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Views and opinions: Farmers still optimistic for better livelihoods, in 2018

 

Finally, after some of the busiest months ever during my professional life helping farmers with behavioral health concerns, requests for assistance are decreasing somewhat.

 

The decline in help-seeking isn’t because financial concerns and other types of stress have diminished for farming families, but because they are busy with planting, calving and other spring chores.

Even the calls from reporters, filmmakers and all sorts of media representatives are dwindling lately – again, not because the current economic squeeze on agricultural producers has gone away. Other stories deemed more important than farmer stress and suicide are rising to the surface.

Having visited with many farmers, farm lenders, government officials and other observers of the current farming recession, I have developed some takeaways from our discussions about what is happening with U.S. agriculture.

I spoke with farmers going through foreclosure as well as “survivors” of the recession. All the agricultural producers I visited with hope for lower input costs and improvements in their net incomes, but there are differences of opinion about how to achieve their aims.

Among the matters that most concern people connected with agriculture are proposed changes in the next farm bill, tariffs and agricultural trade with other countries. Most farmers don’t want tariffs or elimination of free trade.

Although not at the top of the list of everyone’s concerns, many worry that lax environmental protections are eroding the quality of water and air in agricultural regions.

Proposed changes in the farm bill include an increase of 4 million or more acres to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but at a lower rate of USDA reimbursement per acre. This increase in CRP land has long been necessary and should be mostly permanent in order to protect farmable land if it becomes needed for production in the future, as well as to enhance wildlife and to protect rural environments.

Instead of relaxing regulations by the EPA of water and air quality standards, most farmers – and even more non-farmers – I talked with desire stronger protections for agricultural environments. They are genuinely concerned about the quality of the resources needed to farm and their image with the public – but a few producers said regulators should back off and that making profits deserves priority.

Including emergency farmer-friendly behavioral health care in the farm bill was endorsed by all the farmers I talked with. They want farmer helplines and stress counseling services to aid them through hardships and to remain healthy.

Farm families are concerned about their high costs for health care through insurance companies. They also desire agricultural safety and health educational programs, and look at agricultural behavioral health supports as types of “urgent care” that are suited to their needs.

Cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the proposed 2019 federal budget worry many farmers. They hope the new farm bill will keep SNAP at its current level.

Farmers want to increase the work requirements in order for able-bodied recipients to qualify for benefits, and they want to see federal aid maintained for the School Breakfast program and school lunches, the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition program and other USDA supplemental food assistance.

Several people said they wish SNAP would increase access to healthy fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products and organic food items. “Reducing food assistance is like shooting ourselves in the foot,” one person mentioned.

He added, “Reducing SNAP benefits harms those who can’t afford a healthy diet, and it reduces a market for what we produce.” He’s right on both accounts, for deficient nutrition can deter normal brain development in children and contribute to obesity and poor dietary habits. Decreasing food assistance also reduces demand for farm products.

Nutrition assistance comprises 71 percent of the 2019 USDA budget, unless the next farm bill supersedes the budget that was recently approved by Congress and President Trump. SNAP assistance increased annually, for the most part, until 2013; thereafter its total outlay has decreased each year, and will be cut more in the 2019 federal budget.

The 2019 USDA budget allocates 22 percent of its expenditures for farm, conservation and commodity programs, 4 percent for forestry and 3 percent for all other expenditures, such as rural development grants, extension and other rural programs.

These expenditures seem “out of whack” until we realize the USDA budget is small compared to some federal departments. SNAP serves about 41 million recipients; the number of food assistance recipients has declined by 9 percent over the past five years.

Will farmers get what they hope for in 2018: higher market prices, lower input costs, stepped-up CRP, continuation of improved SNAP benefits and work requirements and environmental protections? It’s a tough order to fill.

Will farmers who are opposed to tariffs and want free trade get their way? Resolution of these matters isn’t clear yet.

There is a glimmer of optimism among farmers overall … or is the glimmer just because it’s spring?

 

Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. Readers may contact him at mike@agbehavioralhealth.com

5/24/2018