ST. PAUL -- President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Saturday, Dec. 1, pumped the brakes on the next round of tariffs, delaying what farmers fear will be another blow.
The news helped Minnesota farmers breathe a sigh of relief over the weekend. But advocates worry the calm won’t last.
The pause in the tit-for-tat tariff fights comes after a fifth in-a-row year of low commodity prices. The 2018 harvest also brought low yields and inclement weather, a mix that forced some to sell the farm or weigh filing for bankruptcy.
And the financial strains are taking an emotional toll on producers, advocates say.
Now, farmer advocacy groups plan to offer financial and mental health resources to producers struggling after this year’s harvest. And they said they’ll ask the Minnesota Legislature for additional help next month.
Farm bankruptcies rise as commodity prices fall
Farmers held out hope on Saturday that Trump could strike a deal with China to ease the pain of tariffs. And the 90-day delay in implementing an additional set of tariffs, originally scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, signaled a step in the right direction, advocates said.
“It was better than a sharp stick in the eye,” Minnesota Farmers Union Government Relations Director Thom Petersen said Tuesday. “It’s welcome news that they’re talking.”
He said soybean farmers hope they’ll be able to sell at least part of their crops this year, though the existing 25-percent Chinese tariff makes that tougher than in years past.
Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said producers were also glad to see Trump and his counterparts from Canada and Mexico sign onto a trade deal set to replace NAFTA.
“I think people are feeling better because we have our close neighbors,” Paap said. “Our North American neighborhood is in better shape than it was six months ago.”
Despite the advances in trade negotiations, Petersen and Paap said farmers were grappling with the realities of a set of tough circumstances at home. Low commodity prices, bad weather, tariffs and low yields teed up an especially difficult harvest.
“In the past, we busheled our way out of it,” Paap said, explaining that high yields in years past helped level out low commodity prices.
But that sort of saving grace of high yields fell through this year, Petersen said.
“This year, the yields were just not as good. People were eating into their equity that they had saved up over the years from the good years and then we’re not moving our product like we could because of the tariffs,” Petersen said. “So you’re getting hit with a lot of whammies right now.”
Those whammies likely will boost the number of farm bankruptcies filed in the state, Ron Wirtz, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said. Wirtz penned an analysis that shows farm bankruptcies in Minnesota and the surrounding region are on the rise.
Eighty-four farmers in the five-state region covering Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy between June of 2017 and June of 2018, according to Wirtz’s report.
That figure is twice the total seen in June of 2014. Of those 84 filings, 20 were in Minnesota.
Chapter 12 allows family farmers or family fishermen to file bankruptcy and set a three to five-year plan to settle their debts.
As long as commodity prices stay where they are, bankruptcy filings are likely to grow, Wirtz said.
“I don’t see any reason why this would pivot,” Wirtz said.
Support as farmers reel from tough harvest
Farming organizations and the University of Minnesota Extension have opened up free resources to help farmers navigate trying times, but farming advocates say the state needs to put more funding into mental health programs and loan assistance.
Funding for additional mental health resources was part of a 2018 omnibus budget proposal that was vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Advocates said they’ll make their ask of the Minnesota Legislature when lawmakers reconvene for the 2019 session in January. But for now, they’re inviting farmers to reach out to Extension for free financial counseling, legal assistance, farmer-lender mediation resources and mental health counseling.
If nothing else, Kevin Klair, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota Extension, said they should talk to a friend or a loved one about what they’re going through.
“A lot of us - particularly in agriculture - when times get tough, we withdraw, don’t talk as much to our family members, to our potential partners or ... whoever it might be that you tend to communicate with about some of this stuff,” Klair said. “Talking about it might help you understand it better but also deal with the situation better.”
Extension is also holding an educational seminar for farmers Friday in Sauk Centre titled Farming in Tough Times.
Resources for farmers:
Mental health and stress management support
Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline - (833) 600-2670 x 1
The helpline is free, confidential and available 24/7. Trained staff and volunteers in Minnesota can help manage stress, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
Mental Health and Family Services Line - 1-800-FARM-AID
Farm Aid works with farm advocates, counselors and hotline operators that can help provide support.
Ted Matthews, rural mental health counselor - (320) 266-2390
Ted Matthews works with farmers across the entire state. There is no cost to accessing support from Matthews.
Mental Health Minnesota - text "MN" to 741741
You can text the service to reach mental health crisis responders.
Free financial counseling from Extension
If you or a farmer you know is experiencing financial stress, contact the Farm Information Line at 1-800-232-9077 to set up a financial counseling session.
Minnesota Farm Advocates - "Farmers Helping Farmers" - 1-800-967-2474
Farm Advocates provide one-to-one assistance for Minnesota farmers who face crisis caused by either a natural disaster or financial problems.
The Minnesota Family Farm Law Project - 1-800-233-4534
The project provides legal assistance to financially distressed family farmers in Minnesota in conjunction with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) offices. Services are free or provided at reduced cost to eligible farmers.
Farmers’ Legal Action Group Inc. - 1-877-860-4349
FLAG is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing legal services to family farmers and their rural communities in order to help keep family farmers on the land.
Mary Nell Preisler, Director of Farmer Lender Mediation - (218) 935-5785