helps with the fieldwork, has worked with Steve for 20 years. Jason Moore, in high school, works part time. The farm is short-handed now, and Steve is advertising for more help. Connie keeps the farm’s books and runs a productivity index on the sows, but she isn’t working in the field with her husband and the hands as she did for almost 30 years. Last December, she took a full-time job in an accounting office in Champaign, and she’ll stay there until tax season is over. It was the first time either Steve or Connie had regularly worked off the farm. Connie enjoys spending time in town. Says Steve, “I miss having her around.”

After the morning work is done, Tom goes to tend the pigs on Steve’s farrowing farm up the road. Steve stands outside the corn crib with Corey, a clean-shaven man with clear blue eyes and a chaw the size of a golf ball in his left cheek.

The clogged spreader sits between the men like a wide-bellied beast on wheels. More than 20 feet long, its chassis rests on four huge, balding tires and clasps onto a large John Deere’s hitch. A cylindrical 3,150-gallon holding tank, rusted like the hull of a shipwreck, sits on top of the chassis. Corey and Steve have removed the tank’s pressure gauge cap and diverter, emptied its contents and begun rinsing 6 inches of muck from the bottom of the beast’s stomach. A terrible stench, even by hog farm standards, rises from the spreader.

“This smells worse than manure,” Corey says. “This is concentrated.”

Steve climbs the side of the spreader, stepping first on a tire and then pushing himself up off flexible black tubing attached to its side. He removes a clogged pipe from the top as Corey pulls one from the diverter hole in back. Steve scrambles down when he’s done. Then Corey climbs into the tractor’s cab and it roars into the shed, spreader in tow, sending the sparrows quarreling in the rafters.

Steve can’t wait on repairing the spreader. It clears the manure from the pits below the hog pens, and it fertilizes the fields before planting in April or May. He washes his hands at the outside spigot and turns toward the house’s side door. He has to find some pipe. He sits at his desk back in his tiny office. Five toy tractors, red, gold and green, sit on top of his file cabinet. One is a reproduction of his father’s tractor. Another was his daughter’s toy. He calls Mick Kingsley, his well digger. He hopes Mick will have a length of tube the same diameter as the broken aeration pipes. No answer. He returns to his telephone list. The man who answers at Jean Swanson’s well and pump operation in Ford County doesn’t want to cut pipe today. His help is out of the office.

“I can lift it into the vise and all that if you’re going to be there to supervise,” Steve says. The voice agrees hesitantly, but still would like to wait until tomorrow.

“Well, see, I’ve got to have that spreader back together this evening. Okay. I’ll see you after a little bit. Bye.” He lets out a quiet, low groan, then snatches the phone and tries Mick again. Still no answer. He will have to drive the 10 miles to Gibson City. It’s almost 2:30 p.m.

SWANSON WELL AND PUMP SERVICE is housed in an aquamarine cinder block building on the edge of Gibson City. Mr. Swanson, a stooped man with gray hair, is not as able to cut and thread pipe without help as he once was. His son is working out in the field today — warm weather and thawed ground are good for well drillers.

Steve sets the broken, muck-encrusted aeration pipe in the garage that holds the pipe cutter. The stench fills the room. He picks out two sturdy 20-foot tubes from a stack behind the building and carries them on end like a pole vaulter behind Swanson, who trudges forward with the help of two canes.

“It’s nice to have a little air in here,” says Swanson, as he opens the garage door.

“You don’t like the smell of that pipe?” Steve asks.

“Smells like money, is what they tell me,” Swanson says.

“Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.”

The wind is roaring through the trees when Steve returns to the farm. Their flailing shadows reach across the ground to the edge of the stubbly cornfield. The air is colder. Steve and Corey sniffle as they make last preparations on the newly cut and threaded pipes. The last heat lapses over the western horizon. Connie will return soon from work.

Corey runs the longer horizontal pipe into the back hole, an elbow fitting fastened firmly onto its end directly beneath the hole on top. Steve ascends the spreader. He props himself on his knees at the front of the huge barrel, bending over with his arms thrust into the cap hole up to his shoulders, his chin only inches off the cylinder’s orange-brown surface. He works by feel. His face reddens as he tries to thread the pipe into its mate buried in the muck. His breath crystallizes in the cold air. The sparrows are quiet now, nestled together in the nooks of the rafters like puffed-up feather balls. Corey looks up at Steve, hands on his hips. Steve wrestles with the pipe, worried that he might lose his grip and drop it down in the tank. He twists and turns, grunting now. At last it slides into place.

“Perfect!” he says, pulling his arms up out of the hole and peering into the tank’s dark interior. “Absolutely perfect!”

He caps the hole with the pressure gauge, swings his legs over the top of the giant cylinder and eases over the side on his stomach, the toe of his boots feeling for the flexible black tube on the side. He finds his foothold and pushes himself away from the rusted hulk. He is smiling as he makes the four-foot leap to the ground. “Man, it’s good to see stuff go back together.”

Tom and Jason appear in the doorway, their arms crossed tight against the cold. They’ve returned after finishing their work in the farrowing farm up the road.

“How many litters today, guys?” Steve asks.

“None,” Tom says.

“How’d that black sow do today?”

“She lost another one.”

“She eat?”

“She cleaned the floor but not the trough.”

Steve grunts slightly. “We’re starting off awful slow.”

Steve welds a broken bolt back to the spreader where the diverter will re-attach, the other men turning their eyes away when he lowers his blast mask before the flash of the welder’s searing white light. Corey helps him reconnect the diverter, finally locking in the stench that has curled out of the tank all day. The two younger men say quick goodnights and turn to leave.

“I’ll drive you,” Steve says to Corey, whose house is on the way to the farrowing farm, where Steve is going for a final check on the hogs.

THE WARM FARROWING ROOM is filled with expectant mothers. Steve flicks on the lights. The room sleeps. The sows lie on their sides, motionless even after Steve slams open one of the gates with a sharp metal clang. They peek up from the floor, slant-eyed, as the legs of his now-filthy black coveralls amble past. He peers over the double row of pens like a doctor checking on slumbering patients.

He spots what he was hoping for: One of the sows lies unflinching as slick piglets squirm out of her one by one. They bumble over the grated floor, shaking and trembling, wet umbilical cords dangling like little pink earthworms out of their bellies. Steve quickly surveys the brood. It’s a good litter — 10 piglets, all born alive. He produces a syringe and injects the sow with oxytocin to help her uterus contract. She doesn’t react.

He makes his way back through the maze of metal gates to the door. He is glad for the litter. With the three truckloads of finishers reaching the end of the line over the next few days, he’ll have room to move the older piglets along to the nursery. Maybe the births will pick up next week. Maybe the weather will stay dry and the ground will freeze. Maybe he’ll get that spreader out in the field before April.

Somewhere down the line, he may scale back his strenuous workload with the hogs. He thinks sometimes that the schedule of a grain farmer would be less demanding — fertilizing when the winter breaks, seeding as the weather warms, tilling the land through summer until the fall harvest. His children will never know these cycles as he has come to know them, and that saddens him. But if the kids don’t take over the farm, if he lets it wind down over the next decade, he’ll be able to see his children and grandchildren as much as he wants. In the meantime, Steve will stay with the work he has known his entire life.

“When a person’s a farmer,” he says, “I think he’s always a farmer.”

The night is black now. Only the gravel under his boots and the occasional grunt of a finisher break the quiet as he walks toward the cab of his pickup. Looks like he’ll get to the tractor show in Goshen this weekend after all.

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