As planting season approaches, John Maxwell, owner of Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, said every day is a struggle for Iowa farmers waiting out the weather and low commodity prices.
So far, eastern Iowa farmers like Maxwell said they haven't been as affected by devastating floods across the Midwest, compared to farmers in western Iowa and Nebraska, for example. But Maxwell said the cool, wet weather is holding back farmers, who already are struggling to break even in a market hurt by ongoing trade disputes and an overabundance of product.
"There's a lot of financial hurt out there," said Maxwell, who sits on the Scott County Board of Supervisors. "People are talking about aid from the government, but that's only a drop in the bucket when you get a penny a bushel. That's like me saying I'm going to give you a 50 percent reduction of your pay, and you're going to like it because you have nowhere else to go. Then I'll give you aid of 10 cents more an hour. That just doesn't equate."
"It's stinging. Each day that goes by is very difficult," he said.
Farm Management Program Specialist Ryan Drollette, with Iowa State University, said over the past few years, farmers saw "great growing seasons," and were able to increase their production of corn and soybeans. Supplies increased, while demand largely didn't, he said. Then, trade disputes began.
"So you've got increased supply, then on top of that there's trade," Drollette said. "All of a sudden we lost (China's) major demand on soybeans. So we went from $10 soybean prices to $8 soybean prices."
He said President Donald Trump’s ongoing disputes with China and other international trading partners have caused prices to drop further. And as a result, farmers like Maxwell are storing more grain than usual.
"We have a lot of corn and soybeans in storage, as do many, many farmers," Maxwell said. "Right now, unfortunately, farmers are selling close to or below production cost."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported as of March 1, farmers nationwide have stored 29 percent more soybeans than the same date last year.
With low commodity prices, Maxwell said farmers this past year have struggled to break even, and many have faced losses.
"I've heard war stories, sort of speak, from farmers," said Virgil Schmitt, crops program specialist with the ISU Extension Office. "Lenders are concerned the farmers not only are solvent but remain that way and don't go backward. I've heard a lot of stories from farmers who are still solvent but have gone from close to $1 million worth of working capital, down to less than $100,000 over the last few years. That's kind of like going through your savings account, and that's causing a lot of stress."
Farmers under the weather
Farmers in Scott and Muscatine counties have not been as hard hit by widespread flooding across the Midwest, which the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation estimates will take a $2 billion toll on the state's economy.
But there are still concerns as farmers look to plant crops on time. Maxwell said farmers are already going into planting season behind, due to rain last fall.
"We got no work done in the fall, and that's usually when you put on fertilizers, so we're a little behind, no question," Maxwell said. "And then we've got this really cool weather that's holding us back. Of course, it's wet, but we don't start planting until temperatures are above 50 degrees. So that's a challenge before us."
Schmitt said farmers are paying close attention to the forecast, waiting to see if warmer weather and snowmelt in northern border states cause more flooding.
Struggling to make ends meet this planting season, he said farmers are making difficult decisions to cut costs.
"I want to make sure that every dollar I'm putting into this crop is going to give me at least a dollar back," he said. "So can I cut my fertilizer back without hurting myself, and if so how much? And I want to make sure I get good weed control, but I'd like to do it as economically as possible. I think people are pushing the pencil harder and have very little wiggle room because of those prices."
Schmitt said those decisions are also putting pressure on fertilizer and chemical suppliers throughout the state.
"The good thing is, we've never had a year where we didn't get our crops done," Maxwell said. "Sometimes it's been as late as June, but we've never missed a year. If someone goes out of business, there are at least 25 farmers in line wanting to take over. Farming is a bit of an addiction. You want to farm and make a living, so you're willing to work as hard as you can to make ends meet."
Spring brings optimism
Despite facing adversity over the past year — and now widespread flooding — Drollette said it's hard not to be optimistic as spring brings nature back to life.
"(Thursday afternoon), looking at the November contract for soybeans, it's at $9.30. That's been as high as $9.60 or $9.70," he said. "But that's looking pretty optimistic considering last year after we lost our trade with China, soybeans went down to $8.80 or lower."
Farmers also are trying to remain optimistic that the trade dispute with international markets will be resolved, Maxwell said, though he worries China will never regain its position as a top soybean buyer.
"Farmers are resilient, but it's going to be hard to bounce back this time because of the devastation they're dealing with at the moment," Drollette said. "But, I have optimism that things will continue to improve — that we'll get some trade deals in place on the soybeans side, and that we can get in the fields this spring in a timely manner and have decent yields."
To make it through, Maxwell said farmers need to support each other. Iowa State Human Sciences Specialist Barbara Dunn-Swanson regularly teaches programs at the extension office, training farmers on how to spot the signs of stress in their neighbors.
"There are so many things that are beyond the farmer's control, like the weather and fluctuating commodity prices," she said. "So those things make us more sensitive to what the farmer is going through. We want to make sure we're standing behind them with the support and resources that can help them navigate those stressful situations."
She asks farmers to check in on each other and pay attention to any physical signs of stress. And, she recommends farmers call the Iowa concern hotline, at 1-800-447-1985, which was launched during the major farm crisis in the 1980s.
"I would encourage whomever it is to not give up," Maxwell said. "If you do need help, seek help, because there's help out there. We certainly don't want lives to be lost because of this situation. We're all here for each other."
For stress management resources, visit the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach website.