Predictions for market prices of most agricultural products are “all over the place” during the near term; farm economic outcomes are more uncertain–and sometimes more negative–than usual.  Weather, disease outbreaks and political events that impact food prices for producers are very unclear and changeable.  

Unless a catastrophe happens before harvest, the 2014 corn and soybean crops will be the greatest ever for the U.S., but contributing to world-wide market declines.  U.S. wheat and rice yields are forecasted as substantial, but global yields of these all-important food-grains are expected to be at record levels.

Farmers in the dryer-than-normal western part of the continent, where fruits, nuts and vegetables are a major part of agricultural production, expect reduced yields but higher prices for most of their crops, due to drought. 

Meat and dairy production are being affected ambiguously.  Pork is hit by Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus. 

Near-term beef, poultry and dairy prices are currently optimistic, but the influence of reduced feed costs, unclear consumer demand and a boycott of sales to Russia may make them unstable in the future.

That President Putin is making Russian citizens endure hardship for its interference in the Ukraine by reducing food imports when its farmers can’t produce enough, seems to be a heritage that Russian leaders have imposed historically.

Meanwhile, additional parts of the world (e.g., Middle East, Africa) will need to import food and can’t afford it, even though global supplies of grains, livestock and dairy foods are ample.

Most of the world’s farmers continue to produce abundantly for their own populations and foreign markets but overall market and consumer prices may go down.

An indefinite farm economy is increasing stress for many U.S. and Canadian producers.

How will world conditions impact North American farmers?  Can they produce food even cheaper?  Will costs for seeds, fertilizer, chemicals, machinery, rent and other inputs adjust lower?  

Some farmers who purchased high-priced farmland or machinery lately on mostly borrowed money may have to look at ways to delay their regular payments or rely on income from other sources to make up what they can’t earn from farming.

Marginalized farmers may want to look at alternative land uses to maintain income, such as hunting leases and organic farming options, while curtailing expansion in 2015.  The new U.S. Farm Bill limits enrollment into some conservation options, so there are fewer alternative income sources from setting aside farmland from production.

What keeps farmers going?  My predecessor in writing this column, Dr. Val Farmer, said in the preface to his 2000 book, Honey, I Shrunk the Farm: A Rural Stress Survival Guide, “What accounts for the tenacity of and perseverance of farmers and ranchers…and why be subject to all the unpredictability of biology, disease, weather and uncertain market prices?”

Dr. Val suggested an expected favorable economic outcome from farming is one reason to continue farming and the love for the farm family and community is another motivator.  I would add that an innate drive to produce essentials for life, the agrarian imperative, is perhaps the major impetus that keeps people farming in the face of uncertainty and stress. 

Farmers produce food to help the human species survive. 

What to do?  Dr. Val offered a number of insights for dealing with uncertainty and stress.  He said, “Personal blame is assumed for disappointments…a painful state of mind is created when people judge themselves as inadequate.”

He’s right, self-blame is a common but unproductive reaction to the changing times.  Self-criticism can make us depressed.

As I often say, we can’t control many of the factors that affect farming profitability, but we can control how we behave in the face of uncertainty and its associated stress.  We control our behaviors that yield health, like exercise, sleep and prayer habits, business planning and how we treat those we love.

We govern whether we allow negative thoughts to key us up and positive thoughts to calm us. 

Stressful times make us reflect.   We can ask: What is most important in life?

A farming friend said this: “After chasing the dollar for 50 years, I ask what is more important–building an empire, or service to my fellow man.  I have concluded the latter will be ultimately judged.”  He added that the things that really matter in life can’t be bought, like one’s reputation and integrity.

Maintaining optimal health, safety and positive relationships with loved ones are more important than maximizing financial profitability.  It’s beneficial to share the uncertainty and discussion of adjustment options with those we love, especially with those we hope will follow in our footsteps.

Market corrections to the uncertainties will gradually emerge and the farmers who continue to be viable will be able to capitalize on the next run of profitability. 

We can’t predict with certainty how the different facets of agriculture will fare as economic enterprises but we can control our motives and daily behaviors.  Hang tough.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.