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2019 weather and trade policies affect all types of agriculture

Farmers everywhere are more stressed these days financially and personally than at any time since the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, say people I have conferred with at community meetings and conferences and in discussions online and by telephone. Recent price inclines in some commodities generate hope but also uncertainty as speculators explore a broad set of unknowns.

Last month I spoke at a meeting of Midwestern farmers that usually attracts about 50 participants, but this time twice as many people attended the event. Perhaps the topic was instrumental in generating such significant attendance: The conference was devoted to managing stress in today's farm economy.

U.S. agricultural producers currently are affected by atypical weather conditions, retaliatory tariffs by foreign countries on selected imports such as agricultural products, uncertain relations with international foes as well as traditional allies, and restrictions within our own country that diminish the necessary agricultural labor force. Because these factors, and many more, are outside their control, a lot of farmers are on edge.

Prices for major commodities such as corn, soybeans, beef and dairy items have risen lately, mostly due to weather conditions that limit production. Certainty of lasting improvements vary considerably for most major commodities and also for lesser-known items that make up a substantial portion of the U.S. agricultural economy, such as wine.

Who would have thought that vintners produce an item that is a major contributor to the U.S. farm economy? Wine sales accounted for 7 percent of gross farm receipts in 2017, the latest year for which complete data are available.

Grapes in parts of the west and east are growing in excessively wet soil, leading to fungal infections, while grapes in much of the Midwest were hit hard by the polar vortex that descended in February this winter. An Illinois wine-producer, Famous Fossil Winery, indicated that 90 percent of its grapes succumbed to the unusually cold weather conditions.

Three vintners told me that grapes are also sensitive to warming and wetter weather conditions in many places around the world, which favors the proliferation of fungi and the necessity for heavier use of fungicides. They questioned if high quality wine will become more difficult to produce in the future and potentially more hazardous because of the high toxicity of most fungicides.

They also mentioned that grapes for wine are the only crop in the top 10 agricultural commodities that are not supported by a U.S. Department of Agriculture disaster program, although fresh table grapes are supported, according to a May 2019 declaration signed by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Most common foods, as well as most major commodities, are covered by provisions of the Farm Bill, including vegetables, fruits and nuts.

USDA protections from disasters, as well as efficient production of food items, make it possible for Americans to spend only about 10% of their available income on food — divided between consumption at home (5.2 percent) and away from home (4.7 percent), according to a 2018 report issued by the Economic Research Service of the USDA.

That same report (https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-t...) indicates that food prices are less volatile than fuel prices. Food prices also are more stable than many other spending categories by Americans, such as for medications, housing and education, to name but a few.

USDA programs offer fewer supports to financially stressed small farms and to organic food producers. Farmers in these categories should consult their local Farm Service Agency, just as other commodity producers do, to learn about any helpful provisions available for them.

Farming successfully isn't easy these days, regardless of the size of the operation and the type of commodities produced. Perhaps the best "farm programs" are those that don't depend on government at all.

Farmers that participate in Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite and other religious — or community — based organizations and life-styles take care of one another. Commonly, these persons eschew participation in USDA farm programs.

Members of these tightly-knit communities work together to help each other when "the going gets rough," such as when illness hampers the capacity of a farming member or family to care for their farming operation. They often provide financial backing for the purchase of land, equipment and livestock.

They have no outlays for crop insurance. They manage their farmland in ways that protect the soil, air, water and other inputs like labor and capital, without relying on price supports and disaster payments. They farm sustainably.

Importantly to them, and to agriculture as a whole, the majority of the religiously-based farming communities thrive financially. They continue to incrementally expand their land holdings and production of agricultural items.

In many ways most people who are agricultural producers in the U.S. possess portions of the same characteristics as the Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite farmers, such as an intense drive to produce food. But many farmers may have also become too reliant on government programs to protect their livelihoods.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.