Spring is the most hopeful season in agriculture. American farmers move into their fields to fertilize and plant. But this year, hope seems in short supply.
Instead, a general gloom has set in across the Midwest. Low crop prices, increasing workloads, growing dependence on farm subsidies, and an uncertain future have created the general ennui. Rarely have farmers endured hard times for so long and with so little prospect for improvement.
In Washington, congressional leaders have agreed on a mammoth farm bill that with a 70 percent increase in agricultural spending should help producers' pocketbooks a little, but does nothing for their self-esteem. Many farmers dislike the huge subsidies that prop up the agricultural economy. In coming years, however, they may have to lean even more heavily on federal largesse.
"I used to look forward to going out" and planting, says Robert Reed, a farmer from Nebo, Ill. But "I think the joy has gone out of farming." That may explain why on a sunny April day ideal for field work, he sits instead in a windowless room of the county Farm Bureau office here in Springfield. Over sandwiches and Doritos, he and a handful of Illinois producers are preparing testimony for the state natural resources department. They hope to ease state limits on deer-hunting so they can rent out their farms to sport hunters.
It's one way farmers are diversifying out of agriculture in order ironically to stay on the farm.
Don Stephen, a Monticello, Ill., farmer who runs a hunting preserve on the side, says the preserve "is the difference between me going to town and finding a $10-an-hour job or being able to stay in my [farming] business."
Indeed, almost everywhere one looks in farming today, the future looks unpromising. Crop prices have scraped bottom for so long no one sees much prospect for a rebound. Here in Illinois, farmers are marking the 45th straight month of low corn and soybean prices, notes Darrel Good, an agricultural extension economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana. "This is the longest period of low prices since the 1960s."
The low prices, in turn, have made farmers unusually dependent on government subsidies. "Unfortunately, in the past three years, all the profit has come from government payments," says Jim Gay, a Rockport, Ill., farmer. "And I think everyone's depressed about this situation."
Farmers' self-esteem took another blow last fall, when an environmental group launched a website showing exactly how much federal largesse each producer was receiving. The Environmental Working Group wanted to publicize how unequal the system was, since the top 10 percent of producers were getting two-thirds of the subsidies. Farmers and rural businessmen flocked to the site to find out exactly how much money their neighbors were getting.
"You just couldn't avoid checking," says Mr. Gay, who admits he was embarrassed at the publication of his own subsidies. But "in some respects, they are helping us to reevaluate where we are."
The prognosis: Not good. As families have seen farm income fall, some have taken jobs in town. Others have expanded their agricultural operations in the hope that more volume would make ends meet.
But the work has taken an emotional toll. There's "less time for family, less time to enjoy the intrinsic values of farming," says Paul Lasley, a sociology professor at Iowa State University in Ames.
In the 1980s, the last time agriculture lurched into crisis, many farmers did anything they could to stay on the farm. This time, farmers and agricultural observers find that producers are more likely to change careers.
When he surveyed Iowa farmers two years ago, only 12 percent thought the farm economy would improve in the next five years. "The 2000 findings were the most pessimistic that we've ever seen" of the 1980s, he says.
On Friday, congressional conferees reached a compromise farm bill from rival versions already passed by the House and Senate. It would raise federal farm spending by $73.5 billion over 10 years. The deal, which still needs formal House and Senate approval, includes slight increases in corn and wheat subsidies, a national program to help dairymen, and record spending on farm conservation programs. But conservation, in particular, cuts both ways.
Once seen as stewards of the land who would feed a hungry world, farmers have increasingly come under attack for everything from hog odors to fertilizer runoff that pollutes the rivers.
"This is the first time in the history of this continent that agriculture isn't seen as a public good," says Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
The trick for policymakers will be to restructure agriculture, he adds, so it can provide for rural families while meeting the needs and values of the 21st century.