AgDM newsletter article, January 2000

The farm situation: the hunkering down syndrome

Paul LasleyBy Paul Lasley, extension sociologist, 515-294-0937,

First in a series of three articles by Lasley, director of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. This series of articles draw on information received through the poll, conducted since 1982, which asks farmers' views on a variety of rural and agricultural issues. The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is funded by ISU Extension and the Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station.

Tough times in farming are not new and, in fact, it is a major theme that runs throughout agricultural history. Many of the deeply held agrarian beliefs are rooted in concepts of frugality, thrift, making ends meet and learning to set aside money for raining days.  Many of the adages passed down across the generations carry the wisdom and experiences of surviving tough times. 

For example, adages such as “a penny saved is a penny earned”, “a stitch in time saves nine”, and  “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” reflect advice on how to “get by” during tough times.  The spirit of independence that often prevents farmers from working together may have its roots in the experiences of surviving tough times.  Surviving tough times may contribute to increased individualism.

The farmers’ spirit of independence, that often prevents them from working together, may have its roots in the experiences of surviving tough times.

It is easy to underestimate the resiliency of farm families. Throughout the decade of the 1980s farm families displayed creative ways to get by until better times returned.  Surviving tough times is often the ability, or capacity, to “hunker down until the storm passes over”.

There are four common responses to economic hardship or income loss.

Cut spending

The first response is reducing expenditures, by cutting back to save money; what some have referred to as belt-tightening.  Cutting back on living expenses by reducing spending on such things as eating out, entertainment, or postponing purchases, and making do with what you have are common responses.  Fixing up the car rather than buying a new one, repairing machinery rather than trading, getting by with existing household appliances or carpeting, postponing the anticipated vacation are some of the ways that families have traditionally reduced spending. 

These strategies are rational, logical and are effective for the individual family, but taken in aggregate they can have important, negative impacts on the viability of the local community.

Work harder

A second response to income loss are attempts to earn more money through working longer hours, taking a second job, seeking over-time work, or in the case of farming - expanding the enterprise.  Often farmers have attempted to farm more land, farm more intensively, or work longer hours to compensate for declining incomes.  Working harder is a strong belief that is woven into the culture of farm families. 

Mothers taking an off-farm job to supplement the family budget may mean less time with young children. Multiple job-holding among farm families may result in less volunteer time to support local institutions and organizations and less family time may result in declines in martial or family satisfaction. While working additional hours may improve the financial situation it may come at a heavy cost to the family.

Dip into savings

Dipping into savings is a third step in the progression of “hunkering down”. Using funds set-aside for children’s education, using emergency reserves, or spending retirement funds or inheritances are adaptations that families make to survive tough times.  

Exhausting financial reserves may pose certain risks especially if an emergency occurs. A family that is forced to use funds set-aside for college with a high school senior is far different than if the child is but a youngster.  Dipping into retirement reserves is more serious as one approaches midlife than when one is younger. It often depends upon the life cycle of the family and how much risk they are able to accept.

Borrow money

If attempts to reduce spending, earning more money and using savings are not successful, the next step is generally to borrow more money.  Common examples include borrowing against equity in the farm or home, getting a second mortgage, using credit cards, or borrowing against cash value of life insurance.  Sometimes borrowing from relatives is done if the bank or other lenders rejects the loan application.  However, borrowing from relatives has resulted in many broken relationships.

While each of these adaptations can be helpful to surviving tough times there are risks associated with each of them.  Postponing health care can result in minor problems becoming more serious problems.  Using credit cards can help tide one over, but care must be exercised as to not abuse this easy source of additional credit.  With each of the strategies it is important that the family think about the unintended consequences.

A final response

Some will accept unreasonable risks.  Whether it be taking high leveraged positions in the commodity market, playing the odds at the casino for just “one big hit”, or “betting it all” by taking unreasonable, high-risk decisions, this is symptomatic of desperate people.  Accepting high risks ventures and “get rich quick” schemes are symptomatic of desperate situations. 


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