Boyles family farm. Photo: Claire Boyles

Failing at Important Things:
A Parallel History

What We Did, 2008

We sold our house. We saved our pennies. We attended classes in small business development. We bought a 21-acre farm, water rights attached, on the Colorado eastern plains near the town of Gill. My grandfather gave us equipment he hadn’t used for years as a start-up gift: a 1952 Allis-Chalmers tricycle tractor, an old mechanical transplanter, apple crates from the fruit farm he closed years ago. When I was eight years old, I rode behind my grandpa on that very same tractor—feeding strawberry plugs to the transplanter while he drove through the rows. “You can pay attention, or you can lose your fingers,” he said, as a training speech, patting my pigtailed head. When we loaded the equipment, in 2008, to haul it from Ohio to Colorado, Grandpa gave us more solid advice. “If there’s really no talking you out of this,” he said, “then you make damn sure you’re farming for money, not with it.”

We named the tractor Allis. The first time my husband, Matty, started it, there was a whir-whir-whir sound that got progressively higher pitched, then a gunshot boom sound that made us all jump. Flames shot briefly out of the exhaust pipe. A thick bellow of black smoke dissipated into the air. We gave our delighted children tractor rides, let them grasp the steering wheel. The sunset glowed in ribbons behind the Rockies to the west, backlighting the tractor as it chugged slowly along, and it was hard not to feel hopeful about the whole enterprise. We believed we could create something better for ourselves, for our children, by trying to become smaller, live simpler, love the land and each other more fiercely.

The first thing we heard, on our new farm, was the chewing and scratching of mice in the walls of our 1940s-era bungalow. We cleaned their droppings out of the cellar, the kitchen cabinets, the window wells. We chose traps over poison so they wouldn’t die inside our walls, mice carcasses as permanent roommates. We kept a kill tally on the family calendar—Monday a.m.: 10, Monday p.m.: 12, Tuesday a.m.: 14, and so on. I put the dead bodies in Ziploc bags in the bottom of our trash can so that we wouldn’t have to smell them. After a few weeks, the numbers dwindled, but occasionally we would find the peanut butter had been licked off the traps.

“I think we’ve killed all the stupid ones,” I told Matty. “Only the strong have survived.”

In April, we qualified for the maximum benefit under President Bush’s Economic Stimulus Package: $1200. We spent it immediately on chicken feed, heat lamps, seed, bulbs, used coveralls. We planted Benary’s giant zinnias, gladiolas, euphorbia, salvia, sunflowers, fifty varieties of field-grown cut flowers. Our three-year-old son clung to my back while I pulled weeds, we set our five-year-old daughter to nap in the shade under our pickup truck. We bought tiny mud boots in the shapes of zoo animals. I kept my part-time teaching job. Matty continued managing a tree nursery full-time. The price of gasoline peaked near $4 a gallon during the summer delivery season. Everything cost three times more than we estimated it would. Three times more than estimated costs turned out to be a constant in our business lives; also, three times less profit.

We woke at dawn to a cacophony of birdsong in our windbreak of American plum trees, lilac bushes, junipers that browned at the tips from drought. I learned to tell the difference between the love-lies-bleeding amaranth we had planted and the red-root pigweed we had to eradicate. I installed drip irrigation tubes on primed lines, water beading on the lenses of my glasses, pruning the pads of my fingers. Our children went feral, weaving ferny carrot tops into their hair, their bare feet calloused and tough, permanently blackened, skin like leather slippers. We were like sunflowers, our eyes fixated on the rainbow beauty of our flower field, on everything bright in our new lives. Pride spread our ribcages like a deep breath, swelled our hearts with love for the land, for each other. “Look what we can do,” we whispered to each other. “Look what we can grow.” Owls called from the trees in our front yard as we shuffled, exhausted, from barn to bed.

The growing season ended in frost and debt. The windbreak birds migrated away. We woke to NPR on the clock radio in early October to find the stock market, like our own personal balance sheet, had dropped catastrophically. We couldn’t afford to fill our propane tank. We installed a wood stove, scavenged free wood, spent evenings with wedge and axe. I found a full-time teaching job, learned to use a pressure cooker, converted the barn cooler to root cellar. We split wood, baked bread, roasted vegetables, fed chickens, composted, patched jeans. Winter froze the irrigation pond and we skated on the ice every night, our children steadying themselves with upside down buckets, the sun sinking, the dusky western sky in muted pinks and greys.

Always we worked, as though work alone would be sufficient, as though work and love would somehow translate into columns on the spreadsheet, offset the losses in the profit/loss dichotomy. The cold wind swirled in through the cracks in the walls, numbed our skin as we were sleeping, and we saw it as blessing, not omen.

What They Did, 2008

In February, Jimmy Cayne, the CEO of Bear Stearns, bought a New York City apartment for $28.24 million. A month later, on March 15, Bear Stearns collapsed, and another Wall Street firm, JP Morgan, sucked the marrow right out of its bones. Cayne was bitter about whom the government was and was not giving money to on Wall Street—he seemed to feel that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had chosen Bear Stearns as a sort of sacrificial lamb. Cayne, like many Americans, lost some money in the crisis, but he lost neither the New York City apartment nor the beach house in New Jersey that he reportedly owned. Speaking about his personal financial losses, Cayne told a reporter for Vanity Fair, “The only people going to suffer are my heirs, not me, because when you have a billion six and you lose a billion, you’re not exactly, like, crippled, right?”

Their shadow economy was revealed—they had encouraged consumers to refinance into adjustable-rate mortgages, to pull cash out of their home equity. They had falsified income information on loan applications, lending more money than they knew people could repay. They had used the economy like a trip to Vegas, and they had become addicted to gambling.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, also suddenly struggling with its holdings in mortgages, gloated publicly about his prescience in getting out of subprime holdings starting in 2006. Jamie Dimon spoke eloquently, passionately about the need for the Fed to bail out Wall Street. The federal government took over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. In October, President Bush authorized the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, to save the banks from themselves, to save the rest of us from them. The U.S. Treasury gave $125 million to nine banks right away. And then they rescued Citigroup by agreeing to spread the liability for the company’s $306 billion in troubled assets around to various taxpayer-funded government agencies. In December, just before Christmas, the government gave $13.4 billion to General Motors and Chrysler. At the end of 2008, banks that received bailout funds awarded $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses, and other perks to their top executives, ostensibly for a job well done. Jamie Dimon’s 2008 commuting costs, reported by CBS to be $211,182, were paid for with company money.

What We Did, 2009

The debt was the only way that we did not feel more free. Our love for the farm fed the roots of our new life: they were young, but they proved resilient. Matty’s job laid him off for the entire month of February. We wondered who, in 2009, might spend $10 on something as frivolous as flowers. We adjusted to the shifting economic realities, diversified into vegetables through a community-supported agriculture model. One of our laying hens turned out to be a rooster we named Larry. Larry grew up to be a real jerk, attacking the children when they spread scratch, so we taught ourselves how to slit his throat, how to reach up inside him and disconnect the membranes that held him together, how to disembowel him, how he stayed tough and stringy when grilled with olive oil and rosemary. It took courage to learn these things, to take life, literally and figuratively, into our own hands and try to see what we could make of it.

I hauled five-gallon buckets of water to brooders and pens every morning, worked to slow my breathing as the pink stratocumulus sunrises dissipated over the big sky prairie. My children followed me through the field furrows as I planted, pushing Tonka trucks full of seed packets. Losing interest, they built toad homes in the irrigation ditch, giggled at the gymnastic antics of their barn kittens. To escape the punishing mid-afternoon heat, we napped together in the dark house, shades drawn against the sun, lying under the breeze from the ceiling fans, their tiny hands in mine. It was a satisfied exhaustion, exhaustion that made us feel whole.

We tried to get a small business loan. We were laughed out of these meetings, rejected due to the debt we had already incurred. Flower sales at farmers markets stopped completely, and even wholesale orders for Whole Foods, for the florists, dropped 30 percent. Matt went back to work at reduced pay and with fewer benefits, and we told ourselves we were lucky that he had a job at all. I returned to part-time teaching at the local university. We had become poor enough to receive free preschool for our son, so we no longer had to pay for day care. We accepted that the way we appraised our lives no longer translated, that there was no accurate financial measure for the things we valued.

Our children found a National Geographic article about snakes the same week Matt decapitated a six-foot long bull snake outside the turkey brooder. The children became reptile obsessed. Over dinner, we described a YouTube video about a snake in the Amazon that swallowed a cow whole. The children sat silent for a moment, and then my daughter asked a question for which we had no answer, “What was a cow doing in the jungle?”

Autumn arrived. We could not afford to purchase an agricultural scale, so we placed our bathroom scale on a stump in the middle of our growing field in November. We weighed Matt first, and then we weighed Matt holding each of our grown turkeys upside down, by their feet, to find their pre-butchering weight. The temperature in December dropped steeply, reaching -20 degrees on the farm. We woke to frost on the inside of our living room walls. We nearly lost our pigs, Noodle and Piggy, to hypothermia. To save their lives, we turned them loose from their pen into the corral at midnight, with only the sulfur light on the edge of our barn to help us see, and attempted to herd them toward the heat lamps and straw in the barn. I had a bin of grain and eggs, and with that, I was able to convince Noodle to heel, like a dog, and follow me. We had to wedge Piggy, colder and more stubborn, into the crook of two metal cattle panels and drag her, seemingly against her will, into the lifesaving warmth.

“Midnight pig salvation maneuvers,” I joked, planting my feet, preparing for another heave.

“Like this farm,” Matty said, laughing. “Just have to keep on dragging it toward solvency.”

New Year’s found us toasting optimism and faith, deeper in debt, deeper in love. I wrote on the farm blog: I never want to live anywhere that the skies aren’t this big. You can just bury me under the windbreak trees.

What They Did, 2009

In January, the Fed bailed out Bank of America, who owned our farm mortgage for a number of years. The unemployment rate started the year at 7.8 percent and rose to its peak of 10 percent by October. It became clear that the economic earthquake had liquefied and collapsed the middle-class soil that once felt like solid ground under our feet, that at least 5.3 million Americans, including us, were newly in danger of falling into the sinkhole of poverty. In response, President Obama created a stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, that promised $787 billion to “jumpstart” the economy. The stimulus was opposed by many congressional Republicans.

Wall Street banker Steve Mnuchin formed an investment group that purchased IndyMac, a struggling bank in California, renaming it One West. One West Bank became known as a foreclosure machine, eventually taking the homes of 36,000 people while also receiving $1 billion from the FDIC as payments for the bad debts One West had willingly purchased. The press began calling Mnuchin “The Foreclosure King.”

Banks across the nation, insisting that this was not a problem they had caused, began to foreclose on their properties. A narrative spread that the American consumer should have known better, should have seen Wall Street’s game and beat them at it—if you weren’t smarter than the bankers, you deserved to suffer the consequences. The bankers talked about low savings rates among U.S. consumers, about the irresponsibility of the people who took the banks up on their offer of cash-out refinancing when times were good. The news ran footage of families who returned home from what jobs they still had, from picking up their children from day care, to find that their bank had thrown their belongings in the yard, locked the doors of their homes against them, left legal notices on the doors emphasizing that this was, entirely, the family’s own fault, and that the family would be held liable for the damages the bank had incurred.

In March, the government introduced HARP, the Home Affordable Refinance Program, through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to allow families like ours, families who bought homes in the waning years of the housing bubble and were now underwater, to refinance into lower interest rates and affordable monthly payments. The Fed ran a series of “stress tests” on the banks. Analysts were baffled when the banks’ share prices traded 10 percent higher the week before the results were published, despite rumors that most banks would fail. They decided it was due to new investor confidence that no matter how weak the banks were shown to be, the government would not allow them to go under.

Economists declared that June 2009 was the official end of the Great Recession.

What We Did, 2010

The new year on the high plains settled heavy into the air, sucked the warmth out of everything, tried its best to turn humans—humans tending animals, humans patching plumbing—subzero. An underground water line burst, flooding our basement. The top six inches of ground was frozen, so to dig down and find the leak, we had to set a fire over the dig site. And then every day, when we resumed digging, we had to first set fires to clear the frost that set in, relentlessly, night after night. Finally, the fires burned underground in small caves we’d dug, and we warmed the bone-aching chill of our fingers near them as we repaired the broken pipe.

That spring, only half of the apple tree in our backyard came out of dormancy. By midsummer, the south stretching branches were in full leaf, a gray-green mosaic set off by the junipers and elm trees in our feeble windbreak. The north side of the tree was gray bark barren, dead. The summer before had been drought, then winter brought standing water underneath a thick layer of surface ice. It was unclear whether the tree had suffered most from too much water or not enough.

“Is there anything to do?” I asked Matty, the horticulturalist, feeling certain he would be able to heal our tree.

He sighed, ran one hand through his curly, gray-tinged hair. “Go back in time,” he said, “and not plant the tree in such a harsh environment.”

Spring that year seemed determined to break us. Just after we transplanted thousands of tiny seedlings, a May hailstorm shredded everything. We waited a few days for the soggy soil to dry out and then immediately started replanting. The field proved its resilience, recovering quickly, only to be inundated by flood waters in one night of torrential rains in June. We found seedling trays from our greenhouse floating in our corral at our 9 p.m. check. The low end of the barn filled with water as well, so we turned some five-gallon buckets upside down and lifted our sodden turkey poults onto them. We couldn’t move the weaner pigs, so we threw firewood on the ground in their pen, then a layer of old wire shelves, and then as much straw as we could to build a platform above the water line. We reached our laying flock, in their hoop house, just as the water was about to drown the hens. We waded through the knee-deep water in our field, pushing a wheelbarrow five times, out and back, to carry the hens, ten at a time, to the relative safety of our garage. Water filled our rubber mud boots, soaked our canvas clothes. We waited a week for the soggy soil to dry out and immediately started replanting.

I filled out the paperwork to refinance our mortgage, thinking that 20 irrigable acres with a house, a barn, a cold-frame greenhouse we built ourselves might still be worth something. It was not. We were underwater on our two-year-old mortgage by $80,000. The appraiser, not satisfied with simply delivering this devastating news, rolled his eyes at my shocked expression. “I don’t know what you were expecting, ma’am,” he said, hitting the ma’am with a mocking tone. “You live in Weld County. And your house, well, it’s modest at best.” I thought a lot about that word in 2010, about modesty, about what it meant to love so fiercely something nobody else knew how to value. Modesty, frugality, these things consumed me, and still, every few months, my parents bought our children new shoes.

I spent hours filling out the online paperwork for the HARP program. Nothing happened. After a few weeks, I made a phone call and was told, yes, we qualified, but were on a waiting list for processing. As far as I know today, we are still on that waiting list. We never heard anything from the HARP program.

Always there was the work, the seasonal exhausting cycle of ripping, discing, pulling irrigation, seeding, transplanting, weeding, tending, nurturing, harvesting, washing, storing, selling. My teaching. Matt’s full-time work. Parenting.

Despite hail, flood, and recession, the farm came closer than it ever had to breaking even that year.

“Next year,” we whispered to each other, “next year it all turns around.”

I overheard my children one afternoon discussing what they wanted to be when they grew up. My daughter, a veterinarian. My son, a Tour de France champion. My son said to my daughter, “Ok. But when Mommy and Daddy die, can we stop farming? Because it’s too much work.” He was still developing the pronunciation of “r,” so the final word sounded like woah-oak.

What They Did, 2010

In the first quarter, the six biggest U.S. banks—Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley—reported a collective $18.7 billion in profits. Pay on Wall Street hit record highs for the second year in a row, with salaries and benefits rising at almost all major firms. Wall Street’s payroll was estimated to be $144 billion. The media reported that Jimmy Cayne purchased a luxury condo in Florida for $2.75 million. The purchase was made by a trust, so transaction details are not public.

The news celebrated, euphorically, the recession’s end. The government passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a set of strict regulations the banks would have to follow—the amount of cash reserves they had to set aside, rules that required them to keep investments made for their own profit separate from investments they managed for customers, rules limiting abusive lending practices. The White House produced a three-minute animated YouTube video in which a reassuring voiceover explained the causes of the Great Recession and the new consumer protections contained in Dodd-Frank over an inexplicably upbeat smooth jazz soundtrack. Everyone can relax—we are here to shine a light on that shadow economy. We won’t let them get too big to fail again. And we will never, ever, use your tax dollars to bail them out, no matter what ways they find to get around these rules.

The banks foreclosed on 2.9 million properties nationwide in 2010, a historic record.

What We Did, 2011

We took stock at tax time. We had accrued $30,000 of debt on our personal credit cards, had very little money in the farm account, and were facing the start-up expenses of the season. It felt impossible that we could work for so many hours, on and off-farm, and still not be able to pay our bills. Farmers markets had made us good at haggling, at working to get the most possible from a transaction, and we turned those skills, for the first time, on each other as we tried to form a plan for solvency.

Me: Sunflowers sell well. They’re like dollars on stalks. Why don’t we sow more of those, try to expand those sales?
Matt: The seed is expensive. Do we really have $500 to spend just on sunflower seed?
Me: We never will if we don’t sell more sunflowers.
Matt: Whatever. Tell me your plan for keeping up with the weeds in those extra rows.
Me: Same as always. Unless you have a better idea. For weeding or for finding profits.
Matt: Every year you push to grow twice as much as the year before. And every year we’re too broke to hire labor, so the only plan for managing the extra workload is to beat it out of our own hides.
Me: What else is there?
Matt: I don’t know anymore. We’re pretty deep into this.
Me: We are $30,000 and an underwater mortgage in.
Matt: Jesus Christ.
Me: You said it, man.

We expanded the CSA, bought the sunflower seed, split Saturdays so we could attend two farmers markets, beat the work out of our own hides. We put our children, now nine and six, to work in the field. They transplanted brassicas, pulled weeds, harvested peas, green beans, and cherry tomatoes. We paid them with promises of farm-free family time: movie night at home with Matty’s homemade kettle corn, a family trip to the library with a stop for milkshakes, a few hours at the pool. At night, we cuddled them and read books, one of which was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy. Our children nodded solemnly at her descriptions of 19th century farm life. It was like we already knew the story.

“Almanzo, do you know what this is?”
“Half a dollar,” Almanzo answered.
“Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is?”
Almanzo didn’t know it was anything but half a dollar.
“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work. . . the work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.”

Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared with all that work.

Early season went well. We kept up with the weeds. Our crops germinated better than expected. We were on track to make a profit for the first time. Our customers raved about the greens, about the peas, about the recipes we gave them for hakurei turnips. Then, on June 15, the morning brought heavy hail and a tornado nearby. I sent my kids into the root cellar, stood at the top of the stairs, watched nature shred months of planning and money and work. I said with my throat constricted, with tears in my eyes, out loud to nobody: please, please, please.

Again we replanted, recovered what we could, but our harvests were limited all season. Our market income dropped near zero as we scrambled to fill our CSA boxes.

Then, in July, the grasshoppers arrived. I watched them eat through an entire row of romaine lettuce in two hours, stripping over one hundred nearly mature heads down to flattened, milky stalks. They moved then to the next row, red-leaf, and did the same. They stripped the greens off the beets, the ferns of the carrots, took bites of the sunflower petals. When we walked through the field, hundreds of them clouded up, surrounding us, clinging to our pants, our hair, perching on our shoulders like pet birds. We asked our organic pesticide supplier if he had anything that could kill them. “I can sell you two bricks,” he said, “and you can use them to squash the bugs. Other than that, organic-wise, you’re out of luck.”

We worked hard now at lightheartedness, and we were blessed with help. A CSA customer, Liz, gave us a martini shaker, three bottles of booze, and a recipe for a drink called a dead grasshopper. Another customer, Vince, gave us a giant bottle of Bailey’s and a poem he wrote to encourage us called, “Doing the Grasshopper Waltz.” Another customer sent me an Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote: “Only he can understand what a farm is, what a country is, who shall have sacrificed part of himself to his farm or country, fought to save it, struggled to make it beautiful. Only then will the love of farm or country fill his heart.”

What They Did, 2011

Paul Ryan proposed a budget with $5.8 billion in cuts to popular entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicaid, and the preschool program our son had been enrolled in. Congress could not agree on a budget that would either reduce or increase deficits. The argument was ideological. In an act of dangerous brinksmanship that, had it worked, would have forced the U.S. government to default on its own existing credit, Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling until two days before the U.S. lost its ability to pay its debts. The government made a last-minute temporary budget deal that included a trigger for sequestration. Citing political dysfunction, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history. This meant, among other things, that the nation’s taxpayers would pay more in interest costs to keep the government running.

To recover profits lost from increased government regulation, big banks raised overdraft fees, eliminated free checking (except when average balances exceeded certain amounts), and raised interest rates on credit cards. These changes affected lower income Americans more than the middle or upper class. One business analyst was quoted in USA Today: “Banks don’t want to do business with a large class of people that they simply can’t make money on anymore.”

Unemployment fell below 9 percent. This was classified as good news.

What We All Did, 2012

We scaled back to one farmers market, 30 CSA families. We put a mortgage payment on our credit card, barely kept up with the minimum payments on our debt. We were bickery, distant, short-tempered with our children. We went to marriage counseling and were told to go on dates. Our first date included a passive aggressive conversation about where to eat dinner and a stop for twine at Home Depot. Matt answered a phone call from his mother. Our second date involved coming from separate errands to meet at a movie theater. I waited in the lobby for 20 minutes, only to discover that Matt had been waiting in the parking lot. Both of us had wondered whether the other had decided not to come.

We were dangerously close to bankruptcy. We savored the 2012 season, somehow hail and flood and grasshopper free, and then we started the tricky process of selling the farm. We took lessons from the presidential candidate we would not vote for, Mitt Romney, and we broke our farm into pieces to sell for scrap. We borrowed money from my parents to pay for the survey and fees and appraisals it took to split our farm into two land parcels, one eight-acre bare land parcel, the other 13 acres with our home and barn and family on it. We sold my grandpa’s tractor and his mechanical transplanter. We filled a giant dumpster with the failed remnants of our dream.

The private appraisal showed that the two parcels, if sold separately, would net more than we owed on our mortgage. We found a buyer for the eight-acre parcel and the water rights. We submitted the paperwork to Bank of America so they could approve the release of the eight acres before the scheduled closing in February of 2013. They told us everything looked good. They told us they just needed to gather the paperwork from other parties, the title company, the private mortgage insurance company. On New Year’s Eve, once the kids were asleep, Matt and I kissed for luck, tasted each other’s hope.

What We All Did, 2013

On February 6, we received a notice that our bank was selling our mortgage to another bank effective February 16, which meant that Bank of America would no longer have the authority to release the eight-acre parcel at our February 28 closing. We scrambled, made phone calls. Bank of America asked if our buyers would agree to close early, before the mortgage sale. They would. It was all in order as long as the private mortgage insurance company approved it.

The private mortgage insurance company representative assigned to our case took a week off without completing the job. I called the company over and over the day before the closing. I explained, I pleaded, I begged. Please just have somebody look at this. It’s all in order. Everyone else has approved it. Your person said she’d approve it.

They did show it to an underwriter who agreed to approve it the following Tuesday. I explained, again, that the bank was selling the mortgage the next day. Tuesday would be too late. The private mortgage insurance representative, exasperated by my persistence, said, “Well, that’s too bad for you then.”

The deadline passed. Bank of America sold our mortgage to Nationstar bank. Nationstar said they would not accept our existing paperwork to release the parcel for sale. We did not have the money to start the process over. We prepared ourselves for foreclosure.

In desperation, I called my senator, Michael Bennet. He had visited our farmers market booth on the campaign trail, had been on the news buying a bouquet from my tiny daughter. I left a message reminding him that we’d met once, that I was a small farmer trying to bail myself out of a difficult financial situation, and that the banks, even though my tax dollars had bailed them out, had made it totally impossible for me. I said, in the message, how disappointed and let down I felt, how angry I was, how alienated, and that I knew there wasn’t anything anybody would do about it, but I thought he should know how it looked to me: Washington and Wall Street versus my family, versus my farm.

Like some kind of magic, Bennet’s office called me back the next day. Three days later, I had a direct line to the office of the president of Nationstar bank, whose assistant, prepped to receive my call, was suddenly more than happy to accept the paperwork I had submitted to Bank of America and expedite the process of splitting the parcel. Our buyers agreed to close in March, and we did. The proceeds from the land sale did not come to us in cash, but they did reduce what we owed on our mortgage significantly so that we were no longer underwater. The proceeds from the sale of our water rights paid off almost all our credit card debt. We took the kids to town, treated ourselves to pizza and beer. I don’t remember ever feeling so lighthearted.

We listed our home and the remaining 13 acres for sale for the amount our private appraiser had given us. Our buyer offered full price but applied for funding through a special Federal Housing Administration mortgage loan program. The FHA would not use our private appraisal. The FHA appraiser found that our 13-acre parcel was worth $40,000 less than the private appraiser had found. Matt and I decided that the $40,000 difference was just money on paper, imaginary money. We decided to be bird-in-hand people, and we sold the farm for almost exactly what we owed on our mortgage. Our realtor, a friend and a kind-hearted person, waived his fee on the sale. We scraped together the tiniest possible down payment on a house in town, with a loan-to-value ratio that required us to pay, once again, for private mortgage insurance.

We recognized our luck. Not everyone had such a soft landing. Still, we were angry, for ourselves and for everyone else, at how much we all gave to the banks and how little we all got in return.

What We Have Done Since:

In early 2014, we received an $8500 tax bill due to the capital gains from the sale of our land and water rights. The sale was a net loss for us over time, but it looked like profit in that one year. We took out a bank loan to pay the taxes with our minivan as collateral. We finished making payments on that loan in March of 2017. We repaid my parents. We paid off our credit cards. We saved some money. The county clerk says that the house we purchased in town has risen $50,000 in appraised value over the past three years—a number we are not inclined to believe in, given the lack of objectivity in appraisals, our experience that tomorrow, that number could drop times three. However, we used that number to refinance so that we no longer pay for private mortgage insurance. We converted our city front yard into garden beds. We continue, on a modest scale, to grow and can our own food. We enthusiastically voted for Michael Bennet in the recent election. We have a good time together on regular date nights. We pay cash.

What They Have Done Since:

The Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation released reports in 2016—at least five of the big banks remain too big to fail. Steve Mnuchin, the Foreclosure King of the recession, is now our nation’s Treasury Secretary. General Motors announced a record third-quarter net income of $2.8 billion, up 104 percent, in 2016. A federal judge has issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against rules that would make 4.2 million workers eligible for overtime pay. Our millionaire President has promised to repeal Dodd-Frank in the first 100 days of his presidency. He was not required to release his tax returns; analysts deemed it likely that our $8500 tax bill is more than he has had to pay in many of the past ten years. He declared publicly that this makes him smarter than us, and yet, somehow, he also convinced people that he cares about struggling rural Americans.


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