AgDM newsletter article, July 2000

Farmers not optimistic about economic outlook

Paul LasleyBy Paul Lasley, extension sociology, 515/294-0937, plasley@iastate.edu

Only 12 percent of Iowa farmers think overall economic prospects in farming will improve in the next five years, according to a poll conducted by Iowa State University Extension.

Farmers are more pessimistic about the future of the farm economy than they have been at any other time during the 18-year period that the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has been asking their opinions.  This is particularly disheartening because many of the factors that are fueling the pessimism lie beyond the control of farm families.

With the exception of a couple of peaks, one in 1988 and again in 1996, these data show a downward trend line in optimism among producers. One should also note that these data were collected in February, before the concerns about weather conditions and escalating fuel costs were so pronounced.

"We are very concerned about the future of independent family farmers and the rural community and our entire society, both rural and urban," Jasper County farmer.

Sixty-four percent of the respondents thought the Iowa farm economy will get worse in the next five years, while 24 percent expect it to remain about the same. Only 12 percent predicted that the farm economy will improve, compared to 20 percent who held similar views last year. Previously, the low point in farmer expectations was in 1994 when only 15 percent of the respondents expected improvement.

Producers wrote comments on many of the returned questionnaires that highlight the seriousness of current conditions. For example, "If present trends continue, the future of family farms and rural communities is questionable," a Jasper County farmer wrote on the questionnaire. "Individual owner-operators will become extinct very shortly without prompt and favorable government action," a Story County farmer commented.

In addition to their pessimism about the farm economy, farmers who responded to the poll are less hopeful that the quality of farm life will improve in the next five years. At the low point of the last major farm crisis in 1986, only 12 percent thought the quality of life would improve for most farm families in the next five years. Only 22 percent thought it would improve for their own families. Comparable figures from this year's survey are 13 percent who think it will improve for most farm families and 24 percent who think it will improve for their own families.

The poll also asked farmers whether the quality of their lives had become better in the last five years. When a similar question was asked in 1998, 46 percent said life had improved for their own families, but only 27 percent held that view this year. They were even more discouraged about the quality of life outlook for other farm families in their communities, with only 14 percent saying things had improved for other families in the past five years.

 "We are very concerned about the future of independent family farmers and the rural community and our entire society, both rural and urban," a Jasper County farmer commented. "Rural community businesses, retail and services, professionals, schools and churches are hurting at an increasing rate," a Calhoun County farmer wrote.

These findings suggest the need for renewed attention on finding new markets for Iowa commodities and new uses for existing crops, and to revisit how well current agricultural policies are serving producers.

The level of concern about economic conditions and diminished quality of life is pervasive throughout the survey responses. These findings suggest the need for renewed attention on finding new markets for Iowa commodities and new uses for existing crops, and to revisit how well current agricultural policies are serving producers.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is funded by ISU Extension and the Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station. The purpose of the poll, conducted since 1982, is to ask farmers' views on a variety of rural and agricultural issues. A statewide random sample of 4,977 Iowa farm operators were sent mail questionnaires in February, with a 61 percent response rate.

 

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