Midwest Today, Spring 1999
O U N T R Y l C H R O N I C L E
Bountiful Crops Mean Hard Time for Farmers
Asian economic woes have impact on Heartland
America's breadbasket is overflowing, thanks to bumper crops last
Fall from Midwest farms. But economic troubles in Asia are depressing
prices, causing a financial crisis for the nation's farmers, many
of whom are struggling to survive.
Low prices for Elmer Zarndt's corn and soybeans cut his income
by half in 1998.
"Compared to '97, somewhere around $27,000," he says
as he prepares his tax return for filing this Spring.
That has forced the Illinois farmer to look for work to make ends
meet. "I am working for two other farmers right now, when
I'm free to help them out," Zarndt said.
Corn prices have been hit hard, plunging more than 50% from their
peak two years ago. Prices for soybeans also have dropped, nearly
40% in the past year and a half. Prices for wheat and livestock
have plummeted. Hog prices have fallen to a 30-year low.
One big reason for the declines: Asia is not buying as much U.S.
grain and pork as it used to.
"When the Asian economies caught the flu, the Illinois agricultural
economy caught pneumonia," explains Ron Warfield of the Illinois
And then there's the political factor. Two years ago, Congress
gave farmers the freedom they demanded. Now they can grow as much
as they want, and some say that is increasing supply and hurting
Economists don't expect things to get better for farmers any time
"When I started out in the mid '70s, it looked like farming
was something to really get rich on," said Jerry Henningfeld.
Henningfeld's 900 acres in Wauconda, Illinois, aren't making him
rich these days. Henningfeld is storing some of his corn and soybeans,
hoping prices rise in the months ahead.
"Farmers are the eternal optimists. We're always hoping prices
are going to be better and yields will be good," said Henningfeld.
"It's like being a Cubs fan -- there's always next year."
Henningfeld says he's cutting costs and struggling through, but
he's not ready to give up. However, Zarndt says one more bad year
and he will quit farming.
Economists don't expect the situation to get better soon.
In Nebraska, there are fears that financial problems are driving
farmers to suicides -- carefully disguised as farm accidents so
families can collect life insurance benefits.
"I have received calls from people who are up against the
wall financially and have explained in great detail how they are
going to run themselves into a combine," said John Hansen,
president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
A hot line established by Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska has
received twice as many suicidal calls just since August, as they
did in the previous six years.
"Our call numbers shot up when people began to realize this
summer that the farm prices were not going to come around,"
said Michelle Soll, a farmer's wife who helps answer the hot line,
which was established during the 1980s farm crisis.
"Some say "I could make a lot more for my wife if she
had my life insurance instead of me,'" Soll said. "I
have to keep reminding them that that is not for a long-term solution."
Hansen said he has heard of at least four possible farm suicides
this year in Nebraska.
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