Farmers preparing to plant in uncertainty look for a better day

Hard times in the past show that agriculture will continue.

Uncertainty about farmers will plant this spring has been heightened by the weather and now COVID-19. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)

The horizon brightens with the rising sun as mourning doves and songbirds celebrate the promise of a new day. Soon the air will be filled with the aroma of fresh-turned soil.

Farmers will plant in uncertainty caused in part by not knowing what course the virus will follow. Hope that both markets and society will be OK is nearly as important as seed and fertilizer itself.

A farmer in the Netherlands — where tulips and other flowers are an important cash crop shipped around the world — recently was interviewed about what he would do with his crop.

“There is no market for them,’’ he said, adding that most will be wasted because export markets are closed and would not reopen soon enough to save his crop. He would, he said, somehow survive until a better next year.

A farmer, who at the time was struggling to survive financially in the horrible 1980s, said it had been a tough winter searching for a lender to agree to an operating loan for the growing season. It was early March, and he hadn’t obtained one. In any case he and his wife would get by.


“We raise three crops,’’ he said, “corn, soybeans and our children.’’

While bearing that in mind, it’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture's job to crunch the numbers. In its February report, the agency estimated U.S. farmers will plant 94 million acres of corn, 85 million acres of soybeans and 45 million acres of wheat. That is more than in 2019, which saw record prevented planted acreage.

Dad, who perpetually listened to dinner market reports, was chronically upset both with USDA and the Chicago Board of Trade, which he was convinced conspired to keep grain and livestock prices down. Dad was among those who thought that the Chicago market ought to be abolished, because men in suits and ties and ignorant about farming were getting rich from farmers’ labor.

The opinion, going back to the founding of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1864, was not uncommon. Little government oversight allowed wheelers and dealers to corner markets, which allowed speculators to manipulate prices. Moralists also argued that CBOT trading amounted to nothing more than legalized gambling.

Several lawsuits to abolish the board were filed without success and litigation against it continued into the 20th century.

The American Agriculture Movement brought a lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Trade and the city of Chicago in 1994 over antitrust issues associated with soybean trading. The U.S. District Court in Illinois eventually dismissed the claim.

The board wasn’t AAM’s only complaint. The organization formed in 1977 in response to poor commodity prices and a farm bill that it considered too weak to help. The movement’s momentum built quickly and drew national attention by driving tractors to state capitols across the country.

The group held a national farmer strike day on Dec. 14, 1977, and on March 15, 1978, brought more than 50,000 farmers and many tractors to Washington, D.C. It remains the largest farmer-organized protest in the nation’s history.


The protests sparked by the farm crisis of the 1980s were less organized and smaller but contained the same raw emotion that led the federal government to declare a moratorium on foreclosures.

Dad, who died in the early 1970s, may have approved. He was opinionated and convinced that the loss of family farms would lead to corporate control. When that happened, he said, consumers who had enjoyed cheap food for decades would pay much more at grocery stores.

However, he did not go along when the National Farm Organization held milk dumps and commodity withholding actions in the 1960s in its effort to boost prices through collective action.

It may have been, on reflection, that the milk check was needed to pay bills.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

What To Read Next
Get Local