Ein Traum Von Amerika: The 1990s
Wulf is a tough old bird… he is 65 and he just keeps going.”
Wulf Lebrecht’s son, Chris, said that about his father in the German-made documentary film “Ein Traum Von Amerika” (“An American Dream”). Filmmakers Christoph Corves and Delia Castiñeira followed the Lebrecht family farm from 1997 through 2001.
Wulf, who immigrated from Germany to Idaho in the 1950s, achieved his dream of being a big American farmer. He fought bad weather, rocky soil, pests, low prices and the other difficulties that are part of farming in Eastern Idaho.
The Lebrecht farm consisted of more than 3,000 acres during the 1990s. Wulf’s sons, Chris and Brian, were farming with him. It looked like the successful farming operation that Wulf and his family had built with hard, smart work would be passed on to the next generation.
Wulf was proud of his farm and his family. In the film Chris said: “Wulf hasn’t been out here doing it all just for his own health and benefit. I’m sure his dreams are the same as any other father’s: You want the sons to carry on… if they can.”
Profitable prices are part of those dreams. The 1995 crop was a moneymaker for Idaho open-market growers. Fresh shippers and processors paid more than $10 per cwt. for some potatoes purchased out of storage. The dream prices quickly evaporated.
The 1996 crop was a disaster for Wulf and many other potato growers. Prices dropped to less than $1 per cwt, one-tenth of what they were the previous year. Wulf sold potatoes for 70 cents per cwt. It cost more than $4 to grow them.
There was a double whammy. Idaho wheat prices dropped to the lowest level since Wulf came to Idaho in 1955. The Lebrecht operation lost half a million dollars.
Wulf had seen wide price swings in the past. He and many other potato growers planted another crop and hoped the market will turn around. The Lebrechts worked hard, scrimped and saved and managed to keep going.
During spring 1999, farm auctions were common in Eastern Idaho. Some growers had gone bankrupt, while others chose to sell out with some equity. Farm prices remained depressed for the main commodities potatoes, wheat, hay, sheep and cattle.
The Lebrechts continued to work hard, but they couldn’t control brutal market forces. Jim Chapman, head of Potato Growers of Idaho, spoke in the film about the power of the large potato corporations. A former employee of potato processor Lamb-Weston, which was purchased by ConAgra, Chapman said: “…it’s two bad years in a row, three bad years in a row. But it is going to be a string of bad years in a row if we don’t recognize the power that these large… multinational corporations have garnered. They are probably more powerful than government. And they should frighten us.”
The stress took a toll on Wulf. His wife Karen said: “He doesn’t sleep at night. He worries about the farm. He worries about keeping things together. He is not eating properly. He doesn’t rest. He aged five years in the last two years, simply because of the economy, trying to keep things going, to make a living off the farm. But you can’t do that when there is no market for your crops.”
An already bad financial situation worsened. In April 1999 the Lebrechts planted 1,600 acres of grain. A lender refused to provide further financing. The power company demanded $150,000 to turn on the irrigation pumps. Hot weather came to Eastern Idaho.
Wulf seems undaunted. He said: “We will fight until the fight is over. Anything can happen.”
This is the seventh article in a series about Wulf Lebrecht, a German immigrant who became an Idaho potato farmer. More information about Wulf is available at www.eintraumvonamerika.de.”