Heavy rains severely delayed planting in 2019, leaving many in the local agricultural community facing hardship.
Doug Darling owns a 1,600-acre farm in Michigan that’s been in his family since 1833. Thanks to an unseasonably wet season last spring, nearly two-thirds of their operation was not in use last year.
“We had about 937 acres that were not planted on our farm because we physically couldn’t get out to the fields,” he told COURIER.
The large plot of land usually yields corn, wheat, and soybeans, Darling explained, but heavy rainfall and an extremely cold winter in 2019 created ongoing problems the entire year.
Every aspect of his farming community was ultimately affected, said Darling, who also serves as the director at-large of the Michigan Farm Bureau. Many farmers had to return the seeds they bought to sellers, while equipment mechanics lost out on work because they weren’t needed for service calls. Bags of fertilizer sat unused in silos.
The weather’s impact, as Darling put it, “had a very long tail. It’s impacted everybody throughout the [agricultural] chain, not just the guy on the tractor seat.”
According to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), May 2018 to April 2019 was the wettest 12 months on record for the United States. The lower 48 states saw an average of 36.2 inches of precipitation—six inches more than the average in previous years. Michigan saw an even higher average amount of rain, with 37.9 inches during the same period.
The unprecedented amount of precipitation across the Midwest severely delayed planting. Just 19% of U.S soybeans had been planted by May 2019, which is the lowest amount in over 20 years, the USDA reports. Planting late can create a lot of problems for farmers, including giving crops less time to mature, throwing off crop rotations, and making overall crop yields smaller.
In recent weeks, the state of Michigan and other organizations have worked to help more farmers who were hit hard by the wet weather and flooding last year become better aware of available resources intended to offer some relief.
Last summer, for example, Michigan began partnering with the USDA to create ongoing disaster declarations: Producers who live in counties hit hard by excessive rain, flooding, or other natural disasters are eligible for emergency loans from the federal government.
Ernie Birchmeier, who serves as manager of the Center for Commodity Farm and Industry Relations for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said that the state also created low-interest loans specifically for struggling farmers. Last year, lawmakers allocated $15 million to a low-interest loan program for those in the agriculture industry who need help.
Eligibility is different for the various loans available to farmers, but factors typically depend on county, an individual’s ability to repay the loan, and, in certain cases, proof that crops were damaged by the weather.
“They’re not guaranteed money and they do have to be paid back,” Birchmeier said, “but they do help from a safety net provision standpoint. They can also be used to pay back some of the other money that [farmers] owe to other expenses.”
Even though this aid won’t fix all of a farmer’s financial problems, the loans do provide some relief, Darling said.
“If I borrowed money to buy a piece of equipment, I already had a plan of how I’m going to pay it back. When you have a year like this where you have a hiccup and you don’t have the cash flow you were expecting, you don’t see the returns,” he explained. “That’s where the low interest helps you bridge that gap to get you to another year.”
The state has also partnered with Michigan State University Extension to create resources and programming to help farmers better manage stress related to their work. The first programs were launched in 2016, and over the years the program has added to its library of resources, including explainers on the basics of credit and debt, how to handle delayed planting and immature crops, and tips for coping with stress.
“We worked with Michigan State University to get some stress relief programs out across the state because this has been tough on folks, and the stress level is very high,” Birchmeier said. “We’ve seen a number of suicides in the state, and we want to make sure that if our farmers across Michigan are dealing with tough times, they’ve got someone to talk to.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among farmers has been increasing over the last 10 years.
“There’s more of a negative outlook and there’s more depression in the community,” Darling said. “I know it made the national news at the end of August about the suicide rates in rural America. Well, the real issue was because of the ag community, the ag sector. That’s where the depression and the suicide rates … really picked up.”
Thus far, Darling added, it’s difficult to tell if the programs that have been put in place in the past year will have a lasting positive impact on Michigan farmers.
“There’s no cookbook method to farming,” he said. “What one farmer does and can make money another farmer would lose his shirt doing the same thing. It depends on the soil, depends on the weather, depends on the hybrids. Farmers are eternal optimists, [but] boy this has been one good kick in the shins.”