Shattered Taboo: Death of a Farm and Resurrection of a Farmer

In 2020, after the collapse of his livelihood, Lyle Benjamin, 43, walked away from 150 years of family farming history. ( Photo by Lindsay Sandon )

On Jan. 29, 2020, Lyle Benjamin’s farm died. The fifth-generation grower stopped rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic and climbed overboard, leaving behind 150 years of family history: “I had a choice. I could either get in a lifeboat and salvage what I could, or stay on the ship and drag everyone else down with my pride.”

Choices. Legacy. Family. Responsibility. After shuttering his farm business and liquidating assets after approximately six years of watching his operation burn through equity, the plainspoken Benjamin showed remarkable mettle and backbone, staring into the face of loss to emerge with a voice seldom heard in agriculture. He stepped to the fore and gave a candid accounting, refusing to fling blame elsewhere, bow to a taboo of silence, or gloss the pain.

Shining a glaring spotlight onto the collapse of his livelihood, Benjamin contends that contrary to appearances and public sentiment, many U.S. farmers are in denial about either entering or enduring financial dire straits. Speaking in the same pragmatic, slash-and-burn mode he’s adhered to his entire life, Benjamin takes no prisoners and reveals a farmer of character intent on preserving his family and protecting the agricultural community. Cutting to the bone, he tells a farm tale rarely told.

The Ghost

Benjamin is a child of the Golden Triangle, born in the gleam of wheat, and raised with four siblings in northcentral Montana’s Toole County—an area of farmland blocks that grows increasingly larger each decade—with 160-acre fields expanding to half or full sections. Immediate past president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, Benjamin lives alongside his wife, Adele, and two sons (10 and 13) on flat, picturesque ground, 2 miles south of the Canadian border and 50 miles north of his family’s original 1911 homestead. Across the prairie from Benjamin’s backyard, West Butte, the highest point in the Sweet Grass Hills, climbs 3,000’ into the sky, but otherwise the county is covered by spectacular level land, save a slight roll along the river breaks. Without question, it’s stark, beautiful country. And dry.

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Rainfall averages 9” per year, a parched reality that translates to vast cultivation of dryland wheat across the region. In 2019, Benjamin planted 3,500 acres of canola, chickpeas, lentils, malt barley, peas and wheat (winter and spring), but in 2020, for the first time in his life, he is a ghost in the rows and won’t plant a single acre.

Twisted Irony

Farms rarely fall to a single hammer blow, and the maxim held true in Benjamin’s case. Fingering a crucible moment is misleading, he says, and the operation’s decline was akin to a gradual subsidence. Counterintuitively, Benjamin points to troubles born during the pre-2013 grain feast—a time when crop prices rose to the teetering heights of unsustainability. In twisted irony, Benjamin believes the booming commodity prices hurt some farmers in the long-term, fostering a false sense of safety and clouded perspective. In simple terms, the clock eventually had to strike midnight. “I think a lot of guys, myself included, thought we were in a new plateau of grain prices,” Benjamin recalls. “We thought $8 wheat was going to last. Lots of fathers brought their sons home to farm, picked up acres, and charged ahead. Just a few years later, everything turned upside down.”

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Benjamin expanded his business in 2010, switching from dryland wheat fallow to barley, oilseeds and pulses—crops demanding far more management and increased fertilizer inputs. He also upgraded equipment during a peak of machinery and grain values. “Going rapid and aggressive when we did was folly. We took on $800,000 in equipment in a single year, against a budget of spending $350,000 per year and making 9%-10% profit on that from our old farm set-up. In the first year or two of our new farm set-up, we had close to a $900,000 budget and couldn’t afford the equipment. Really, the old equipment would have worked just fine, and we didn’t need to bite on the biggest, nicest stuff.”

Piling on, dryland crop production stuttered during successive years of diminished rainfall in the Golden Triangle. Even the maddening farming inverse of poor prices versus great crop, or great prices versus poor crop, was unattainable. “We had a one-two combo of low commodity prices and low production,” Benjamin recalls. “Poor markets, bad-timed equipment purchases, less and less rain, and crop insurance guarantees that kept getting smaller, all made for a steady decline that was difficult to realize and proactively manage.”

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From 2014 to 2019, Benjamin’s operation went through roughly $400,000 in equity. “Looking back is easy, but early in my career, we didn’t seek out land to buy. When we hit an equity crunch, we didn’t have any assets on our balance sheet that were appreciable. Land prices have come up about 30% the last 15 years, and if we’d have bought early on, that would have helped equity, but I don’t know if it ultimately would have made a difference. The bottom-line numbers of sustainability mean you must turn positive cash flow on the production model that is the basis of your farm. If you rely on land appreciation instead of production value, then you’re a real estate broker and not a farmer.”

Farmer on a Wire

For several years prior to 2019, Adele watched the family income column turn red and recognized the consistent drain of inescapable math—a prolonged slump that Benjamin insisted was manageable. “Adele was tired of the tension and stress of operating loans. I just looked at it as a concern, but marched on like things were going well, always knowing we at least had enough for one more year. Always, one more year.”

By the fall of 2019, Benjamin was a farmer on a high wire, suspended over an ever deepening gorge, but continuing to walk the precarious line. In November 2019, Benjamin sat down with his banker and absorbed a proverbial punch to the sternum. Red light. No operating loan. He rechecked the numbers and went back to the banker. Same answer. No mas.

Without flinching, Benjamin regrouped, double-checked the numbers, and walked into a second bank—a local institution with a producer-friendly reputation. The banker penciled the numbers for several days, and then called Benjamin with a verdict. No can do.

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Tightening up, Benjamin took the figures to two more banks and met with the same declines. As the end of December rolled into 2020, Benjamin could feel the ground shifting. December pebbles became a January landslide. His Feb. 1 deadline for lease renewal was closing fast, and Benjamin couldn’t escape his pragmatic core: “I was looking at a complete disaster if cash flows weren’t exactly right. Do I crash this thing and leave my friends in the farming community holding a bag of unpaid bills or do I save this while there’s still something to save?”

Benjamin felt the specter of bankruptcy sitting on his shoulder with an iron grip, patiently biding its time, and he knew the dark ramifications of another year in the hole. All bills are paid by someone, somewhere down the financial line, and Benjamin refused to shirk the plain fact: He owed what he owed, and he couldn’t trade pennies on the dollar for pride. “In my heart, I knew closing the business while solvent was the right thing to do. I couldn’t leave other people I’ve known for decades hanging in their own ag businesses and subject to their own bankruptcies. How could I look them in the eye, knowing I just wanted to save a little skin and smooth my pride? I didn’t want that on my conscience.”

On Jan. 29, Benjamin spoke with an FSA loan officer in what served as a phone call of final reckoning. “She told me we could do it, but that the numbers weren’t there, and it was like a moment where everything froze. I knew I wasn’t going to be a farmer anymore. I asked if there was a peer group or even a counselor, and she was so helpful and later provided me with support material. I was under such heavy stress, but didn’t realize it, and that’s how bad I needed to reach out to someone.”

Following what was likely the most pivotal call of his life, Benjamin thanked the FSA officer, and in his duress, never realized his emotional state until he hung up the phone: The 43-year-old Montana farmer, raised tough as nails, was crying, and in the moment, shedding the tears of the loneliest man in the world.

Paper Wealth

Drifting in a blur of emotion, Benjamin hit Adele with the news: Farm no more.

“Good,” Adele answered. “Now we know what we’re not doing, and we can make a plan going forward.”

In the immediacy of Benjamin’s determination to leave farming, he felt a tremendous release of emotional stress: “A weight was lifted off right after I made my choice. The grass was greener, the sky bluer, and the birds more cheerful. It’s important to emphasize how there is relief in making a decision, even if that decision reverses decades of tradition, and even if there are still dark days ahead.”

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Indeed, the darkest days stretched the week before and week after his conversation with the FSA officer. Blanketed by overwhelming pain, Benjamin hid in an emotional hole. “Loneliness. I didn’t want to see people. I skipped all school and community functions because I didn’t want to explain myself, didn’t want to lie, and didn’t want to be ashamed. I didn’t want to talk about my ship going under.”

Emotional salvation came through two affirming conversations that pulled Benjamin from the worst of the mire. “It was my farming cousin and a friend in the grain industry, and both were instrumental in bringing me out of loneliness. They uplifted me and told me farming wasn’t everything, and that I had just as much value doing anything else. They told me I was an outstanding friend, and these were words I needed to hear; words that were so important and restored my balance.”

Benjamin rose from the mat and answered the bell, ready to carve out a new foothold and protect his family. “I suddenly felt so much relief because so much pent-up stress was gone. Adele had dealt with stress for several years while I bulled my way forward, but now I had an opportunity to quit while ahead and leave not just with the shirt on my back, but my vest too.”

Taking out a full-page, color advertisement in Trader’s Dispatch, Benjamin put up his farm machinery for sale and let the phone ring. A third of his equipment moved in a week, a third was gone in a month’s time, and a third remains to be sold. However, his family’s country lifestyle and attachments to the outdoors are secure, preserved by the decision to change course.

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The grand misnomer of U.S. farmers as a uniform, wealthy lot is a perception that feeds a public that doesn’t see beyond shiny bins, giant equipment and tracts of land. However, Benjamin says the misguided sentiment is sometimes fostered by the behavior of farmers, and he points the finger inward. “My farm afforded me an upper class living, even if that wasn’t the smaller check I wrote to myself at the start of every month. What I took out of the farm in terms of wages and benefits was bigger than what I’d told the bankers for years. I lied to myself about how much the farm benefitted me and I think some other farmers sometimes do that now.”

“I had often thought of myself as a near-millionaire or even millionaire, but now when I look at my balance sheet as I sell my equipment and farm, I’m just at 10% of that. I’ll end up with an even smaller amount after all the bills are paid, and less than that after taxes. I cashed out and found I had paper wealth, but I know I’m not the only one.”

Heritage or Bust?

In April 2020, Benjamin went public on Twitter, posting a 700-word sledgehammer declaration via a series of tweets, titled The Business End of Farming, explaining his actions related to farm closure, and laying out the good, bad and ugly, in the hope it might help other growers in a similar situation: Within the farming community there is an uncomfortable tradition of not facing facts until all hope of salvage is lost. When a farm business fails at that point, the wreckage ripples across the community as debts are defaulted on and bills for tangible goods go unpaid with no hope of collection. Closing a business while still solvent is the responsible thing to do. It is the community thing to do...As I view the problem, farm liquidation is only failure when it costs other people money. Success can be recognizing that fickle Lady Luck has shifted her attention to other ventures.

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The post was packed with shoot-from-the-hip fare and it exploded online, striking a chord and drawing readers from across North America. After slapping his email and cell number at the end of the dispatch, Benjamin’s phone and message box overflowed with farmer contacts, resonating into Africa, Australia and Europe. “Ultimately, I was trying to provide something to my fellow farmers. I wrote it because I knew I wasn’t the only one with these types of business decisions and emotional decisions; they are part and parcel of our current farming situation. I hoped I would be able to keep somebody else from getting to depths of where I ended up.”

Prior to his family’s Montana history, the Benjamin clan followed a transitional chain from Germany to Missouri to Idaho, each change an opportunity. Benjamin no longer places a “heritage or bust” attitude on a pedestal, and in the post, he decries the preservation of heritage at the expense of family: Too often, the heritage itself is valued over other intangible things like what is good for the farmer’s family…it is okay to make a life altering decision about your farm.

“I look at my life going forward as opportunity. It’s mental justification and it’s also true. Germany, Missouri, Idaho…my forebears changed each time for something better or because something wasn’t working. We’re never stuck in a rut; there is so much to do if we’re willing to seek out opportunity.”

Life

Nonetheless, walking away from a lifestyle embedded in his heart is a process of pain and leaves behind deep scars. In 2020, Benjamin welcomed a role as a salesman for Nutrien Ag Solutions, and as farm work kicked in across the Golden Triangle, the surreal sight of neighbors working his fields brought a lump to his throat. The reality is inescapable: Across Toole County, farmers grow crops. Benjamin does not.

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“I’ve gone from pain to being numb to feeling like I’m in someone else’s body, staring across a divide at farmers working in fields, but in the end I’m so grateful for my family and what I have. You either embrace the inevitable and make proactive decisions, or you hang on and get left with chaos. If you know a crash is coming, it’s critical to get in front of the wreck,” Benjamin urges. “Do everything you can to minimize the damage.”

What advice does he offer a farmer on the cusp of losing financial footing or even a farmer at the early stages of a gradual slide? “One, follow the numbers, they have no emotion. The numbers are what they are, and they don’t lie. Two, rely on the team you built of a banker, an accountant, and vendors to look at your numbers and see what you can do to prevent, slow or reverse a slide.”

“I want people to remember what I was trying to say in the online post: It’s OK to make a significant career or life decision in midstream, and it’s OK to talk about it,” Benjamin adds. “No matter what you may think in the moment, there is life after farming.”

(For more on Benjamin’s post, see here.)

 

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