It’s been a stressful year to be a farmer.
Just ask Jay Schutte, who grows corn and soybeans on 2,800 acres in Audrain County in central Missouri.
First came the rains that brought devastating floods to the Midwest and delayed planting.
That meant hoping for a long growing season, so the crops had time to mature. Now, as he’s harvesting, he’s trying to beat the fall rains that can delay harvest by making fields too muddy for heavy equipment and the grain too wet to store.
He said he’s had a lot of sleepless nights lately. Harvest is a few weeks from being finished and the biggest concern right now is an early snow. Schutte normally would start harvesting the first week of September and be finished by Halloween. He’ll likely finish during the first half of November, if the weather cooperates.
“Snow could stop us for a good long while, and these rains we’ve been having pretty consistently aren’t doing us any favors as well,” Schutte said. “We’re at the mercy of the weather, the markets. We’ve got to be optimistic, but have to have Plan B through Plan Z.”
Those are the challenges farmers face every year. Farmers also are dealing with the ongoing trade war with China and delays in Congress, where a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico has stalled.
The loss of Chinese markets means a surplus of grain, keeping prices low. And farmers raising soybeans and corn also are upset over the relaxation of federal rules requiring biofuels such as ethanol and soy diesel to be blended with petroleum-based products.
Many farmers don’t have an opportunity to talk with someone about this stress, which can affect their mental health and lead to tragedy.
“It’s not the most pleasant topic, but farmer suicide rates are up,” Schutte said. “Suicide rates are up on a lot of demographics, but it’s up on farmers as well.”
Through weekly and monthly reports, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service tracks plantings and then the progress of major crops.
At this time of year, corn has typically all matured and most of it is harvested. For soybeans, the other dominant row crop, almost all has matured and the harvest is about half over.
This year has been anything but typical. Only about half of the corn crop and one quarter of the soybean crop have been gathered.
“It’s a really tough year for Missouri farmers and American farmers in general,” said Gary Marshall, executive director of the Missouri Corn Growers Association. “We had all the flooding so a lot of ground didn’t get planted. We were expecting to see higher prices by now, and those prices are only slightly higher. It’s still below the cost of production.”
“Markets have a way to go to be what we’d want to see,” Christine Tew, Missouri Soybean Association director of communications and public relations, wrote in an email. “Prices continue to be down, and farmers are most definitely feeling the impact of the price declines we’ve seen in the markets over the past 18 months or so.”
Prices on corn still could increase, Marshall said. South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota saw an early freeze before corn was mature, which may affect the test weight and yield for that crop, he said.
“We’re fortunate here in Missouri that if you were able to get that crop in, it’s mature,” Marshall said. “Our corn crop is better in Missouri from a yield standpoint than the northern tier states.”
Schutte currently is working to harvest soybeans. His corn crop is about 20% harvested and he’ll return to that crop once beans are harvested.
“Prices are not the best though, but at least we have yields,” Schutte said.
Trade and biofuel policies are working against farmers,
Agriculture is getting caught up in the middle of the trade agreements because industries such as steel and petroleum, both heavily needed for farming, are the main focus of the tariffs.
China will purchase 10 million tons of soybeans with tariff waivers, according to reporting from Bloomberg. That is a blessing for now, Schutte said, but he would prefer to see trade relations normalize.
“It’s going to take a long time to work through [these crops]. I would like to see a permanent solution, not a temporary Band-Aid,” Schutte said.
Corn growers are hoping for some good news out of Washington on both the trade and ethanol fronts, Marshall said. Corn growers invested in ethanol to take them through the lean times of corn production, but the trade war is affecting ethanol prices too, he said.
This year’s late harvest compounds farmers’ worries, Schutte said.
Exactly how much suicide rates have increased for farmers is a matter of dispute, but some data suggest it is far higher than the general population.
Farming isn’t the simple life people may think, and farmers need emotional support, too, Schutte said.
“There’s a lot of groups doing outreach in the different communities. More of that needs to be done,” Schutte said.
One group working on outreach programs and providing resources to address mental health concerns is University of Missouri Extension. It received 16 calls between February and August last year seeking mental health and suicide prevention resources – and 30 during the same timeframe this year, Extension Human Environmental Services Specialist Karen Funkenbusch wrote in an email.
There’s a parallel between financial concerns and mental health. The increase in call volume is due to weather concerns, planting and harvest and the trade war, she said.
“Look at what we’ve had in Missouri. We’ve had flooding, we’ve had drought, tornadoes, the dairy crash, trade issues, crops didn’t get put in, flooding again,” Funkenbusch said. “Mother nature has not been kind to our farmers.”
The extension office developed its own resource publications.
“The information [looks at] signs, symptoms, who to call. We marketed the material so that they resonate with our farmers. So that farmers know that it’s OK to have stress, it’s OK to talk about stress,” Funkenbusch said.