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A farmer kills another and Iowa town asks, 'How did it come to this?'

(Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Monica Davey, NY Times: MILO, Iowa On the cold evening that Tom Lyon's body was found dumped in an old well, hidden under two bales of hay, people here suspected an outsider had done it, maybe one of the drug dealers they had heard so much about lately, running methamphetamine around the rural Midwest.

Soon, though, they learned that the sheriff had taken away Rodney N. Heemstra, who lived just down the road and had raised feeder pigs here since before he finished Southeast Warren High School. The news was scarcely imaginable: One longtime Milo farmer accused of killing another. The men had known each other for at least 30 years.

A growing season has come and gone since the killing, but the town of 839 people has not mended. People took sides. Some stopped speaking to the others. And even on Wednesday evening, as a jury found Mr. Heemstra guilty of first-degree murder, no one could really answer the most troubling question of all: How did it come to this?

"Violence here is minimal anyway, but when it's one of your own, it's harder to understand," Gerald D. Judkins, the local veterinarian, said on a recent afternoon. "We're still trying to come to grips with it."

Somewhere at the heart of it all, though, is a piece of land: 315 acres, some of it the precious black dirt that grows corn and soybeans better than the clay found in other fields, and some of it pasture. The land went on sale. Both men wanted it.

Farmland is a treasured commodity, not just in Milo, not just in Iowa, and not just for the obvious reasons. In the complicated equation that is modern agriculture, the mere size of one's farm can mean the difference between prosperity and failure. The competition to snap up whatever acres become available the "land battle," as one farmer here called it can be fierce. Increasingly expensive tractors and combines and other mounting overhead costs in recent years have led some farmers, whose families once planted just a few hundred acres, to farm as much land as possible.

Mr. Heemstra explained his version of that notion this week to the jury that controlled his fate. "You have to spread these costs over more acres," Mr. Heemstra testified. "Every farmer feels the need to grow. That's just the way the business is."

Mr. Heemstra, 44, and Mr. Lyon, 52, were known to all here, known so well that the trial had to be moved to Sioux City, 200 miles away. Mr. Heemstra grew up here on his father's farm. Over the years, he had given up hogs and cows for corn and soybeans, and had bought or leased more than 1,000 acres over nearly a dozen spots around the county.

Mr. Lyon, who had cows and also grew a more moderate crop of corn and beans, had come to be known by some as the Mayor of Motor, a handful of houses and a church a few miles up the road from Milo. It was not an official title in the least, but a sign of his loyalty and permanence there.

He also lived just across the gravel road from another farm, known as the Rodgers Place, for the farmer who used to be there. Mr. Lyon rented the land for a few years, but by July of 2002, Lucille Rodgers had decided to sell and move away. Her asking price was $913,500.

Witnesses do not agree about everything that happened next, but one thing was certain: Mr. Lyon would have liked to be able to buy the place and felt he deserved the first crack at it. And Mr. Heemstra, who had driven past it and thought about buying it for years, wanted it, too.

Within a day of the listing, Mr. Heemstra had a signed contract for a little more than $800,000.

But the closing could not take place until March 2003, as is standard practice with farming leases. Mr. Lyon had the rights to the land from March to March. So for the fall and winter of 2002, Mr. Heemstra would be visiting the property to check up on conditions there, and Mr. Lyon would be farming there.

The tension between them began mounting.

According to Mr. Lyon's friends, he had gotten over losing out on the land, and had decided he was better off without it, but Mr. Heemstra said Mr. Lyon berated him over the issue every chance he got. Mr. Lyon accused Mr. Heemstra of "getting all the breaks" and "taking over everything," Mr. Heemstra claimed at trial. He said Mr. Lyon cussed him at every meeting, tried to run his car off the road, and finally pledged that, one way or another, Mr. Heemstra would not get the Rodgers Place.

Early on Jan. 13, before sunrise, Mr. Heemstra checked up on the Rodgers Place. As he drove out, he saw Mr. Lyon's truck. Mr. Lyon, he said, blocked part of the road and told him to get out of his truck.

In the dark, the dispute continued. Mr. Heemstra said Mr. Lyon threatened him and told him he would never get that land. But prosecutors say Mr. Heemstra simply grew angry at the taunts and the continuing fight, and got even.

Mr. Heemstra pulled out a rifle and shot Mr. Lyon, who was unarmed, in the head. Mr. Heemstra admitted that he then strapped the body to the back of his pickup, drove to one of his fields and tossed Mr. Lyon, headfirst, into an old well.

Before his jury this week, Mr. Heemstra said as he wept that he wished he could undo it all. Asked whether he had considered Mr. Lyon a foe in the business of farming, Mr. Heemstra said, "I would say all farmers in a farming community, unfortunately, are competitors."

Despite what some farmers say about the bleak future of their work in general, land remains a central commodity. The number of farmers has shrunk in recent decades, Department of Agriculture statistics show. The size of their farms has grown.

"They tend to be over-invested in equipment, so spreading your fixed costs over more acres is one way to solve that," said Robert W. Jolly, a professor of economics at Iowa State University. "You basically increase the amount of land you're operating."

More land can also mean more federal subsidy payments. All that, as well as a growing market of nonfarmers buying farmland as investments and even as hunting or camping properties, can lead to stiff bidding wars among a handful of people, Mr. Jolly said.

As Brandon Smith weighed truckloads of corn arriving at the South Central Co-op in Milo on a recent afternoon, he said he foresaw an ever-shrinking number of farmers owning all the land. He would like to run his own farm, too, he said, but between health insurance costs and land prices, who could?

"In 20 years, there's probably going to be 20 farmers in the whole county," Mr. Smith said. "It's really depressing."

Already, there are two farmers fewer.

Mr. Heemstra faces a mandatory life sentence in prison. In February, hundreds of farmers from Iowa and elsewhere came here to bid on Mr. Heemstra's farm equipment at an auction the bleak sign, most always, of a farmer giving up or passing away. Hundreds more gathered here again last month with Mr. Lyon's widow, Ronda, as his tractors, combines and mowers were auctioned away, too.