As a fourth-generation farmer watching his sons and their peers face many of the same struggles his generation of farmers faced and as President of South Dakota’s largest general agriculture organization, Doug Sombke has often wondered how bad things would need to get for family farmers and ranchers before positive policy change happens.
“It seems things have to get really, really bad before they get better. And that is what we are seeing today,” he explains.
In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic brought national attention to challenges facing family farmers and ranchers that S.D. Farmers Union has focused on for years:
• Congressional leaders from South Dakota and other agriculture states are calling for mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL) and other truth in labeling policies.
• A Department of Justice investigation into packer price fixing is underway.
• The National Farmers Union filed suit recently challenging the EPA’s Safer Affordable Fuel Efficiency Vehicle Rule (SAFER) which fails to credibly consider and advance mid-level ethanol fuel blends as an alternative to conventional fuels.
• Tele-medicine, including tele-mental health services, are currently covered by most insurance companies.
Although the wheels of change are in motion, now is not the time to sit back and watch from the sidelines. Sombke says now is a time for unity. “We need to stop focusing on what divides us and come together and speak with a unified voice,” he explains.
Sen. Mike Rounds shares a similar message. “The vast majority of good legislation that is passed, is passed with broad support from people on both sides of the aisle.”
Rounds points to the collaborative work he is doing with senators from both parties and states across the nation to support cattle producers’ need for MCOOL, truth in labeling and fair markets. “We won’t survive if we don’t stick together,” Rounds explains. “What we’re seeing in the market today, the competition is so intense, and this is a worldwide market, we’re competing with producers from across the world and I don’t want to see our cattle producers lose their way of life. I don’t want to see farm families lose their way of life. I know that different farm organizations come from different political backgrounds and in some cases, have different philosophies about what the direction is to go. But we’re in a crisis stage right now. It’s time to come together and form a united front.” A united front lays the foundation for positive change, explains Larry Pearce, Executive Director of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition. “We don’t get anything significant done unless we come to an agreement,” says Pearce, of what he has seen accomplished when governors from 21 states come together and work toward the common goal to increase use of renewable fuels and improve air quality.
Nearly 40 years ago, ethanol was a novel idea, S.D. Farmers Union supported because of the local market and economic development it could provide to not only farmers, but their rural communities. The organization worked tirelessly to unite farmers, communities, political leaders and other agriculture groups around ethanol.
In recent years, the organization began spearheading another new idea because of its potential to help farmers better manage grain inventory, improve soil health and increase profits. The idea comes from Craig Blindert, a Salem crop and livestock farmer who also works as an independent crop insurance agent.
Calling upon his expertise and experience in crop insurance and his lifelong interest in following ag marketing trends, Blindert developed an incentive-based, voluntary, crop insurance plan to protect farmers against market lows by encouraging farmers to cut back on production by taking marginal acres out of production when commodity markets drop. The plan is called Inventory Management Soil Enhancement Tool (IMSET).
“It seems that about every 30 years or so, we end up seeing a big boom in agriculture; followed by a bust that keeps markets soft for about 10 to 20 years,” Blindert says. “This plan would keep the grain price high enough that the government doesn’t have to protect farmers from low prices, and we don’t have to be at the mercy of the farm bill.”
To ensure IMSET was a solid idea, Blindert together with S.D. Farmers Union asked agriculture economists and researchers from North Dakota State University to test it. Based on preliminary models, it is shown to work. Together with SDFU and National Farmers Union, Blindert shared IMSET with representatives from the Risk Management Agency.
IMSET would work something like this: If you take 1 percent of your corn acres out of production, then you receive a 1 percent increase on your crop insurance price. Here is one example: $4 spring price with a maximum buyup at $4.40, so you could take out 10 percent of your crop production and receive a $4.40 insurance price. This could be used on all crops. It would only be used during periods of low prices, and up to the individual farmer.
“Farmers are in the position where they are price takers, not price makers. It’s among our biggest challenges,” Sombke explains. “We need a fair market system.”
By working together, individual farmers, like Blindert, can work for positive change. To learn how SDFU collaborates with others to support of South Dakota’s family farmers and ranchers, visit www.sdfu.org.
You Are Not Alone
The many challenges facing farmers and ranchers are taking a toll. “Farmers right now, are under more stress than they have ever been. They have zero control over everything that has made them money in the past. No control over markets, livestock prices, weather or ethanol. Every single thing that has made money before is taking a hit right now,” explains Franne Sippel, an Aberdeen farm wife and licensed psychologist with Northern Plains Psychological Associates.
She says this is no time to go it alone. “In South Dakota we have a very high suicide rate among farmers. I have been married to a farmer for 30 years, so I understand how individualistic, hardworking and proud farmers are. It is not easy or natural for them to reach out for help,” Sippel explains. “Farmers are really good at reaching out to experts like agronomists or mechanics. Add mental health experts as another tool in your toolbox to help you be a successful farmer.”
Insurance coverage (by most companies) of tele-medicine due to the COVID-19 pandemic makes it easier than ever to reach out for help. “There is more privacy-no having to sit in a waiting room. And they can pull over in the tractor and not waste time,” Sippel says.
Left untreated, anxiety and depression not only impacts the farmer or rancher, but their family as well. Along with suicide, Sippel says she and her peers are seeing an uptick in divorce.
“When faced with depression or anxiety, men are likely to withdraw from others and be angry. A mental health professional can help provide coping tools for the farmer and/or the couple. Such tools may help save a marriage or a relationship with another family member involved in the farming operation. Dealing with business and family can be very difficult.”
As many farm organizations work to provide their members with information about mental health resources, Sippel calls on individual farmers and ranchers who have received help with anxiety or depression to share their story with neighbors and friends. “The stigma is pretty strong. It would help if some brave farmers would step forward and share how they were helped.”
To connect with a mental health professional, reach out to the Farmer & Rural Stress Hotline, 1-800-691-4336. If your insurance company will not cover telehealth, Sippel says some clinics, like Northeastern Mental Health Center, have grants to help cover costs.