An expanding news media is bringing attention to the current financial struggles of many U.S. agricultural producers and their families. The attention comes in established and new ways, and with an intensity not seen since the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.
Media methods have changed substantially since the 1980s’ depression in the farm economy, when reports of farmer suicide and protests were almost a daily news item.
Readership of printed agricultural newspapers and farm magazines that are currently delivered through the U.S. Postal Service are declining, while electronic subscriptions to printed news are burgeoning and reaching wider readership. Besides regularly scheduled broadcasts by radio and television networks, new vendors are undertaking live-stream broadcasts and podcasts to reach broader audiences. I’ve contributed to several podcasts.
Even though there are mounting concerns about the accuracy of some posts on Facebook and Twitter, last month Facebook had 2.8 billion users worldwide and Twitter had 326 million subscribers, of which 47 million were U.S. residents.
Farm stress is becoming better understood by the agricultural population and, more importantly, by the general public. Government officials are aware that farmers are undergoing a higher rate of loan foreclosures and accompanying emotional strife than at any time since the 1980s Farm Crisis.
Awareness of elected and appointed public officials to worsening farm income, suicide, and farm loan foreclosures was a major factor in Congressional approval of the 2018 farm bill, which includes provisions for a Farm and Ranch Assistance Network and increased acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
The growing public awareness of farmers’ economic and psychological distress has upsides. Marginalized farmers don’t feel as much alone as distressed farmers and their families did in the 1980s. They also know more how to manage their behavioral welfare and to use federal and state assistance programs that weren’t available at the start of the 1980s debacle.
The 1980s’ farm economic conditions differed considerably from current conditions. Then, interest rates on operating loans were above 20 percent, and crop insurance, the CRP, the livestock indemnity, and the dairy buyout programs didn’t exist.
University of Missouri farm economist John Ikerd indicated additional differences: there were fewer large farming operations; more facilities for raising poultry and pigs were producer-owned; and ethanol and other biofuel industries didn’t exist.
Back then a bankrupt farmer could retain five acres of land, whereas now a bankrupt farm owner can retain 40 acres, which in some cases is enough land to maintain at least some economic and psychological ties to farming.
Relationships between lenders and borrowers, as well as the ethical guidelines for conducting discussions between lenders and borrowers, have led to strategies in which they share in the risks and resolutions, rather than acquiescing to dictatorial requirements that borrowers “pay up or else.”
There is a troubling similarity, however. In 1980 President Carter embargoed U.S. grain shipments to the Soviet Union in retaliation for its invasion of Afghanistan. Currently, President Trump has modified foreign trade agreements that have resulted in retaliatory tariffs which, like the earlier embargo, have reduced exports of agricultural products.
The Trump-declared supplemental federal payments for corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, cotton, pork, and dairy have not had sufficient benefit to enable the most marginalized producers of these commodities to remain viable. Some local purchasers and marketers have reduced their bids for these items, knowing their producers would qualify for federal price supplements.
Farmers dedicated to fair marketing regulations tell me they feel their support for the Trump administration is being purchased and they are becoming disillusioned about why they farm. Their joy in seeing seeds grow into crops and animals mature into desired food products is compromised by what they perceive as a wrong purpose: Farming for the government and not for the betterment of consumers.
Important ethical issues remain unresolved, along with increasing controversies about the types of media messages that are protected by the U.S. Constitution. For instance, should any media be allowed to post messages that incite violence? Do the media have an obligation to not publish information that is clearly false because it differs from documented truths and established scientific facts?
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the press, as well as freedom to practice religion, to assemble peaceably, and to petition the government to redress grievances. Thomas Jefferson, who contributed substantially to the formation of the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights, is reputed to have said, “Lady Liberty will survive if freedom of speech is on her right side and civil discourse is on her left side.”
What a heartening statement, that must be respected. It’s a reason why I write these columns.
Farmers – actually, the entire nation – needs civility in the media as well as the freedom to proclaim the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org