Depending on whom you ask, your faithfulness to God can have a direct correlation with your crop yield. The Mertens family of Northeast Colorado certainly believes this to be true.
The Mertens work year-round to grow corn and millet, raise cattle, and clean and sell seed wheat. Jim and Danelle Mertens live less than two miles away from their eldest son Cole, who over the last few years has slowly been taking the reins of the family farm from Jim. He’s embraced technology to increase yields, which has proved to be absolutely necessary during a time when many other family farms are folding. They have also been diversifying as a way to secure income stability.
The price of wheat hasn’t gone up since the 1970s. Jim Mertens has been selling wheat these last couple years at $4.50/bushel, which is a bit less than he was selling it for in high school back in the 1970s.
At the beginning of last year, the family invested a vast amount of money in the crops: $2 million in machinery, $525,000 in fixed cost — seed, fertilizer, fuel, chemicals — and that doesn’t include man hours of labor. Meeting these costs as a family, not as a corporation, like so many farms are these days, has become exceedingly difficult.
March and April brought record rainfall and even the eldest couldn’t remember a time when the wheat was this heavy with grain.
July is a pivotal month that can make or break the well-being of the Mertens for the rest of the year. There is so much to lose. There are plenty of dangers that can wipe out an entire year’s work — tornados, hail, fire, fungus, pests — the list goes on.
Harvest usually take two weeks of around-the-clock work, but this year it took three full weeks because of all the rain. Through all of this, the Mertens continually stayed calm and cool, buoyed by their faith.
Although this past year was a huge bumper crop — the biggest anyone in living memory has seen — that won’t translate financially because supply has flooded the market, decreasing profits.
By winter, the new crop of wheat has been planted and begins to sprout. Farm operations focus on the new calves which are usually bought in late fall. It is time to catch up on bookkeeping and machinery repair, and of course, to pray.
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Elliot Ross is a Brooklyn-based portrait photographer with a BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He has been a full-time assistant to Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger, and has spent the last year exploring the idea of isolation through observing the lives of those who toil in the far-flung regions of the Earth to make ends meet. Instagram: @elliotstudio.