Nebraska farm brothers retire, gift farm machinery
“This is a good old truck,” the retiring farmer told me, softly, when he opened the door to his machine shed.
Inside was the purchase I’d driven 350 miles to obtain: a 1999 Chevrolet 1-ton pickup. I’d seen the truck on the Fanning Auction Service sale bill, thinking it would be a good rig to handle trailers on my own farm. And, selfishly, my dad had one similar to it that we’d sold a decade ago. I wished I hadn’t. The opportunity to buy this one seemed like I was righting a wrong, as sometimes melancholy farm kids are wont to do.
I was the successful bidder in an online auction on the Chevy. Karen Fanning, one of the duo who runs Fanning Auction, told me that the owner – Hank Wicke and his brother, Dale – were bachelors. All the proceeds from their sale would benefit the Nebraska Community Foundation.
This, I thought, had the makings of a good story.
I had crossed into Mountain Time to enter Chase County, Nebraska, and had been told to turn south at the town of Wauneta. I was a little early, so I drove into downtown Wauneta, the business district of which was lined with several shops – a grocery store, banks, insurance offices, and a car dealer, among others. The street and sidewalks were neat and tidy. Almost all the storefronts were occupied. Clearly, the 550 or so residents take pride in their community. Not every rural community, I said to myself, is this fortunate.
Tour over, I headed south 9 miles to Mr. Wicke’s farm, crossing the county line into Dundy County. His place is immaculate. Nothing was out of place, save for a few items yet to be retrieved from the January 22 auction. A windbreak to the west and north of his home and outbuildings was the only obstacle from seemingly miles and miles of level land. The landscape was breathtakingly simple, yet stunning. That was the first thing I told Hank when he greeted me.
“Not far from here there are canyons over 100 feet deep,” he said. “Do you want to see them?" Heck yes, I replied.
We visited about his farm for a little bit before getting to business. His brother, Dale, is a bachelor too, forced to quit farming a few years ago after Parkinson’s disease began to take a toll on his body. Dale lives in a nursing home now. Hank and Dale were the only two of the six Wicke kids to farm.
They are the third – and last – generation to operate this property, which Hank’s grandfather bought in 1922. He moved some 60 miles northwest from Ludell, Kansas, yet moved back after a short time. Hank’s dad, Henry, chose to take over the Nebraska farm, where he married and with his wife raised four boys and two girls.
We were walking to the machine shed where the truck was parked during our chat, kicking up dust with every step. This arid area of Nebraska was much drier than normal. “It hasn’t rained here since summer,” Hank remarked.
Despite drought and wind, the inside of Hank’s storage building was clean. Spotless. The brothers kept only a few items from more than 60 years of farming: a wooden-wheeled wagon, a small tractor, mower, a few tools. The rest had been sold less than 10 days before.
The old Chevy was one of just a few items left. We loaded it onto my car trailer and chained it in place, chatting as we proceeded.
Hank, 81, and Dale, 83, raised wheat and corn on the loamy soils of Dundy County. Dale graduated from high school, joined the military, and served in the Korean War. Hank went to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and earned an agricultural economics degree, before joining the service and serving a tour of duty in Japan after the fighting in Korea ended.
Returning to the family farm was never in doubt. It’s all either brother wanted to do.
At the farm’s peak, the Wickes ran a cow herd with their dad, in addition to 2,800 acres of dryland corn, wheat, and grain sorghum. They also raised certified wheat seed until a few years ago. The cows left some time back, although Hank still takes pride in a tight fence and clean pasture.
The Wickes’ pasture – a half mile east of the home place – is where the topography changes abruptly. Who knows how many thousands of years ago, just a stone’s throw from the Wickes’ property line, water began to carve through the loamy soil, progressing into wild crevices before dumping into what became the Republican River, some 40 miles downstream.
The Wickes have 80 acres of grass here, with canyons more than 100 feet deep spreading to the southeast. The stream is long gone, the banks covered with native grasses. It’s a spectacular view, and one that Hank relishes.
“It’s really pretty in the spring,” he says proudly. “It’s a nice place.”
The canyons are a little bit like the Wicke brothers. From a distance, the average person cannot see the depth and magnitude of the changing topography. Dale and Hank led a quiet, humble life, calling little attention to themselves. Yet, their values center on helping others. The brothers can retire comfortably, so it just made sense to use the farm auction as a way to help others. In a unique transaction, they gifted the machinery to the Nebraska Community Foundation, proceeds from which to be used locally. Hank hopes they will fund scholarships to young people wishing to pursue a post-secondary college or technical education. Maybe towns like his beloved Wauneta can use grants to help with community projects.
It’s not in Dale or Hank’s nature to talk about generosity, but word got out before the sale. “We both just decided to do it,” he says succinctly.
Renting farmland out to a neighboring farmer who has two sons active in the operation is another way of giving back.
To many, the end of an era brings mixed feelings. Selling the equipment they accumulated over the years, and watching other farmers harvest the land they proudly worked over the years can’t be easy.
“It’s kind of sad there’s no Wicke to take over,” he acknowledges. “But it’s time. I can’t do the things I used to be able to do. We made a good living. None of my nieces or nephews want to farm. It’s hard, but I’m at peace.”
- READ MORE: How to plan a family farm transition
There is no regret.
Retirement will bring the joys and frustrations of following Cornhusker football and being active in the community. He loves to travel, having visited all seven continents. He’s eager to do more of that in the coming years. Yet, no matter where his travels take him, he is eager to return home, to Dundy County.