Jerome’s New Barn
A True and Highly Moral Tale
by Richard R. Wood, Jr. of Freedom, NY
Jerome Davis doesn’t need a guardian! He’s always made a good living, milking a herd of about 40 to 50 registered and grade Holsteins, feeding some beef, and working in the woods when the farm work allowed it. The Davis farmstead, in the northwest corner of Sabattus, Maine, is always neat and attractive, with a timeless Yankee dignity. Machinery, when not in use, is kept under cover. The barns and milking equipment are always immaculate, making for an excellent relationship with the milk inspectors.
One of the small details that illustrates Jerome’s farming skill concerns his strips of silage corn. With the congestion of farm work in Maine’s compact growing season, Jerome, to save time, uses some herbicide for weed control in the corn. But it is applied with such precision that not only does the corn prosper but it is growing in a short, thick stand of grasses and weeds that eliminate erosion and build organic matter. This is not an accident.
But what really sets Jerome apart is an inborn understanding that the whole point of farming is to make a good living, not to make a lot of big production records that cost more to make than they can possibly return. He learned this at his father’s knee. Mel Davis was a skillful farmer, cattle dealer and woods operator who hated to be bested in a deal. The legend, possibly apocryphal, and passed on from one who believes in leaving stories in better shape than he gets them survives to this day, that Mel Davis logged off a woodlot he’d acquired down on the coast below Wiscasset and then succeeded in selling it to “someone from away” for several times what he’d paid for it with the timber on it. He laughed all the way to the bank and for several days thereafter. Shortly, however, he learned that the woodlot had immediately been resold for millions, to be the site of the Maine Yankee Nuclear power plant, and it is alleged that Mel was so distressed at being bested that he had a stroke and was bedridden from then until his death shortly after.
Jerome is less preoccupied with money than his father had been, but he was brought up to keep his eye on the ball and the goal. As a result, the Davis Farm has always made money when many bigger operations were digging themselves into inescapable wallows of debt.
By the late 1970s, Davis Farm was sailing along serenely, but a seed of discontent had begun to grow in Jerome. His main dairy barn, aesthetically attractive as it was, was not especially efficient. There were too many, too short, rows of stalls, the stalls were a bit small for the contemporary, larger Holsteins, and some of the stalls were even still wood floored, a situation not favored by the milk inspectors. This also made it difficult to install gutter cleaners, pipeline milkers and other labor saving equipment. Chores were involving too much labor or too much time or both. In brief, Jerome was ready for the major investment in a new barn.
First, he began to investigate the new barns that had recently been built in south central Maine. A goodly number of varying types and styles, showy tie-stall barns, elaborate free-stall barns for confinement feeding, with expensive milking parlors, and some much simpler models were all within easy reach. Actually, Jerome didn’t have far to go to find what he felt best suited his situation. Diametrically opposed to his farm, in the southeast corner of Sabattus, was the farm of his good friend, the late Asa Fisher who had a mixed herd of respectable Holsteins and nationally prominent Milking Shorthorns. Asa had, several years earlier, built a new barn which exactly suited Jerome’s needs. It tied up around 50 cows in two rows of spacious tie stalls arranged tail to tail. It may also have held a couple of box stalls for calving pens. My memory is shaky on this detail. In any case, it was exactly the barn that filled Jerome’s needs.
Then began an exhaustive research project. Jerome made many trips to Fisher Farm, which by then was being operated by Asa’s sister Ruth and his widow, Alma. He measured up every board, every timber, every cubic yard of concrete. He counted every nail, screw and bolt of each size involved. He itemized every window, every bit of hardware, water bowls, plumbing supplies and fittings; he itemized every electrical fixture and supply, lights, fans, panel boxes, circuit breakers, wire, you name it. He measured the length of the gutter cleaner chain, and figured which brand he desired. He measured and measured, counted and counted, and made exhaustive lists. Then, several years having passed since Fisher’s barn had been built, he priced it all at current prices.
Jerome’s next move was to contact a local contractor for whom he had a great deal of respect. He took this man to Fisher’s to study that barn, then took him to the site of his own future barn and asked him to give him a price for site preparation and erection of the new building. He instructed the contractor to estimate almost double what he really felt it would cost. After all, it’s always better to complete a project below budget than to run out of money before it’s finished. The contractor protested that he could do the job for far less than Jerome was asking him to estimate. “Never mind,” said Jerome. “For budget purposes, I want the high number.”
Finally all the figures were gathered and organized, and Jerome began to shop for a loan. He made a date with the Farm Credit Service at their Auburn, Maine, office. He explained to the loan officer just what he wanted to do, and how he had researched the project. He wanted to borrow $50,000 he said. The loan officer patronizingly informed him that it couldn’t be done for that. After all, hadn’t Farm Credit been financing all those fine 60 and 70 cow barns for $250,000 lately. He knew what he was talking about.
Jerome took the loan officer laboriously through his whole process again, including the itemization of all materials, supplies and equipment, the contractor’s estimates for site preparation and construction and his assurance that he could do the job for about half of the budgeted figure.
Finally, the loan officer, in a rare moment of candor said, “Jerome, I believe you. I think you probably can do it for the sum you’ve asked for. You certainly have firm commitments here that I can’t argue with. But I’m not going to lend you the money. If you were to succeed it would make us look awfully stupid for having financed all those quarter of a million dollar barns, and we can’t afford that.”
Sadly, Jerome went away, empty-handed. His next stop was the Farmer’s Home Administration. Now FmHA gets very mixed reviews as a farm lending agency. It has made some very good loans and some incredibly stupid ones. It has helped a lot of farmers and gotten a good many in hock way over their heads. Much depends on who the local farm loan supervisor is and what set of personal agricultural biases he has. Maine has had its share of well informed, good FmHA loan officers as well as its share of duds who know a good deal less than they think they do, and who are on a power trip. Alas for Jerome, his area was served by one of the latter.
Never mind all the research Jerome had gone through. Never mind the commitments from the contractor. Never mind Jerome’s track record. This man “knew” that small dairy farms were a thing of the past. Never mind that Jerome was financially better off than 95% of the larger farmers in Maine. He’d talk with Jerome if he was interested in going to a 200+ cow free stall barn with a milking parlor, costing in excess of $300,000. Otherwise, don’t waste his time. At this point, it must be confessed, Jerome Davis wavered. He really had the new barn bug. Perhaps he should forget about what he felt was sensible and go along with the experts. Of course, it would require more land, but some of his older small farm neighbors were retiring and he could probably rent their land. Of course, he’d probably need a good deal more help and bigger machinery, but the expanded cash flow might make that possible if all went well, and since he was already raising a lot of heifers, he’d only have to wait a few months to have his cattle numbers right up to full capacity for the new facility.
At this point in the discussions, fate intervened. The loan officer informed him that it would not be permitted to wait a few months for his home grown heifers to calve to fill the new barn to capacity. He would have to borrow another $75,000-$100,000 to buy cows in order to be going full bore from the day the project was completed.
That did it. Jerome silently rose from his chair. Reaching out, he gathered up all the forms and documents and ripped them in two. Turning his back on the stunned loan officer he marched out the door without a word, slamming it satisfyingly behind him and never returned.
Jerome Davis is still making a good living milking 40 to 50 cows in his old barn, or so Ruth and Alma Fisher informed me when I was briefly back in Maine in the spring of 1995. And he’s still doing better than 95% of the bigger farms. After all, Jerome doesn’t need a guardian.