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Midwest Today, Spring 1999

C 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 Farm Bureau.

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 prices.

Economists don't expect things to get better for farmers any time soon.

"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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