Grant Swertfeger  /  Grant Swertfeger
Todd Bradley operates a combine in Wood County, in northwest Ohio. Bradley is the only full-time employee on the 3,000-acre farm of Dan Wilson. In the off-season, both men drive trucks to supplement their incomes.
By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
updated 10/6/2004 12:39:48 PM ET 2004-10-06T16:39:48

While Toledo and surrounding Lucas County are dependably Kerry country, the political landscape changes rapidly as the suburban subdivisions give way to the corn and soybean fields of Wood County.

Farmers here are perhaps halfway through the soybean harvest and just beginning to reap corn, and from all accounts yields for both crops will be excellent, leading to a bit of  grumbling over low prices at the grain elevator.

While farming is the backbone of the economy, locals say a diverse mix of manufacturing and service industries is what keeps the county prosperous and buffers it against economic cycles.

The northern part of the county is dotted with small manufacturing plants that turn out everything from car parts to plastic tubing, while a large state university in the county seat of Bowling Green anchors a prosperous-looking retail business district.

Tim Harris, vice president of First Federal Bank of the Midwest, said Wood County is “somewhat recession proof” as a result of the popular and growing university, a regional hospital and the county government. “None of those shrink,” he noted.

In Bush country, a low jobless rate
Wood County, which favored Bush by 9 percentage points in the last election, has a jobless rate of 5.3 percent, a bit below the national average, compared with 7.8 percent in neighboring Lucas County.

In OhioDan Wilson, 45, who owns one of the biggest farms in the county, says this part of Ohio is getting “perilously close” to being pushed out of the farm belt by development pressures to the north and competition from even bigger farms in places like Iowa and Indiana.

Nonetheless, Wilson’s 3,000-acre spread is an impressive sight at harvest time, a model of industrial-agricultural efficiency. A giant $350,000 combine chews up acre after acre of field corn, stripping the dried kernels and feeding the processed grain through a chute into one of  three waiting semitrailers.

Other than part-time drivers, Wilson runs the giant farm with a single full-time employee, and both of them do long-haul trucking when not busy with the farm. With the heaviest work concentrated at planting and harvest time, most farmers in the county supplement their income by working part time or even full time, said Harris, the banker.

Wilson, a fourth-generation farmer, says he has more than $1 million invested in rolling stock and uses another $1 million in working capital each season.

“You have to have sterling credit and a track record,” he said. “It’s not a start-up business.”

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Wistful for a byone era
And needless to say, it’s not for everyone.

Tom Greive, 47, said he sold his family farm several years ago as it grew increasingly apparent to him that a 1,000-acre plot was too small to provide a comfortable living for him, his wife and two children. He was uncomfortable with the tricky business of hedging against losses by locking in future prices, and despised the feeling of dependence that came from accepting government subsidy checks.

“I hated every minute of it,” he said.

He now sells commercial real estate and runs a blacktop business, but he is nostalgic for the days when farmers would feed the grain they grew to their own cattle, and slaughter their meat in the barn.

“If I could make it on 1,000 acres I’d be farming today and I’d have never quit,” he said. “It’s a way of life that’s gone, and it’s never coming back."

It's all about the economy
Wood County includes plenty of registered Democrats, but the small-business men we spoke to all said they favored Bush, and primarily for economic reasons.

One area of agreement for the plant workers in Toledo and the rural small-business men of Wood County is that something has to be done about the soaring cost of health care. Greive blames “crazy lawsuits” for at least part of the spiraling cost of insurance, emotionally recalling an ambulance-chasing lawyer who solicited him shortly after his wife nearly died giving birth in a difficult Caesarean section 17 years ago.

Greive and others also say government needs to be friendlier to small businesses by streamlining regulations. In Ohio, businesses have to fill out reams of paperwork, especially when they do business in multiple jurisdictions, the owners said.

Wilson said he favored smaller government and feared Kerry's proposals would lead to a Canadian-style national health care system.

"John Kerry is too liberal for me," he said.

Rapidly rising energy prices are a new and urgent source of concern. Dick Bostdorff, 62, who runs one of many greenhouse operations in the region, said his heating costs will rise 20 percent this year to more than $60,000 by the time he closes for the season on Christmas Eve.

“Everything in the greenhouse industry is oil-related,” he said. “Our heating, our plastics, our transportation. We’ve got to work harder on alternative fuel supplies. We have to work very diligently or we won’t be around.”

A vote for fossil fuels
Wilson, who uses 600 gallons of fuel a week in his trucking business, goes further.

“I think alternative sources have to be identified, but in the meantime there’s no question that oil fuels the economy,” he said. “And until an alternative to fossil fuel is found, they need to pursue finding fossil fuel. Do it domestically, and get over the global warming fanaticism.”

Get these rural residents talking about the problems facing the nation, and they focus not on terrorism or taxes but on what they see as a lack of work ethic, especially in the “inner city” of places like Toledo and Cleveland.

“I’m not taking a shot at the Democratic Party, but they have gone to the inner city and promised them sustainment — sustainment from government instead of self-sustainment,” he said. “So they look at the government and say: What have you done for me lately. They want it from government, and I’m of the opinion it should come from within.”

At the same time, Wilson makes no apologies for accepting federal farm payments that help him prosper, arguing that agriculture programs are what keep food prices low for everybody.

Politicians would “rather spend money on 1 percent of the people and keep 99 percent of the people happy. If you think people are unhappy at the gas pump, wait till the supermarket has a run.”

The key to prosperity
Bostdorff, the greenhouse owner, said the key to prospering in today’s rapidly changing economy is to stay flexible, diversify and be prepared to innovate. A decade ago he was raising 11 million tomato plants a year, but with the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement he lost nearly 80 percent of that business nearly overnight. Now he makes partial use of his surplus greenhouse space by growing seeds for specialty loofah squashes sold in bath shops.

He is philosophical about the loss of business, saying, “It’s hard to hold someone responsible when they’re trying to increase your markets.” But he said agricultural market shifts tend to be “win-lose” affairs, where new producers put older ones out of business.

“I think we’ll be fine,” he said, “but there sure are some bumps in the road.”

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