Farm Horizons, October 2013

Cleaning up the family farm

By Jennifer Kotila

Family farms that have been owned for generations tend to collect a lot of scrap metal that someone eventually has to deal with and clean up. Although the scrap may be an unsightly mess, it is worth money – which is probably one of the reasons it can pile up for so long, kind of like a little savings account. Oftentimes, the task of cleaning up scrap metal is left to widows and children after an elderly farmer passes away.

That task can sometimes be a daunting one, with those who are left to do the cleanup unaware of the fact that, what looks like a pile of junk, is actually worth something. Sometimes there are even valuable objects buried in the pile of scrap.

Local scrap recyclers, Karels Brothers and Sons not only take pride in how quickly they can clean up a farm site, but also in how fairly they treat their customers. In fact, owner George Karels, Jr. said he is consistently challenging himself and his crew to clean up sites faster and improve how their customers view them.

His most satisfied customers are the widows and children of loved ones who have passed, who are happy that their farm site has been cleaned up, and they received a fair payment for the scrap metal that was taken.

For instance, when he was working at a place near Lester Prairie recently, Karels was laughed at when he said the cleanup would take about two days. However, Karels met his goal, hauling out 82 tons of scrap in two days. The person who laughed at him said afterwards, “I never thought you’d do it.”

If someone brings scrap metal to Karels Brothers and Sons, they receive the market rate for the scrap. However, if the company comes to the site and hauls the scrap away themselves, the customer receives $10-30 less per ton, depending on the quality of the metal. Customers also receive copies of all weigh tickets so they plainly see what was hauled away and weighed, Karels noted.

“My number-one goal is to make the customer happy, and I do whatever it takes,” Karels said.

Karels started in the scrap metal business when his father, George Sr., and brother, Roger, stopped milking cows and started scrapping in 1972. Karels worked with them until 1984, when he started out on his own – but only part time. He now works full time, sometimes seven days a week – cleaning up scrap metal. “I was brought up to always be doing something; don’t sit around – keep moving,” Karels said.

He also has worked at a printing plant, KC Colors in Montrose, which was about to shut down a few years back. “I was able to keep the people employed and their benefits going,” Karels comments.

About four years ago, Karels also purchased Mies Salvage, on Meeker County State Aid Highway 24 outside of Litchfield. For years, Karels simply scrapped cars – sometimes better cars than most people drive – although people told him he could make money selling the parts. After he bought Mies, he realized that, yes, one can make money selling parts. “It kind of makes me want to kick myself for all the years I scrapped them,” Karels said.

Karels noted the adventure he and his crew had cleaning up Mies Salvage. Everything was overgrown, trees were growing amongst the scrap piles, and scrap was pushed into piles – dirt and all. “It was about two years before we could really start using the land,” he said. During the clean-up process, more than 300 trees were cut down, and 26 loads of tires and countless loads of debris were hauled away.

Interesting finds while scrapping

Scrapping can be interesting work, especially when working on older farm sites, Karels said. At one farm near New Germany that had been in the family for 150 years, he found tractors that were buried in the ground.

The theory is that, during the Depression, farmers would bury the iron to get rid of it. After digging more than 4 feet in an attempt to get all the tractors out, the crew was still hitting iron. It was decided to keep the rest of the iron buried, and the hole was filled in with black dirt. Although the tractors dug out were unsalvageable, the steel rims were still in good shape and Karels still has them.

At some dump sites, crew members have gone to pull what looked like a bumper out of the side of a hill, only to have a whole car come out.

A smaller item Karels has found is a wooden Merlin someone carved out of a tree stump. At the time the Merlin was carved, it must have still been growing and it grew around a dump rake. Karels wife, Anne, has the Merlin in her garden.

“I haven’t hit gold, yet,” Karels commented. “But I have found silver,” he added, noting it has been in the form of old silverware.

One of his most valuable finds was a US Bell Telephone Co. sign. “It was in pretty decent shape, considering it was at the bottom of a pile,” he said. The sign was made of porcelain, and Karels still has it, but does not know how much it is worth.

Another practice that probably stemmed from the Depression was burying money. Karels has found numerous jars of coins during his scrapping career. Usually the lids are rusted through and the jars are full of water and muck, but the coins are still good.

Rather than keeping records in books and on paper, many farmers had the habit of keeping records right on the farm machinery they were using. For instance, Karels has scrapped threshing machines with the date the machine was used, and the farm on which it was used. Old seeders often have where, when, and what type of seed was planted written on the lids for farmers to remember.

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