Farm belt hope and despair

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

The USDA’s Economic Research Services reports that there are 77,800 farms in Ohio, with 13,600,00 acres. That’s a lot to manage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, farmers are one and a half times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. That was a study done in 2016, before the COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad downstream effects rained down on our agricultural communities. That same study, as reported recently in the Columbus Dispatch, found that farmer suicides have increased by 40 percent in the previous 20 years.

It’s not just about the supply-chain problems evidenced by the million some cargo containers sitting out in the Pacific, exacerbated by shortages of truck drivers, shortages of dock workers, and then having to wait for sometimes months for particular parts or even tractors and trucks for lack of microchips needed for high-tech equipment. The same Dispatch article cites Delaware County farmer Earl Lehner saying, “It’s getting harder to get even some minor inputs like latex gloves to milk our cows… and like everybody else were noticing the pinch at the pump.”

Labor shortages at meat packaging plants have meant that cattle farmers are being told by some slaughterhouses to wait until their cattle reach prime age before bringing them in for slaughter.

Trade wars, particularly with China, make trying to predict corn, soybean and wheat prices especially hard to determine. Trade wars can also result in falling exports and prices and rising surpluses and debts.

Loan payments can take a toll on farmers, especially when times get tougher, and banks decide to get tougher on delinquent loans.

Adding to all these production-related risks are the changing global weather patterns, which have made what was historically a tricky but manageable farming problem more unmanageable, effecting “crop failure anxiety.”

The Bureau of the Census has tracked the decline in the number of farms in the U.S. from the 1980s to today, and the difference is in the hundreds of thousands. A report in Time Magazine indicated that four million farms disappeared in the United States between 1948 and 2015, while total farm output more than doubled. This latter statistic underlines an important factor in the state of mind of America’s small-time farmer. Technology has disproportionately helped the productivity of large-scale farming operations, while adding to the suffering effects on small family farmers. With declining prices and incomes, next-generation farmers are often looking elsewhere for higher paying, new-age work in this high-tech, globalized economy.

Farmers are a tough breed. It’s hard, independent, self-motivated work, and guess what, the buck stops at their doorstep. Their accumulated knowhow, sometimes generations in the making, can make them stubbornly driven people, not likely to seek help when the stress gets to be overwhelming. It’s a thing called pride, often dressed in lots of family history.

Ohio State University’s Extension service has announced that it’s planning to start a mental health program this year with help from a $500,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. According to Bridget Britten, with the Extension service, it will be using the money “to draft a curriculum for workers who visit farmers on a regular basis helping them spot warning signs for conditions such as depression and identify those at risk for suicide.”

These regular workers who visit the farms are agents who, for example, sample soil and water, conduct inspections, and discuss pesticide options. Britten explains that these individuals are trained in what she calls, “mental-health first aid… We share with them the warning signs and symptoms that the farmers may exhibit in crisis situations. Just talking through those things, I think it makes a big difference.”

There’s room for hope if enough folks worldwide get vaccinated, if trucking companies and docks can find wages that will attract workers, if suffering economies can get past the trade wars mentality that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” and if commodity prices become more stable and predictable. The latter, of course, depends on trade agreements in which both sides see the rules and outcomes as fair. And I believe that there is a hopeful demographic trend drawing more people into rural environments, and if that trend holds, it can only be good for small farms and local markets.

An old Polish proverb says: “If the farmer suffers then so does the whole country.”

For more info on the Ohio State University Agricultural Extension Service’s work in helping with farmers’ despair, this would be a good place to start:

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist Sims Contributing columnist