The spring calving season is underway, which is typically a time farmers and ranchers have to watch their backs for cows when checking out the fresh farm additions. But the farming economy has brought many more concerns to the table as farmers in our region plan for another growing season with a low outlook.
A recent University of Minnesota report shows that in 2018, Minnesota's farmers saw the lowest income in the last 23 years.
Mike and Shanna Tuinstra, who farm north of Verndale are aware of the risks of farming and agree that 2018 was the worst they've been through since they started farming full-time about 13 years ago.
A part of supplementing Mike's family's income involves hauling harvested grains and hay during the winter months. He enjoys this work, too, as it allows him time to chat with his fellow farmers and hear what they're going through.
"Everybody is in the same boat," he said.
Just west of Wadena, Bruce Richter, is heading into his 41st year on his dairy farm. In addition to milking cows, he and his family have some beef and small grains to boot. Having a diversified business usually helps, but in recent years, prices have been low across the board. He agrees that 2018 was one of the worst.
While the crop, dairy and beef farmers in the area are all seeing lower prices per bushel, hundredweight and head, the input costs are not going down, Tuinstra adds.
"That's the biggest scare for all of us," Tuinstra said.
The stresses related to major financial losses, fear of what political changes may bring to the industry and the ever-present need to work, regardless of knowing if the work will earn money, are all issues that are weighing heavily on farmers. It's a physical, mental and emotional drain.
Yet, just like they have the past few years, the Tuinstras were out promoting ag in the schools last week through a program administered by the Wadena County Farm Bureau.
They speak to kids throughout the county about planting their own gardens and growing something on their own. They teach them about where their fruits, vegetables and meats come from and about those farmers responsible for filling their plates. Amongst the struggles of farming, Tuinstra was able to get a good laugh from a recent school visit where a student excitedly told his parents how he got to meet "a real life farmer."
At a time when there are not many financial positives in the farming industry, the Tuinstras devote their days to sharing their love for the life anyway. According to Mike, because of the investments they've made, and the life they enjoy on the farm, they won't be calling it quits in this little lull.
"You do it because you love it," Tuinstra said. "When you love it, it makes it worthwhile."
They won't stop promoting the good life of farming either. Afterall, it's not like it was in the Dust Bowl era.
"It's just a matter of riding out the waves," Mike said. "You hope the waves are not too bad, not too long."
An illustration came to mind for Tuinstra who recalled a speaker answer a farmer who wondered what they could do different to survive. The speaker said if they've been surviving for 50 years on the farm, they are obviously doing something right. In a low year, it might be best to just keep doing what you've done and weather the storm.
Richter, like Tuinstra, knows that there are risks in the job and many factors driving against the farmer. Insurance may not cover all the natural disasters that can strike. Government regulations don't always look out for the best interests of the farmer. The market is as predictable as a cow around her new calf.
Richter, who was preparing for evening chores Monday with his son Chris, said they've seen highs and lows in the industry over the years. What concerned him was the change of longevity. While it used to be one good year, a bad year and a break even year here and there, now the low years are lasting several years. That trend is pushing many younger farmers out that don't have the assets or equity that a farmer like Richter has acquired.
It's that built up value over time and the fact that he's now 65, that give him reason to stick it out.
"Just do the best you can with what you got," Richter said.
Tuinstra echoed that sentiment.
"Keep doing what you know you're good at," he said. "Do something that you know how to do and do it well."
While the emotional strain is clearly pulling on many in the industry, Richter and his son said they can still laugh. Bruce joked how you know it's bad when the inspector stops by to look over your operation and leaves you a suicide hotline number. While RIchter said it's not a concern for him, he recognizes the mental health concerns many farmers have are real in this difficult season.
While both farmers were planning to hold out the storm, they both shared concerns over the growth of big farms that were pushing out small family farms little by little. They also voiced a general disconnect between the state government and the farm.