America recently celebrated National Farmer Day, a day of praise for the farmers who work tirelessly to feed our communities.
But the mood across the countryside is far from celebratory.
Commodity prices remain low. Farm bankruptcies are rising. Trade disputes have tightened important export markets. Farmers are even battling adverse weather again – with record early snowfall in the northern plains.
Just last week, the Federal Reserve reported in their October “Beige Book” the dismal news that agricultural conditions have “deteriorated further due to the ongoing impacts of adverse weather, weak commodity prices, and trade disruptions.”
Brian Thalmann, farmer and chairman of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, recently spoke with Groundwork about these persistent challenges and others facing farmers as they head into the harvest season.
Thalmann is a 5th generation farmer from South Central Minnesota. Three generations of the Thalmann family are now farming corn and soybeans on the same property their ancestors first settled 142 years ago.
Spring weather was the first indicator for Thalmann that 2019 would be yet another difficult year for farming. Any semblance of a normal planting schedule was swept away with torrential spring rains and the resulting floods. Crops normally in the ground by mid-May were not planted until June in some cases, Thalmann said.
And crop prices have been trending downward for several years, making farmers question when they will ever rebound.
“You’re just stacking one uncertainty upon another,” Thalmann said. “Costs for everything, especially equipment and so on, and repairs and parts, you know, keeps going up. So, the farmer continues to get a little more squeezed year after year after year.”
The decision to renegotiate several trade agreements cut off exports to key markets and introduced additional uncertainty.
As Farm Policy Facts previously reported, farmers appreciated the Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments issued to farm producers in response to the loss of export markets but as Thalmann noted, these payments were just a “band-aid on a pretty big wound.”
“Every one of my neighbors are going to say they would like to get the revenue for their farm operation from the market,” Thalmann said.
However, hope springs eternal in the heartland, and farmers see a positive path forward with the signing of an agreement with Japan; what looks like very substantial progress in talks with China (note: the President’s $50 billion deal with China was announced later in the afternoon on the same day the podcast was recorded); and the passage of USMCA on the horizon.
“The certainty of having the USMCA agreement signed is huge,” Thalmann emphasized. “There’s certain segments of the ag industry that are going to see some stronger gains.”
The United States sends nearly 30 percent of all of our farm and food exports to Canada and Mexico. These are valuable relationships that must be preserved. As Thalmann notes, farmers would like to ensure that “we have continued relations for years to come with our neighbors.”
Biofuels made from corn have also been a large factor in the demand for corn. But biofuels have been struggling, affected by several factors including waivers granted under the Renewable Fuel Standard.
In September, Governor of Minnesota Tim Walz visited Thalmann’s farm to announce the creation of the Minnesota Biofuels Council, tasked with promoting the use of biofuels in the state. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association is also investing in research through the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council in order to find new uses for corn-derived products, such as ethanol or nutrient-rich livestock feed, and keep the industry moving forward.
They will certainly keep moving forward. Because even in the face of incredible adversity, rural America is resilient.
And we will always stand by our farmers.