America’s farmers face multiplying pressures
JUST AN HOUR from Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city, cows roam sloping hillsides and cornstalks line serpentine backroads. Loganville, a town of just 300 people, is farm country. But there are fewer farms than there used to be. Randy Roecker, a local dairy farmer, sometimes drives around counting the lucky few that are left. During the Great Recession, Mr Roecker worried about his own chances. Deep in debt, he contemplated suicide. But it was not until one of his neighbours, Leon Statz, killed himself in 2018 that Mr Roecker realised other farmers were struggling with depression, too. Soon after, he set about organising what would become the Farmer Angel Network, a support group for local farming families.
Farmers and ranchers commit suicide at nearly three times the national rate, according to a report earlier this year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though shocking, the high suicide rate among farmers is not new. The problem dates back at least to the 1980s, when high interest rates and shrinking exports plunged agriculture into crisis. Moreover, “there are perennial things native to farming that are stressful,” says Alicia Harvie, of Farm Aid, a non-profit. Agricultural workers are beholden to markets, trade and the weather in a way that many other workers are not.
Josie Rudolphi, a professor of agricultural safety and health at the University of Illinois, surveyed 170 young farmers and ranchers across the Midwest in 2018 and found that 53% of respondents reported mild to severe signs of depression. Only around 7% of American adults admit to experiencing a period of depression each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Farming can also be isolating; long hours spent in the fields can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and despair.
The Americans most likely to commit suicide, according to the CDC, are older, Native American and white men who live in rural areas. Most farmers fit that profile exactly. The most recent agricultural census found that 97% of “farm producers” are white or Native American, 64% are male and their average age is 57. Fully 34% are 65 or older.
Suicide is a problem for farmers in many countries. India, Australia and Britain, among others, have reported a similar trend at various points in recent years. America differs, however, in that the overall national suicide rate has risen, whereas elsewhere it has fallen. That is partly explained by the comparatively easy availability of guns in America, where they account for half of the country’s suicide deaths. And guns in many countries tend to be more common in the countryside, where mental-health services can be scarce.
Things seem to have worsened recently. Calls to Farm Aid, which runs a helpline, surged by 109% year-on-year in 2018. By June this year, calls were up by another 30% on average. It is not just the increase that is worrying. Ms Harvie reckons that 61% of calls in 2020 have been from farmers in crisis, meaning they need emergency legal, financial or mental-health help. Before 2018, she says, crisis calls made up only about a third of the total. The increased frequency of natural disasters caused by climate change, recent financial hardship and the covid-19 pandemic have increased the troubles besetting farmers.
Start with climate change. Farmers across the greater Midwest have seen myriad extreme weather events affect crop yields in the past few years: drought in the Dakotas, wildfires across the Great Plains and “false springs” in Wisconsin (where, for example, apples and cherries will ripen in warming weather only to freeze again). In August, more than 10m acres of maize and soyabeans were damaged when a “derecho”—a series of thunderstorms with hurricane-force winds—tore through Iowa. Flooding is perhaps the most common blight. The federal government declared an agricultural disaster in Illinois last year after heavy rains across the state. Chris Kucharik, an agronomist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, says a lot of land has not had a chance to dry out for years and cannot now be planted.
Second, farmers often tell mental-health workers that financial troubles are their biggest worries. On the surface, things don’t seem so bad. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts that net farm income will increase by $19bn to $102.7bn in 2020. But cash receipts from the sale of livestock and crops look likely to fall to their lowest levels in more than a decade, says John Newton, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, the country’s largest organisation of farmers and ranchers. That is largely because commodity prices are depressed. The reported growth in farm income is thanks to increased government aid. Remove federal payments, Mr Newton reckons, and net farm income would be relatively paltry, at $66bn, $10bn below the ten-year average.
Farming is also consolidating fast. The number of licensed dairy farms fell by 15% between 2017 and 2019. Wisconsin, home to many of them, leads the nation in farm bankruptcies. Small, family-owned farms feel pressure to expand their operations to sell higher volumes of milk to offset low prices. But scaling up can cost millions, which farmers have to borrow. No wonder the USDA forecasts that inflation-adjusted farm debt in 2020 will be at its highest level since 1981.
Trade policy, too, is adding to the stress on farms. The Trump administration’s trade war with China dramatically curbed soyabean exports. Amy Rademaker, a rural-health expert at Carle Hospital in Urbana, Illinois says she has heard farmers fret more about trade in the past two years than ever before.
Last, this spring, as farmers reckoned with the fallout from floods, low prices and tariffs, covid-19 began to spread. Demand for food and drink products plummeted as restaurants, hotels and schools closed. Some farmers had to dump thousands of gallons of milk they could not sell; others smashed eggs or buried fresh vegetables. Support groups like the Farmer Angel Network had to stop meeting in person, and are struggling to recreate online the same sense of shared humanity.
In March, when Congress passed the CARES Act, America’s mammoth covid-19 relief package, bankruptcies slowed, telehealth services were expanded and some farmers felt a temporary reprieve. But many of the bill’s protections expired at the end of July and Congress has yet to pass a second stimulus. Without government help, Farm Aid fears that there may be a slew of foreclosures.
There is some good news. More people in rural communities are recognising the struggles agricultural workers face, and are creating a bespoke safety-net to help them. Mr Roecker says he gets calls from farmers across the upper Midwest who want to start their own version of the Farmer Angel Network. Ms Rademaker and Carle Hospital offer training in “mental-health first aid” to people who work closely with farmers, such as veterinarians and local bankers, so they can identify early signs of mental illness or substance abuse.
Yet even when the coronavirus recedes, problems such as climate change, consolidation and trade friction that contribute to farm stress will remain. And America’s farmers, like the rest of the country, are ageing. It can be debilitating to worry about bequeathing to children farms that have been in the family for generations, and the debt that comes with them. “I thought I was going to lose the farm that my grandfather started,” Mr Roecker says, reflecting on his darker moments. “It plays with your mind like you wouldn’t believe.”
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/09/20/americas-farmers-face-multiplying-pressures
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