Is the country in a farm crisis?

National Farmers Union recently raised this alarming news: “We’re in the midst of a farm crisis.” They rightly point out:

“Net farm income has been cut in half over the past four years, and other indicators point to intense, ongoing stress within our rural communities. Importantly, there is no foreseeable end to these tough conditions. Farmers, ranchers, and their communities are bracing for very hard times, and Farmers Union is going to be there to help them through it.”

Various parts of the country are experiencing depressed farm incomes, and certain farm commodities are more hard hit than others, but it seems reasonable to ask if this does indeed rise to “crisis” level. A crisis would mean urgent attention and action by federal and state authorities, along with agricultural and rural community leaders raising broad public awareness.

Other family farm advocates do see critical problems facing farmers and ranchers. Some of these groups will use the word “crisis” – but that appears necessitated by a host of “crises” that the country is facing in today’s political climate: from health care to decent-paying jobs to immigration and homeland security. If you don’t use strong words, you won’t be heard!

What others say about the farm economy

At the end of last year’s harvest season, AgWatch Network posted an opinion piece titled “No ‘crisis’ yet, but concerns grow about 2017 credit condition.”

“As combines roll across much of the nation’s mid-section,” reporter Sara Wyant wrote, “many farmers are finding bumper yields. But the bad news is, market prices for most commodities are still sagging. As a result, more farmers are starting to worry about access to credit in 2017.”

She went on to quote Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who said during a committee hearing at the end of last year: “The farmers and ranchers that I talk to remain in distress and worry whether their family farm can stay afloat.”

The USDA’s Economic Research Service had announced that it expected farm income to drop for the third straight year, 2014 through 2016. How would family farm households possibly manage that? One way was off-farm earnings; farm families know they need one or two off-farm jobs to stay working on the land. Another way is federal “safety-net” payments for commodity producers when prices fall below certain levels. More on that in a moment.

The AgWatch opinion piece included words of caution by Sterling Liddell, Senior Vice President for Rabo AgriFinance and Rabobank International. He noted there is some disagreement as to how deep we are into what some would call a “farm crisis”. “It’s a bit of a strong term right now, but certainly we are on the edge of liquidity and facing challenges going forward over the next couple of years.”

A tempering factor is that farm debt loads remain far below the levels of the 1980’s crisis. Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said only 10 percent of farm operations are classified as highly or extremely leveraged.

So, won’t ag subsidies prevent a farm crisis?

The Environmental Working Group raised a red flag last year when the term “farm crisis” began to be uttered. In their analysis (The “Farm Crisis” Myth), EWG said that the farm subsidy lobby uses “farm crisis” as a way “to deflect well-deserved criticism of the fatally flawed federal subsidy system that they’re desperate to protect.”

EWG was not saying there is no urgent need to help struggling families who depend on their farms for income. These farm families are struggling to stay afloat as lower crop prices cut their margins that much slimmer. The problem is that the lion’s share of subsidies go to larger farm operations whose need is not as great.

“The federal farm subsidy system is badly broken,” EWG argues. “Policymakers should ignore the subsidy lobby as it beats the drum for more and more taxpayer dollars and focus instead on fundamental reform of these programs so as to help those farm families in greatest need.”

FarmAid sees “looming farm crisis”

Most know FarmAid as the annual concert that raises millions of dollars to keep family farmers on the land. But the organizers of FarmAid also promote stories and produce resources to raise awareness about the plight of family farmers. In mid-April of this year, they issued a Fact Sheet on the “looming farm crisis” for 2017. They point out that:

— The farm economy is hurting crop and livestock producers (hardest hit are wheat growers, dairy farmers and cattle ranchers).

— Farm solvency is weakening.

— Farm credit is tightening.

— Rural America is feeling the impact.

The FarmAid Fact Sheet does not leave it at that, but spells out what is needed to prevent the crisis and begin to resolve the critical problems faced by ranchers and farmers. The general needs are:

— Better farm policy

— Fair prices & parity

— Equitable access to credit

— Fair trade

FarmAid also calls for “reigning in corporate control” and makes a number of points to that end. Agricultural leaders need to hold agribusiness conglomerates accountable for an unfair structure that favors a handful of corporations over the needs of family farmers. While farmers and ranchers suffer high input costs and low farmgate prices, agribusiness corporations maintain their profitability and predatory share of the market.

Advocating farm policy for the common good

Besides the National Farmers Union, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is fully engaged in shaping the next Farm Bill. Like NFU, this coalition is effective because it has policy staff in the nation’s capital to maintain a presence on Capitol Hill. Member groups around the country are also able to build in-state and in-district support for crucial federal programs essential to the health and well-being of their farming and rural communities.

The Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota has launched a campaign called “Our Farm Bill”. They express succinctly what has been said above:

“Today there is a crisis facing rural communities. Our public policy in the federal Farm Bill is failing. Farmers are facing greater economic pressures while the majority of public money flows towards large landholders, insurance companies and corporate executives. This flow of public money speeds the consolidation of land, elevates an agriculture detached from the values of stewardship and community, and weakens rural life and culture.”

Catholic Rural Life echoes this same sentiment in our efforts to pursue a Farm Bill for the common good. (Click here for the marker page on the CRL website.)

Tough times on the farm, significant stress

Let us return to the National Farmers Union announcement about the start of their campaign “to raise awareness for the farm crisis and provide support to family farmers and ranchers.” To that end, their Farm Crisis Center is an online resource to help farmers find the information and services they need to get through financial and personal emergencies.

This is certainly a welcomed resource for farmers and ranchers facing yet another year of hard economic times. “When times get tough and farmers are under significant stress,” says NFU President Roger Johnson, “services provided by farm groups, hotlines, and mediation programs can go a long way in making sure families keep their farms and their families.”

State divisions of the Farmers Union are organizing listening sessions to bring together farmers to discuss the impacts of the depressed farm economy. Check your State Farmers Union for more details.

NFU says they will bring these stories and information “to the halls of Congress, the administration, and across multimedia platforms to raise awareness for the crisis currently confronting farming and rural communities.”