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Other view: Rain on the scarecrow, again

May 19, 2019

When Pine Island, Minn., dairy farmer Mark Berg posted a video online in early April in which he gave an emotional soliloquy about the condition of his industry, the heartening thing was that it went viral. People paid attention.

As well they should have, in Minnesota especially. Though the state’s population is predominantly urban and suburban, many citizens have personal connections to agriculture, and even if not, economic ones. So it’s worth noting that farm problems that have been mounting for several years are compounding — in surrounding states as well — and that the effects will ripple.

Median income for Minnesota farmers in 2018 was already at a 23-year low, and 34% of farming operations lost money, according to data tracked by the University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota State system. Meanwhile, debt held by American farmers has risen to levels last seen in the 1980s, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told a congressional committee in February.

Underlying causes vary by the commodity, but the matter boils down to declining prices. Of particular concern is the trade war with China and the threat of others. One western Minnesota farmer said at a State Capitol event that foreign markets for corn and soybeans that took decades to develop have eroded under Trump administration policies.

Not a problem, declared President Donald Trump about the trade situation via Twitter, suggesting that additional subsidies and vague market-making are on the way, along with victory. As always with this administration, it’s difficult to know what to make of blithe assertions. Support for farmers is as likely to come from existing federal and state programs or, as one legislative proposal would offer if it finds its way into end-of-session negotiations, mental health counseling.

Adding to the concern has been a wet spring that has left planting in Minnesota as much as two weeks behind five-year averages. That could cut yields or force some farmers to switch to faster-maturing crops even if there is diminished demand for them.

Uncertainty is inherent in agriculture, and “farm crisis” is a phrase not uttered widely since the 1980s, when high interest rates for loans and a collapse in land values were added pressures. Amid problems inflicted by natural forces and otherwise, however, the prognosis begins to become imaginable.

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