Imagine, if you can, a computer virus that cut the productivity of Apple, Google, and Facebook in half. Or try to imagine Wall Street’s investment bankers seeing a season’s worth of deals washed away. Such calamities would dominate our nation’s news and drive swift political action. Yet that is precisely what America’s farmers face right now. And, as a country, we aren’t paying nearly enough attention.
Farmers are generally too proud and humble to speak out, but the truth is we are living through an extremely difficult period of market turmoil and natural disasters. Due largely to sustained low commodity prices, average farm income in 2017 was $43,000, while the median farm income for 2018 was negative $1,500. In 2018, Chapter 12 bankruptcies in the farm states across the Midwest that are responsible for nearly half of all sales of U.S farm products rose to the highest level in a decade.
And then the floods came to the Midwest. Farmers have been significantly delayed in their planting this year due to rain and soggy ground, and as the planting window closes, some will have to make a decision about whether to plant a crop this year at all. As of June 9, just 60% of America’s soybean acres had been planted in our highest-producing states, compared with nearly 90% typically planted by this time of year. And just 83% of the corn crop is in the ground in the most productive states, a number that should be pushing 100%.
These disasters would be catastrophic at the best of times. But the fact is the rural communities in which our farmers operate are also struggling because local businesses’ revenue and incomes are tied to farmers’ incomes and livelihoods. Farmers and rural families want the same things for their communities that we all do: access to quality education, health care, and technology, and strong local communities. There are challenges in these areas, as well.
Roughly one in three rural Americans, and one in four farmers, are without broadband access, cutting them off from services like telemedicine and educational tools. Many parents have to drive to the local McDonald’s so their kids can get Internet access to finish homework. Rural America faces a shortage of doctors—more than 100 rural hospitals have closed since 2010—even as they endure the regular dangers of farm life and the rolling tragedy of an opioid crisis. “Three in four farmers and farm workers (74%) are or have been directly impacted by opioid abuse, either by knowing someone, having a family member addicted, having taken an illegal opioid or having dealt with addiction themselves,” according to a survey from the American Farm Bureau Federation.
As the CEO of Land O’Lakes, one of the country’s largest farmer- and retail-member-owned cooperatives, I see these realities all the time. It is the privilege of my life to work with these families who in the face of such hardship demonstrate endless resilience, optimism, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Ninety-six percent of farms are family-owned. These are people who understand the cyclical nature of the industry and don’t give up in the face of setbacks. They protect and care for the land they want to pass on to their children.
But it’s not enough to count on farmers to tough it out. America needs to start listening to the voices of the heartland. It’s not just about feeling empathy for flood-ravaged communities. It is about recognizing our shared destiny. It is about remembering that agriculture is the bedrock of our economy and security. The products of urban America are essential. But without a thriving rural and farm economy producing abundant, affordable food for a growing planet, a foundational pillar of our strength as a country will collapse.
We need to look for ways to drive more investment and job creation in rural areas. For example, because trade is a cornerstone of a strong agricultural economy, Land O’Lakes continues to urge Congress to approve the USMCA trade agreement, while calling on the Trump administration to expand exports with existing trade partners. Policy is critical to help farmers at a time of crisis, a fact reflected in a strong bipartisan 2018 farm bill that improved the safety net for dairy producers and created new mental health assistance programs for farmers.
Policy must also be a catalyst for innovation. That’s why Land O’Lakes and other agricultural companies have supported public and private efforts to expand high-speed broadband access in rural America. And it’s why we’ve striven to deploy cutting-edge ag tech such as digital sustainability platforms to help farmers better safeguard and utilize their natural resources.
Fewer than one in five Americans live in rural areas, but they represent 44% of those serving in our military. When we need them, they stand up. Now it’s our turn to get on our feet.
Beth Ford is the president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc.
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