The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

It’s tax preparation time again, and farmers all over the world are turning into creative accountants as they produce the one thing they can count on from their farm: tax deductions.

Sure, there must be a farmer somewhere who sold beans when they hit 12 bucks this past year, but they’re rarer than tips on the table inside the café at coffee time. (Which is when all the local farmers come to town for their Finnish Tranquilizer, which is a cup of coffee drank from the saucer upon which it came, whilst holding a sugar cube in your mouth to strain it through.)

“I prayed,” was the way one farmer summed up what he did, after he didn’t sell when beans hit a high, and the price started back down again. “I checked grain prices a hundred times a day, because all the experts said they were going back up again.” They’d go up a dime, and down a quarter. Farmers with bulging bean bins watched their computer screens for insights from the Chicago grain experts; for the latest news from Brazil and Argentina; for the price of tea in China, for all we know.

Here is my father’s favorite farm story. This farmer is plowing, looks back, and sees something lying in the furrow. He gets off the tractor, goes back, picks this thing up, and as he’s knocking black dirt off of it, a genie appears and says: “You’ve rubbed the magic lamp, and now you get a wish a day for three days.”

The farmer thinks, and says: “Give me 15 dollar beans.” 

The genie blinks, and says, “It’s yours.”

The next day, the farmer rubs the lamp. The genie asks for the second wish. The farmer asks for eight dollar corn, and gets it.

The next day, the last day, the farmer rubs the lamp, and the genie appears. “What is your final wish?” he asks the farmer.

The farmer says: “Give me 15 dollar beans.”

The genie says: “But I gave that to you two days ago.”

The farmer replies: “Yeah, but I didn’t sell.”

The farmer who told me about praying for stock market guidance humbly looked at the ground, and said in a whisper: “I sold at seven bucks.” You could see the anguish. Sure and he was old enough to remember when beans weren’t even three bucks to start with, and now he’d gone and left most of what he ever used to get—the three bucks—on the table.

To look at them and listen to them, you’d of thought they’d lost two crops, the one for the price they sold at, and the other for what they didn’t get. Originally, it seemed that this anguish farmers were feeling originated from a feeling of loss; that, as they walked around with long faces, they were contemplating The End Times. Once in a lifetime a farmer is offered 15 dollar beans, once in a lifetime a genie appears, and for reasons they aren’t clear about, they let it go by. For total lack of preparation in making the decision, they all thought that, since beans’d gone to a never-seen-before ten, they could just as well go to 16, 18, 20—who knows.

But now that doesn’t seem so clear. Maybe farmers let that windfall go by on purpose. Maybe the farmer I talked to wasn’t sorry about missing the mark; maybe he was sorry because now, for the first time in his life, it was tax time and he had to wrestle with—gasp!—profit on his Schedule F farm tax form.

Anyone who has lived on at least 40 acres and has not engaged in creative accounting at tax time shouldn’t show up at the local farmers’ grain elevator’s free hot dog day. They don’t deserve it.

For farmers now, though, the wrestling match is going to take place on the other side of the column, the gain side. And there these guys were, had us all faked out and feeling bad for them missing 15-buck beans, when what they really were afraid of was finding more deductions to offset the extra bucks that they did get.

For their entire lives, they’ve scraped and twisted to squeeze various purchases into the expense column. It’s going to be hard to find any more deductions. They’ve written off the four-wheelers that they bought for their kids, kids that they turned into hired help on the Schedule F.

Boat motors became grain agitators, hair dryers became electrical supplies, new garages became farm storage, ice augers became post hole diggers, deer rifles became varmint eradication, camping tents became calf warming huts, tractor diesel fuel mysteriously got burned in the house furnace, snowmobiles became winter field transportation, ski jaunts became farmer exchange trips.

Every farmer believes, way down deep, that somewhere in all that IRS fine print, like buried gold, is a magic phrase that’ll let them get a million bucks back, if they could just hit the right deduction wording.

It’s tax time. Somewhere, a farmer made a profit.

Ain’t life grand?