Editor’s note: This is the third part in our series on the state of ag as we round the corner into 2021. Previously, we asked regional ag banking experts about the trends they saw this past year and the impact of COVID-19. Up next: low commodity prices and what’s ahead in 2021.
With pressure already exerted by years of low commodity prices, trade uncertainties and pandemic complications, farmers and ranchers in the central states faced a year of difficulties in 2020. Weather varied across the region, and Iowa notably endured the effects of a derecho storm in August that caused billions in damage.
These stressors all contributed to an increased focus on the mental wellbeing of farmers, ranchers and even the bankers who serve them.
How have weather-related disasters impacted agriculture?
Kent Thiesse, senior vice president/senior ag loan officer, MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, Minn.: “The tight profit margins in agriculture do not leave much room for serious weather-related disasters, such as the derecho storm that hit Iowa and surrounding states in mid-August. Southern Minnesota had a very poor crop in 2019 due to late planting and poor growing conditions. Crop yields were well below average in many areas, which, together with continued low commodity prices, resulted in an increasing number of farm operations facing financial difficulty as they headed into 2020. Fortunately, 2019 crop insurance payments, together with the other direct government payments … helped farm operators financially survive the challenging crop year in 2019. Good crop insurance coverage is a “must” for a sound risk management plan in crop production today.”
Powell Becker, branch president Stockman Bank, Stanford, Mont.: “Overall, we have been pretty fortunate in central Montana; weather has been good, although we have experienced a dry period these last 60 to 90 days. The impact of a lack of moisture is always a concern, especially for winter wheat seeding and subsoil moisture for next spring.”
Darla Sikora, senior vice president/ag loan officer, Citizens State Bank of Loyal, Wis.: “In 2020, one bright star has been the weather. … [It] brought near-perfect weather for planting, growing and harvesting. This is welcome relief. … Since the majority of our customers grow crops to feed their livestock, when crops do not produce it means farmers have to spend money to purchase feedstuffs, which further drives up their cost of production.”
Ryan Cox, vice president/ag banking manager, CBI Bank & Trust, Muscatine, Iowa: “While we had a much better planting season this year, we have experienced three significant wind events here in eastern Iowa and western Illinois, including the Aug. 10 derecho that flattened several thousand acres of corn. Some corn that was not flattened was still damaged by the wind to some degree, which will also negatively impact yields — and likely profitability.”
Shan Hanes, president and CEO, Heartland Tri-State Bank, Elkhart, Kan.: “We endured an extended drought at the end of 2019 through 2020. So, the disaster was the lack of moisture to grow normal crops. In a larger perspective, the disasters cut production which was positive for commodity prices. However, with shutdowns of many industries, the demand side also shrank considerably. Thus, the entire chain was disrupted.”
Eric Fawcett, president, Bippus State Bank, Huntington, Ind.: “For our farmers, who mainly grow corn, beans and wheat, the past five years have been affected primarily by spring rainfall, which has delayed planting and could affect yields. We have not seen what I would call a disaster, but with large amounts of rainfall, soil erosion for farmers can be a concern. We saw a shift in our weather patterns which has led to a shortened time for farmers to plant in the spring and harvest in the fall.”
Are you seeing a rise in mental health issues on the farm?
Sikora: “With so much uncertainty and volatility in agriculture, understandably comes fear, and perhaps even panic. The phone calls and customer conversations of “where-to-from-here” have definitely increased this year. All hope, however, is not lost. When our farm families work together to analyze their individual situations, and there are absolutely no two farms alike, they can and do develop new strategies to implement and execute to help forge through these challenging times. There are any number of ways to improve a farm’s financials which can definitely lead to fewer mental health issues.”
Thiesse: “Farm stress and mental health issues, along with farm safety, have been an increased concern on the farm and in ag lending in the past couple of years. Most ag lenders know their customers very well and try to work with them within their means to help guide them through these stressful times. There are also many very good free resources available to assist farm families and to help address serious farm stress situations. In some instances, the added personal stress of the difficult ag economy can also affect ag lenders and their families.”