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Farming Gives Colo. Family A Living But No Nest Egg

Terry Walter grows hay, wheat and corn and runs well over 2,000 cows on about 3,000 acres in Colorado.

Part of a series, Living In The Middle

The past decade has not been kind to the middle class in this country. The median household income has fallen by 5 percent from its peak in 1999, to just under $50,000.

Among those living in the middle is 49-year-old farmer Terry Walter. In rural Weld County in Colorado, he runs well over 2,000 cows and calves across dry, sprawling prairie. He also grows hay, wheat and corn.

What does it mean to be middle class? Is it defined by income, or is there more to it? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

In all, Walter manages about 3,000 acres but owns only about 10 percent of that. He leases the rest.

For more than a few years now, finances have been difficult. Walter estimates that his family of five earned about $48,000 from the farm last year.

"I've asked the good Lord several times, 'Should I get out?' " Walter says. "Because there's been struggles where it would've been easy to step out. And I never really felt like he closed the door."

So Walter stays in agriculture. He's the third generation to work this land, and he hopes his kids will be the fourth. But there are financial challenges Walter faces that his dad never had to; profit margins are very thin, and he's carrying a lot of debt.

"Right now I owe more than $500,000," Walter says. "Some of this is from losses sustained in a downturn in the cattle market a few years ago. And then we had a pretty good drought going in the early '90s, and we're still pulling debt through from then."

If something like another mad cow crisis were to come along, Walter is not sure he could survive. Meantime, he runs a tight operation. Expenses could get out of control if he doesn't watch them closely.

Looking Ahead

Walter has a cavernous shop on his ranch so he can do repairs himself.

"About the only thing we don't do on this place is fix fuel injection pumps," Walter says.

His son Ty is 18 years old and a senior in high school. Next year Ty plans to go to college to major in agricultural business, then come back and run the family business someday.

Ty knows farming and ranching may be even more financially difficult in the future. But he says this isn't a career people choose because they want an easy life.

"We have our days where we'll work 15 hours a day. Other days it's a little more relaxed, but we are always working," he says. "It's fun work. It's not going to your office every day. We experience the outdoors and everything God has to offer."

Terry Walter says it seems like he and his wife, Becky, have cleared a long series of financial hurdles during their 25 years of marriage. Now that he's nearing 50 years old, there are new things to worry about.

"We have no retirement. We have no savings. We don't have a 401(k)," Walter says.

The couple is building equity in their business, though, and someday they hope to sell -- maybe to their kids -- and that'll be their retirement. Becky Walter warns against focusing on just the downsides of working in agriculture.

"Well, I think there's a lot of rewards that overcome the difficult parts -- the experiences we have that city people don't have," she says.

The Walters say they feel privileged to be growing food for people, and they want to pass on that pride to their children.

"All of our kids have an interest in [agriculture]," she says. "And that's one reason we keep pressing on -- for them -- so they can carry out the tradition in our family."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

The past decade has not been kind to the middle class in this country. The median household income has fallen by five percent from its peak in 1999. Last year, it stood at just under $50,000. That means half of American households earned more, and half made do with less.

This week for our series Living In The Middle, we're learning what life is like for families earning the median income. Today, NPR's Jeff Brady visits a farm and ranch in northern Colorado.

JEFF BRADY: We're in a Ford truck, bouncing across an alfalfa field north of Denver.

Mr. TERRY WALTER (Farmer): Here's some calves under the shade tree.

BRADY: Forty-nine-year-old Terry Walter points out his herd of black Angus calves. They're six months old and already nearly five feet tall. For much of the year, he runs well over 2,000 cows and calves across this dry, sprawling prairie. He also grows hay, wheat and corn. He manages about 3,000 acres but owns only about 10 percent of that. He leases the rest.

(Soundbite of door shutting)

BRADY: For more than a few years now, finances have been difficult. Last year, Walter estimates his family of five earned about $48,000 from their farm.

Mr. WALTER: I've asked the good Lord several times: Should I get out? Because there's been struggles where it would've been easy to step out. And I never really felt like he closed the door.

BRADY: So Walter stays in agriculture. He's the third generation to work this land, and he hopes his kids will be the fourth. But there are financial challenges Walter faces that his dad never had to: Profit margins are very thin, and he's carrying a lot of debt.

Mr. WALTER: Right now I owe more than a half a million. Some of this is from losses sustained in, you know, a downturn in the cattle market a few years ago. And then we had a pretty good drought going here in the early '90s, and we're still pulling debt through from then.

BRADY: If something like another mad cow crisis comes along, Walter's not sure he could survive. Meantime, he runs a tight operation. Expenses could get out of control if he doesn't watch them closely.

To demonstrate this, we head over to the shop.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BRADY: One of Walter's employees brings heavy metal parts for a combine into the cavernous shop. Country music is playing in the background. Sending out equipment for repair can be expensive. So Walter has most of the work done here to save money.

Mr. WALTER: As you can see, we got welders and all kinds of tools to fix about the only thing we don't do on this place is fix fuel injection pumps.

(Soundbite of music)

BRADY: Outside, Walter's 18-year-old son Ty just got home from high school. He's a senior this year.

Mr. TY WALTER (Student): My plan is to be an ag major or ag business major, and eventually coming back here and taking over and managing myself.

BRADY: Ty Walter knows farming and ranching may be even more financially difficult in the future. But he says this isn't a career people choose because they want an easy life.

Mr. TY WALTER: I mean, we have our days where, you know, we'll work 15 hours a day. Other days, you know, it's a little more relaxed, but we are always working. And it's fun work. It's not going to your office every day. We experience the outdoors and everything God has to offer.

BRADY: in the backyard at the family's house, Terry Walter says it seems like he and his wife, Becky, have cleared a long series of financial hurdles during their 25 years of marriage. And now that he's nearing 50 years old, there are new things to worry about.

Mr. WALTER: We have no retirement. We have no savings. We don't have a 401(k).

BRADY: The Walters say they're building equity in their business, though, and if they can hold on just long enough to sell, maybe to their kids someday, that'll be their retirement. And Becky Walter says you can't just focus on the downsides of working in agriculture.

Ms. BECKY WALTER: Well, I think there's just a lot of rewards that overcome the difficult parts, the experiences we have that city people don't have.

BRADY: The Walters say they feel privileged to be growing food for people, and they want to pass on that pride to their children.

Ms. WALTER: All of our kids have an interest in this. And that's one reason we keep pressing on, for them, so they can carry out the tradition in our family.

BRADY: Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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