2018 outlook slightly improved for farmers and rural communities
Agricultural producers, their families and their rural communities exit 2017 on mixed reports concerning their well-being and enter 2018 on slightly more positive footing. Not all segments of rural society will improve though.
The U.S.Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service said in their Nov. 29, 2017, report that U.S. farm income has bottomed out and will stabilize during the coming year before beginning a slow climb out of the current recession. Net farm income for 2017 per farm household was forecast to drop from a negative $940 in 2016 to a negative $1,093 per farm household in 2017, but the ERS and other forecasters predict the farm economy will improve just enough in 2018 to push the median farm household income into a net gain.
Net farm income may improve in the U.S. next year, partly because most farming input costs have contracted except for a few necessary items like seed and many farm chemicals. Farm rent, machinery expenses, taxes and labor costs have declined somewhat.
Perhaps the two major factors leading to slightly improved income for U.S. agricultural producers are 1) fairly steady demand for nearly all major farm commodities, except for some dairy items, and 2) a fallout of producers in foreign agricultural countries. U.S. farmers and U.S. agricultural infrastructure, such as transportation systems, are more efficient than many of those in other developed countries, thus squeezing out some foreign competitors.
Prices for top-notch agricultural land improved slightly in Iowa and in many agricultural areas of the U.S. in 2017, which suggests the buyers, who are mostly active farmers, have cash reserves and optimism about the future of agriculture.
Negative farm socio-psychological indicators also exist. A Dec. 6 article in The Guardian by Debbie Weingarten, augmented with photos by Audra Mulkern, indicates that American farmers and those in many other countries are ending their lives by suicide in record numbers. Two Midwestern farmers and I contributed to the article.
Weingarten cites a July 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that farmers are more likely than any other occupational group to end their lives by suicide. The study reported findings from 17 states but did not include several major agricultural states.
A review of U.S. Department of Labor statistics for 18 years and ending with 2010 by Dr. Wendy Ringgenberg and others indicated that suicide in the workplace was more common for farmers than for any other occupation. This finding, which was printed in the May 2017 issue of the Journal of Rural Health, is consistent with the CDC report a year earlier.
Ample research evidence indicates that economic threats to farmers' continuation as agricultural producers contributes to affected farmers becoming overly stressed and prone to anxiety, depression and even self-destruction as a last resort. More than those in other occupations, farmers are motivated to be successful producers of essential goods for human consumption, which makes them feel vulnerable when they aren't successful.
I have never previously experienced such a deluge of shared concerns from around the world as I did after The Guardian article came out. People by the hundreds from all regions of the U.S. and ten foreign countries have requested help dealing with farmer suicide.
Uncertainty about remaining viable as agricultural producers is the most serious threat which people cited in their emails and telephone calls. Current changes in foreign trade agreements, shifts in weather patterns and political instability in the U.S. and many foreign countries are some of the most potent factors threatening agricultural producers here and abroad.
Losing control of their livelihoods to huge corporations is a major threat, many farm people also mentioned. Greed is at the root of the problem, many proclaimed.
Insufficient farm income contributes to economic instability of agriculture-dependent communities. The National Rural Health Association predicted the imminent closing of 673 rural hospitals, including many critical access facilities due to reduced income from federal sources and local taxes.
Low income by agricultural producers filters through their communities, as do high costs for health insurance, medications, untreated addictions and mental health conditions due to stress. An improving farm economy will fuel improvements throughout agricultural producers' local communities and their essential services and merchants.
A turnaround in the farm economy can hardly come soon enough. But questions remain if the general economy of the U.S. will continue to coast along.
Will the current high stock market values continue? Will the promised modifications of the U.S. tax code lead to improved income for farmers and all U.S. residents? Is the general economy in the U.S. and other countries in for a recession or even a depression?
It's too soon to know yet. Next year will be an unusually uncertain and important year for the world economy, but there are more positive than negative indicators for small improvement in the farming sector.
May 2018 be rewarding for you, dear readers.