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The natural limits of optimism

HighwayStarz/iStock/Thinkstock stressed man with counselor
TOUGH TIMES: Stress is on the rise on the farm.
Suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average and could be higher because some farm suicides are masked as farm-related accidents.

In the annual testimony to the 'still-optimistic-against-all-odds' attitude of farmers, the U.S. was on target for a possible record-setting corn production year. Enough corn had been planted, despite uncertainty in world trade and the slow strangulation of price supports for ethanol production, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was predicting 15 billion bushels would be harvested 15 billion. That's Billion with a Capital 'B.'

And then the Derecho hit Eastern Iowa just as farmers were planning a massive mid-September harvest and just a few weeks after a huge hail storm had already delivered a deadly punch to thousands of acres of corn and soy. Here is the Wikipedia definition of the storm:  A derecho is a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms known as a mesoscale convective system and potentially rivaling hurricanic and tornadic forces.

Potentially rivaling? No. It fully lived up to its worst across an area that stretched from Des Moines to the Illinois border and set Cedar Rapids at the center of Biblical devastation. Winds, rain and hail damaged two of Iowa's most important crops. Hog production took a hard hit, too.

Empty silos were flattened by straight-line winds estimated to have hit more than 120 mph, putting the Derecho between a category 2 and 3 hurricane.  A cat 2 features very dangerous winds of up to 110 mph that produce some damage: "Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap, and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days."

A cat 3 produces extremely dangerous winds of up to 129 mph that will cause extensive damage: "Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks."

Just two days after the storm, I drove along the I-80 corridor running through the heart of Iowa's farmland. The scene was of war-like devastation. I traveled East to West from the Illinois border to Des Moines before turning South to Kansas City.  At first, just small spots of corn looked to be damaged. As I got nearer to Des Moines, though, slightly West of Iowa City, I saw thousands of acres of downed corn, some of it barely standing, a lot of it was flattened, most of it unharvestable.

But even the legendary optimism of America's farmers has its limits. Farmers in the region were looking at hard-to-calculate losses. Most would lick their wounds, collect what little government aid was offered, and live to plant another day. But too many wouldn't survive. The lucky ones would sell their land and walk away; others might be considering the worst of choices – suicide.  It has been a consistent scourge in agriculture, giving the profession one of the highest rates among all pursuits.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports the suicide rate among ag workers (ages 16-64) has jumped 40% since 2000. Suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average and could be higher because some farm suicides are masked as farm-related accidents.

USA Today said, "More than 450 farmers killed themselves across nine Midwestern states from 2014 to 2018. Meanwhile, calls to Farm Aid's crisis hotline soar."

The reason? There are many, but a leading cause is a future clouded by climate change and an economy whipsawed by tariffs and bailouts. It has caused U.S. farmers to carry near-record debt. They're declaring bankruptcy at rising rates, forcing them to sell their farms and sacrificing their sometimes generations-long legacy.

The CDC found several other reasons why suicide rates among farmers and those who live in rural areas, in general, are higher than their urban counterparts. Access to mental health is more sporadic, rural populations tend to earn less, and overall health factors tend to be lower in rural areas. And lurking underneath it all is their stoic desire to 'take care of things themselves.'

USA Today published this key graphic to help explain the rapid series of gut punches aimed at agriculture:

"No one economic crisis takes full blame. Instead, a cascade of events has plagued farmers in recent years: 

  • Key commodity prices have plummeted by about 50% since 2012. 
  • Farm debt jumped by about a third since 2007, to levels last seen in the 1980s. 
  • Bad weather prevented farmers from planting nearly 20 million acres in 2019 alone.
  • U.S. soybean exports to China dropped 75 percent from 2017 to 2018 amid festering trade tension."

There is help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. Text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

Farm Aid can connect you to helpful resources in your area. You can call the farmer hotline and speak with someone Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern time. The number is (800) FARM-AID / (800) 327-6243.

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