AMES, Iowa – Recent economic reports indicate the national economy may be starting to recover from the recession of the past two years, but Iowa farmers are still facing many challenges, according to Iowa State University Extension specialists who are in touch with farmers every day.
Unusually wet fall weather and difficult harvest conditions have added to the stress farmers already were feeling from high production costs and low prices for some commodities such as dairy products and hogs.
In a conference with county staff this week, ISU Extension farm economist Mike Duffy gave an overview of the current farm economic situation; counselors who work with the Iowa Concern Hotline operated by ISU Extension discussed the questions they are getting from farmers and how Extension staff can help.
Duffy was joined in the presentation by Margaret Van Ginkel, who directs the Hotline, and John Baker, Hotline attorney, and Beth Fleming, family life program specialist. Van Ginkel discussed the resources local Extension staff have available for helping farmers who are having difficulties. Baker described legal options that may be available to deal with farm stress, and Fleming focused on family issues that result from difficult times on the farm.
Duffy said the economic data indicate the recession started in January 2008, more as a slowdown than a recession. The crisis in September 2008 with the failure of big financial institutions caused everything to change, with a 6.5 percent decline in economic activity in the last three months of 2008 and another 5 percent decline in the first quarter of 2009.
Despite high fuel prices, increasing unemployment, and difficult credit markets, Iowa has suffered less than the rest of the nation during the recession, Duffy said. Hog and dairy producers are “in very bad shape” because of low prices for their products. Net farm income was at a near-record level in 2008, but a decline of 30 percent is likely for 2009. Farm production costs are projected to decrease in 2010, for the first time since the 1970s.
The cooling of the farm economy this year has helped keep down the rent farmers pay for crop land and has also caused a decline in land values that Duffy estimates will be in the 7 to 10 percent range by the end of the year. But farmers have less debt than during the heated farm economy of the late 1970s, and the run-up in land values did not last as long this time.
The economic situation is only one factor in increased stress for Iowa farm families, Van Ginkel said. Many are still recovering from flood damage suffered in the heavy rains of 2008, in addition to the weather issues this year. Some families have experienced changes in off-farm jobs, resulting in unexpected changes in income. The two factors mentioned most often this fall as sources of stress by callers to the Iowa Concern Hotline are farm financial conditions and weather.
Van Ginkel said changes in daily routines, increases in illness, and neglect of regular chores such as farm maintenance or livestock care may be indicators that farm families are under stress. She said people in rural areas who can help identify farmers who are overloaded with stress include neighbors, family members, veterinarians, clergy and school personnel. Extension staff can help ease the problems by listening and by identifying resources available to farmers.
Baker said there has been an increase in bankruptcy filings in the past two years. He said Extension staff and the counselors at Iowa Concern Hotline can help farmers in financial difficulty understand the many options available under bankruptcy law and the procedures involved, and also can explain other resources such as the Iowa Farm Debt Mediation Law.
Fleming said it is important for farm families to realize that good communication can ease the burden of stress. Many families think they are the only ones facing problems, and are unaware of the help that is available, leading to a strong sense of isolation.
Extension’s role is to connect affected farmers with the many resources available and to help them understand that assistance can be provided.
Additional information on Iowa Concern Hotline services is available at www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/ or by phone at (800) 447-1985.