Farmers stressed as virus outbreak drags on - Paycheck

Farmers stressed as virus outbreak drags on

   Many farmers believe in being eternal optimists. Technology woes, mental health issues and fluctuating commodity prices have optimists feeling saddened this year. But farmers are looking to the future for hope, better prices and fewer sources of stress.

   “We have to remember that farmers and agribusinesses are no different than any other business with people and families concerned over the virus itself,” said Ben Huber, certified crop advisor with Insight FS of Monroe, Wisconsin.

   Technological difficulties have been central to the struggles of farmers during this year’s corona virus outbreak. Even though the lack of high-speed internet service is an ongoing issue for farmers, it has been highlighted this year.

   “Many farms do not have access to the internet speed or the technology to effectively communicate electronically through services like Teams or Zoom,” Huber said.

   Mental health concerns have also been heightened by the virus outbreak. Jeff Ditzenberger of Argyle, Wisconsin operates a mental health non-profit called TUGS (Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting). He said the virus is in farmers’ faces every day all day and it’s beginning to wear on them.

   “There’s no escape from the virus and its effects,” he said. “It’s what consumes everything that’s going on these days and it’s a lot to handle.”

   Farmers have always had to deal with pressure from consumers to do better on their farms, treat their animals well, produce products that are safe and healthy to eat and help educate the public. That pressure results in anger, hatred and animosity.

   “Then you compound all that with the debate over wearing a mask, and how you’re a jerk if you don’t wear a mask and you’re a hero if you do,” Ditzenberger said. “I remind people that we’re all humans at the end of the day. Nobody wants to die or give somebody else a disease or be called a murderer.”

   He said it’s important to be available to family, friends and neighbors when those people are going through a crisis or simply need a listening ear. Most people just want to hear that everything will be alright, and that’s what the agricultural world wants to hear most right now he said.

   “Hope is a pretty important, powerful thing, and man, I’ll you what, we need a lot of it right now,” he said.

   Ditzenberger said he is thankful more people are willing and able to discuss their mental health issues. When so many factors play into mental wellbeing for farmers, it’s tough to work through all those issues while also operating a farm and keeping up with family.

   “I think the bright spot in all this is that we are finally getting about two percent of the population to talk about mental health,” he said. “Previously it was one percent, and to me, that’s really important.”

   He suggests people simply be kind to each other. This year, he recommends people be more accepting and understanding of people with different views on hot button issues such as wearing masks, politics and racial justice issues.

   “If you want to make a difference, be the difference,” he said. “Sometimes in order to be the difference, all you need to do is be kind.”

   Commodity prices have experienced extremes this year as a result of the virus outbreak. Although they’re rebounding some over the last few weeks, farmers have struggled with the unknown of what’s happening next and how to cope with the fallout of the price swings.

   “Markets often fall as fast or faster than they rise,” Huber said. “The price uncertainty and volatility is a real challenge in ag in any year but the pandemic really threw commodities into a tailspin. It’s very difficult to run any business when your gross revenue level can fluctuate like that.”

   Mike Wenger, dairy and crop farmer south of Brodhead, Wisconsin, said late in 2019 farmers were excited for a good year ahead because of higher prices. But when the virus outbreak happened, the good prices fell.

   “The bank always wants to know a farm’s cash flow for the upcoming year but they won’t tell us their best guess on a milk price,” he said. “If we estimate too low, the farm doesn’t cash flow and if we estimate too high, it looks good but is unrealistic. This happens every year but was certainly more extreme this year.”

   Like many farmers, Wenger is grateful for the corona virus relief programs from the federal government but said he does not want to rely on financial aid from the government. He believes each year will be different; perhaps next year, there won’t be any aid at all, he said.

   Brodhead-area cash crop farmer Roger Markham has been monitoring the Chicago Board of Trade daily since 1973. As a former hog farmer and current crop farmer, he puts stock in knowing and understanding the value of the markets.

   “If you’re not doing a good job with your marketing plan, you’re forced to think about how much that sucks for you,” Markham said.

   The virus outbreak gave farmers opportunities to make money in the market because when people were forced to stay home, the markets fell, he said. Farmers could sell sooner than planned and pick up some extra money per bushel on commodities like corn, beans and wheat.

   “Back when I started farming in 1958, my dad said in order to be successful, I had to remember two things:  family and I sell whatever I raise, and if I do a good job selling, I’ll be a successful farmer,” he said.

   Huber said farmers are always working to be better at managing price risk. But many of those helpful management tools can be expensive or limiting.

   “In the future, I see farmers with the ability to manage market risk being the people able to better withstand the volatility in the market,” he said. “How that risk is managed will be different in almost every operation.”

Mary Hookham

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