Stress of 'the game' takes toll on farmers' mental health

Wisconsin State Farmer

Growing up on our family farm, my siblings and I heard stories from our parents who had been children during the Great Depression. We learned how our grandparents sacrificed to survive during difficult times.

Intertwined in these tales was respect for farmers, our soils and water, and rural communities.

With the harvest season approaching,farmers are facing a fourth year of low prices for the corn and soybean crops they dutifully and optimistically planted last spring, prices so low they may not cover the costs of production. The USDA’s 10-year forecast shows a likely continuation of this situation as the uncontrolled production of these grains increases around the world.

Despite this, agriculture analysts have been inexplicably upbeat. Finally, in August, the keynote speaker at a farmer-owned cooperative field day told his audience the hard, ugly truth. Farmers must “play the game.” Farm Bureau and ISU Extension echo this sentiment with “Winning the Game” marketing workshops.

Think about that. Farmers, who work the land, dedicate their lives to growing crops and raising farm animals, and do their best to care for the environment and their communities, have been reduced to competitors in a game. Where winning means everything, the most ruthless and aggressive player will win.

I believe this is a dangerous game which threatens our farmers, our environment, and our food.

In this game, the farmer must compete to grow and sell his share of the worldwide overproduction of commodity grains. See the irony? The problem of low prices is too much grain. Yet to win, each individual farmer must produce as much as he or she can.

The farmer must also compete for access to land. According to the 2014 Total Census of Agriculture, more than 60 percent of farmland in Iowa’s major corn and soybean-producing counties is rented. Farmers, who are often neighbors, must bid against each other for the highest rent. Knowledge of the land, judicious use of resources, personal character, and community involvement are no longer relevant factors.

This way of thinking compromises our soil and water and destroys farm families and rural communities. Meanwhile, the commodity groups and political leaders trumpet small moves toward conservation practices in the merry-go-round of corn and soybeans as proof of sustainability.

Understandably, this game is stressful. As reported by the Centers for Disease Control, farmer suicides in the United States are at a historic high, 50 percent higher than during the 1980s farm crisis. Our farmers and their families are hurting.

Expanding trade or finding new markets, proclaimed to be the solution by some, has not brought prosperity to farmers. Corn and soybeans used for animal feed or fuel do not “feed the world.” While a certain amount of trade in agricultural products is a benefit to people’s nutrition and incomes, the free market disrupts traditional foods and farming practices, especially of peasant farmers who provide nearly 70 percent of the world’s food.

Iowa has seen similar detrimental effects. Our reliance on two main crops with animals in confinements or feedlots has destroyed our agricultural resilience and our food sovereignty. We have lost nearly all of our diversity of crops, animals on pasture, and small businesses that both support and are supported by farmers, as well as the knowledge, skills and infrastructure necessary for this model. Last spring our Iowa state legislature foolishly defunded the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture that has worked for 30 years — against powerful agribusiness interests — to slow this loss.

Michael Fritch plants soybeans Tuesday, May 9, 2017 on his home farm in Mitchellville. Fritch, a fifth-generation farmer, plants corn and soybeans on farming plots surrounding the Mitchellville and Des Moines area.

I firmly believe we need a new way of thinking to end this game. The Des Moines Register has reported that farmers “in the middle” are most at risk. I fear that all farmers are at risk in this no-win economic environment. This trajectory could easily lead to farming without farmers. 

As we look for solutions and to the future, I propose that we learn from the past. Parity-level price supports coupled with supply management was a successful federal policy put in place as a result of the Great Depression. This program ended for political, not practical, reasons. 

Parity — paying farmers a fair price for their crop rather than giving them government subsidies — has economic, environmental and societal benefits. A parity system sets a price floor at a level that reflects the inflationary costs to farmers to grow the crop. The farmer will be able to make a fair and just living for his or her family on fewer acres of corn and soybeans. Remaining acres will be available to grow diverse crops to sell locally, bring livestock back to the land, incorporate conservation techniques, or rent to a beginning farmer.

Our politicians will not call for this change. I believe if we truly value our farmers and the work they do, we need to lift up our voices in a unified grassroots effort to demand policies that rein in excessive competition and build a sense of community in our food and agriculture system. 

Patti (Edwardson) Naylor

Naylor of Churdan, IA, is a farmer and a board member for the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network. She is also a task force member for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.