Local ag educators analyze farming trends

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Riverland ag educator Wayne Pike used a quote from Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to sum up farming today in front of a crowd of approximately 45 people with careers in agriculture gathered at the Branding Iron in Preston last Tuesday.

Attendees hailed from the Preston area, Grand Meadow, Lanesboro, Spring Valley, Adams, St. Charles, Rochester and beyond for lunch and a presentation given by two farm business management instructors from Riverland Community College and representatives of various agribusiness entities. Another session was held in the evening.

Pike, who works in offices in LeRoy, Plainview and Rochester, remarked that being hopeful while forging onward is a positive thing to be, but that farmers must “understand your ability to adapt to a bad economic forecast.” 

The other Riverland ag educator, Dan Miller who is based in Spring Valley, welcomed everyone, summing up that his audience included those who farm crops, cattle, hogs and dairy, and that just about everyone knows what a struggle it is to get by while farming, this year or last. 

Miller spoke about trends in farming, income and expenditures, first citing a quote from a wise observer who understood the optimism it takes to be a farmer: “A farmer is always going to be rich…next year.” 

Corn producers lost $57 an acre, Miller noted, adding that’s kind of consistent in recent years.  The average cost was $3.79 per bushel, and the average price was $3.37.  Future costs and seed costs are coming down, but crop prices are also decreasing, he added. 

Land rents in Fillmore County have declined, but values are down, and interest rates are fairly stable, according to Miller.  A University of Minnesota land rent survey showing Fillmore County’s land rent statistics outlined that in 2016, the average rent per acre was $208.83, but in 2019, it is projected to be $191.39 to $203.25 per acre. A range of reported values in 2016 were between $75 to $310 per acre and 2018 land values settled between $20 and $379 per acre.  Historical cash rents have declined since 2013. 

“In dairy, the average number of cows is 228, and milk production per cow declined for the first time,” Miller said. “We attribute it to stress in the dairy industry.”

Miller highlighted demand in the global economy, along with the advent of new technology that will lend a hand to the next generation of farmers.  He showed slides of his own children working their beef operation. 

“We need to prepare for the next generation…and to learn how to survive and thrive the ride ahead, improve our ability to monitor our records, have written marketing plans, expand where profit is found and cut costs when it does not lower your gross revenue.  And to stay mentally balanced in times of stress,” Miller said. 

Pike, after quoting Dickens, used the metaphor of warplanes coming back pocked with bullet holes to illustrate how difficulties in farming can sometimes show a farmer exactly what needs the most attention in order for the farm to still be there next year. 

“The B-17 airplane came back from war…this slide shows where the planes that came back were hit.  They tried to figure out what was wrong and how to armor the planes so that they wouldn’t go down,” Pike said. “We studied the survivors, and maybe it’ll make this year’s business a little better, we’ll have more in survivorship, but it was suggested that maybe the B-17s that didn’t come back should be studied to find out why they didn’t come back.  If you’re going to survive the year, maybe it’s best to study what isn’t working just as much as studying what did work.” 

Pike concluded with more observations about farming and the business of staying in business on a farm, such as “Everything changes and nothing changes,” and “The first loss is always the smallest loss.” 

Prior to the analyses from the Riverland educators, Minnesota Extension agent Michael Cruse stood to speak, sharing that he serves out of offices located in Preston and Caledonia and that there are resources available through the University of Minnesota Extension if farmers need to seek information or assistance.  He also updated them about springtime activities taking place. 

“This is a big farm safety time of year; we have 430 kids, fourth graders, coming to Mabel for farm safety classes, and this is fully funded by the community,” he said. “In June, we have two tractor safety training classes, and we have daily field days.” 

At the conclusion of the session, Miller encouraged farmers attending the business review to do what they can to improve their operations in the face of financial hurdles and mental stress incurred by the art of making a living from the earth, thanking them for attending and inviting them to return next year for another review of how business fared in 2019, with wishes for a better year than last. 

Included in the materials distributed to the attendees were resources from the Minnesota Dairy Initiative Southeast Region and from Minnesota Extension addressing the reality that farmers are facing stress from various farm financial difficulties and the work of just getting by. 

Help for farmers experiencing stress, anxiety, depression or “feeling stuck” can be obtained by calling the Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline at 833-600-2670 ext. 1 for 24-hour free and confidential conversations; by contacting rural mental health counselor Ted Matthews at 320-266-2390 – the information outlined that Matthews “works with farmers across the entire state” for no cost and with no paperwork required, courtesy of funding from the Minnesota Legislature. 

Further mental health assistance was listed, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – with a call line at 800-273-8255, and a crisis text line that can be reached by texting “MN” to 741 741. 

Daily living help shown in the materials points those who need a hand securing food, heat, electricity, healthcare, childcare, senior programs or other resources to dial 2-1-1 or to log onto www.211.org to reach a service run by United Way. 

Business and financial contact information was included as well, beginning with Farmer-Lender Mediation at 218-935-5785 for farmers who are having difficulties with a loan or lender; Farmers Legal Action Group (FLAG) at 877-860-4349 for legal services, referrals and support for family farmers; Minnesota Farm Advocates at 218-346-4866 to reach advocates to help farmers having financial problems or who have been through a natural disaster; Minnesota Rural Finance Authority at 651-201-6556 to find low-interest loans, the Minnesota State Farm Business Management Education at 218-894-5163 to learn how to use farm records to make business decisions; and the University of Minnesota Extension Financial Counseling for Farmers at 800-232-9077 to find financial analysts who “meet with farmers to help them make sense of their financial situation and explore options to keep their farms functioning…a free and confidential service.”