Matthew Brugger will never forget the day he realized that his family’s line of work is different.
It was the morning of his grandfather’s funeral. A morning when it would have been perfectly natural for his family to be grieving; to be taking a break. It was a morning when any other family might have been spending some time away from work.
But there is no such thing as funeral leave when work is at home – and home is your farm.
On the morning of his grandfather’s funeral, Matthew’s dad pulled on his boots and headed out to the barn to do chores. And when he discovered that one of his cows was having trouble giving birth, he enlisted the help of his teenage sons.
“We still had to be there for the animals,” Matthew said. “I remember that specific morning being like, no matter what is going on in your life, no matter what is happening, these plants are still going to grow and these animals are still going to eat them. That was just a realization I came to that transformed everything I did.”
About 100 miles northeast of the Brugger farm in Albion, Nebraska, the Borg family’s farming operation is nestled in the hills outside Allen. The Borg family has been raising livestock and growing crops for five generations now – nearly 140 years.
“I really do believe it’s in our blood,” Debbie Borg said, “but Mother Nature has so much control.”
Debbie and Terry Borg were married in July 1995. The date wasn’t chosen at random. Like many families in agriculture, the Borgs synchronized their big day with Nebraska’s growing season – after planting was finished, before cutting hay began.
Their marriage began in the midst of a drought, Debbie remembers. That put a strain on their first year of farming together. She learned to persist through unforgiving weather patterns early on.
“As a farmer you really have to lean into your faith,” Debbie said. “I think farmers are some of the most optimistic folks in the world, because [we] plant seeds in dry soil, wet soil – and as dryland farmers, we can't control the things that make a crop grow.”
On the farm, uncertainty is a reality – which means fearing it isn’t an option.
After 25 years of farming with her husband and, eventually, three children, Debbie said she isn’t afraid of the unexpected – or even the unprecedented.
In the face of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, the Borg family put a temporary freeze on expansion and improvements to their farm.
“Will we survive?” Debbie asked. “Yes. But we are in survival mode.”
In some ways, a pandemic is not so different from the challenges farmers have been facing for generations. Droughts. Floods. Tornados. Hail. Economic calamity.
Many variables in the ag industry will never be controlled, yet farming has advanced a great deal in the past 50 years. Advances in research, technology and basic techniques have helped prevent other widespread disasters, such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Debbie said her mother-in-law doesn’t speak of “the good old days.” Instead, she calls them “the hard old days.”
Today, an increasingly wide array of information is available to make agriculture more strategic. Producers have the ability to customize seeding rates and fertilizers in their fields based on moisture levels, geography, soil composition and more.
The Borg family has been “no-till farming” for more than 35 years. That means they disturb the soil structure as little as possible, preserving its nutrients, building organic matter and preventing erosion.
“There’s nothing short-term in a farmer’s plan,” Debbie said. “They have to be long-term thinkers.”
She said her family owes what they have to the hard work invested by her husband’s parents – and his grandparents and his great-grandparents before them. That’s just another reason uncertainties such as weather and disease could never put an end to the life they’ve carved out in northeast Nebraska.
Terry and Debbie’s three children are already contributing to the farm’s legacy. And the world’s food supply is depending on millions of family farmers just like the Borgs – families who don’t quit in the face of bad weather, bad luck or even personal tragedy.
For Matthew Brugger, watching his dad care for the livestock in the wake of losing his father changed everything.