The Life (and Death) of American Farmers
By Dr. Gary Welton
Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that suicide rates among American farmers are higher than any other occupational group, and five times higher than that of the population as a whole. One is tempted to argue that this reflects the decline of community life in rural America. Farmers historically received mental and emotional support from granges, county fairs, and church involvement. According to Robert Putnam, however, such sources of social capital are in decline in America. As a result, rural farm families, more than ever, are forced to rely on their own strength and resources to cope with the pressures of their lives.
Unfortunately, the economic pressures in farming have mounted over the last few years. Corn prices fell 44% from 2013 to 2017. Soybean prices fell 33%. According to the USDA, net farm income fell more than 40% during these five years.
I attended a farm acreage auction in Indiana in 2016, just as an observer. I was shocked at the winning bid in excess of $7500 per acre. Knowing the falling prices of grain, I could not imagine how this acreage, at this price, could provide a living wage. I had the privilege of discussing the bidding afterwards with the auctioneer. He reported that the price was in line with local norms, but that this pricing was not sustainable, given the falling prices of corn and beans.
According to the 2016 Purdue Farmland Value Survey, top quality Indiana farmland was selling at $8508 per acre, and renting at $257 per acre. Hence investors, seeking to diversify their holdings by purchasing farmland (often considered the best American investment during the first decade of this century), could expect a 3% gross return on investment. This gross return, of course, will net much less, after paying the real estate taxes that support the local roads and schools.
When I lived in Kansas some years back, I encountered the new label of “agribusiness.” Instead of speaking of farming, our local friends were instead involved in agribusiness. Indeed, in modern times, those in agribusiness must have skills in finance, in addition to farming, botany, chemistry, meteorology, and mechanics, not to mention knowledge of local, state, and federal laws. Hence, I support this use of this label.
The economics of agribusiness are often beyond one’s control: the price of corn and beans, the decisions of local dairy companies, rainfall, late freezes, etc., all create pressure on the farmer, over details that she cannot control. Heavy and frequent rains where I live, for example, have made it very difficult to harvest hay both this year and last.
Given their lack of control over these many aspects of their lives, many in agribusiness have found that in order to stay in business, they must supplement their income with other employment. This is not necessarily new. Most successful (and struggling) agribusiness people have (for years) worked other jobs to supplement their bank account. Some have taken part-time work, such as school bus driving, to maximize their field time to harvest hay in the summer. Others work full-time factory jobs, choosing to work third shift, to maximize their agribusiness time during daylight hours. Of course, taking on part-time gigs to supplement one’s income is not unique to agribusiness. I have taken on many additional summer opportunities myself, including consulting, testing services, and writing.
Agribusiness in America is a huge part of America’s economic strength. The federal government has developed various (controversial) support programs to stabilize agribusiness during downturns in the agribusiness economy. A better approach, however, is for the federal government to facilitate the trade and exporting of farm products. Recent talk about trade tariffs are very concerning, as such tariffs risk putting our struggling economic agribusiness people into bankruptcy. The proper role of the federal government is to ensure that they are facilitating trade, so that those in agribusiness can continue to feed America, and the world. Indeed, agribusiness has been one of America’s great economic strengths. We cannot risk losing it.
The suicides among the agribusiness community are very concerning. These rural Americans need community support and reasonable economic opportunities. I, for one, will gladly share my country road with the local farmers who help to feed America, and the world.
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.