“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …”
The fall harvest is upon us and I can’t help putting a Dickensian spin on the future of our family farms. The famous opening words of “A Tale of Two Cities” comparing the rich enjoying opulence and luxury and the poor struggling with survival just kept coming to mind.
Farmers ride the meniscus wave of the half-full glass all their lives but by all measures the curve has turned concave and falling below the 50 percent mark. Sitting in the cab of tractor for long hours gives you too much time to think about putting away a harvest in the midst of lower prices and trade dispute uncertainties.
The latest Purdue Ag Barometer reveals the growing concern farmers have over their worsening financial condition. Farmer sentiment dropped to its lowest level since October 2016, down 15 percentage points since August. The survey says 54 percent of farmers said their operation is worse off today compared to a year ago, compared to 47 percent last year.
Even the Trump administration’s $12 billion relief plan to reduce the impact of tariffs was of no relief to nearly half of the farmers. Farmers’ outlook is equally grim as 69 percent said they expected bad times in the ag economy in the next year and 41 percent expect hard times for the next five years.
The dairy industry is equally challenged. Wisconsin lost 47 dairy farms in August and is down 429 since the beginning of the year, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection says. It’s the worst year for dairy farm losses since 2013.
The Purdue report said 78 percent of the farmers said it’s a bad time to purchase farm machinery or buildings for their farm. It’s the most negative reading since the survey was launched three years ago.
The nonfarmer crowd may wonder why they should care. Every business has its ups and downs. Many enjoying greater prosperity are far more concerned about the latest smartphone update rather than the economic woes of rural America.
Here’s why it matters. Farmers are the economic engine of rural America. When they invest, the rural economy benefits. The consolidation of the farm industry has already hurt many of our smaller communities and school districts because many of the larger farms may not shop locally. Businesses that rely on farmers are dwindling.
So is there any way to view this glass from the top half? Well, there could be record crop yields this year. The latest USDA weekly crop report for Wisconsin said 72 percent of farmers reported a good to excellent corn crop and 74 percent said soybeans were good to excellent.
However, even that good news has had the negative effect of pushing corn and soybean futures down. But at least bigger yield may help farmers buy some additional time and help a little with a brutal cash flow position.
It’s harvest season. The days are growing darker and shorter. The landscape is turning bleak. It will be a long winter for many farmers.
Returning to Dickens, his description in “David Copperfield” says it all: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
On the lighter side
One of the traits of Scottish Blackface sheep is their horns. They make great restraint points when we’re handling the sheep but they also present some challenges. I’ve had to free countless sheep from getting caught in feeders, woven wire fences and from other obstacles.
Last week I was feeding the sheep and noticed one ewe who stayed behind. Her head was down to the ground. Upon closer examination I discovered that she had somehow managed to get her head stuck in a metal pail holder. Despite her handicap, she was still grazing.
I was able to free her and she joined the flock, none the worse for wear. We all have those days, don’t we?