Amid tariffs and floods, a farmer finds hope in the next crop of Kansans

Why We Wrote This

In a sector facing its worst downturn since the 1980s, farmer Glenn Brunkow has been heartened by the next generation’s desire to serve. Part 3 in a summer series on people who are facing – and successfully navigating – America’s most intractable challenges.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Glenn Brunkow, a farmer outside Manhattan, Kansas, looks over his flock of lambs on a cold March morning. Facing tariffs, low crop prices, and an agricultural downturn, he is still dedicated to helping raise a new generation of farmers.

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It was January when Glenn Brunkow’s best friend from kindergarten called to say Mr. Brunkow’s hay shed had collapsed on the combine and grain trucks he had stored there. They had to wait until mid-April to pry the frozen roof off the vehicles. By then, Mr. Brunkow had lost more calves and lambs in the wet, cold winter than in the past four years combined.

And like farmers across the country, he was facing the worst agricultural downturn since the 1980s, which has been worsened by President Donald Trump’s trade war with China – the top destination for American soybeans.

But even when it seems that everything from the weather to Washington politics is thwarting American farmers’ best efforts, they have each other to lean on – and a new crop to cultivate, whether it’s soybeans or the next generation of Kansans. Mr. Brunkow finds great hope in the young people he works with, in whom he observes “a little less focus on themselves and a little more on community service and society.”

The barn collapsed in January. More calves and lambs died than in the past four years combined as Kansas was hit with its wettest, coldest winter in years. When spring finally came, it rained so much that Glenn Brunkow couldn’t get his soybean fields planted on time.

But as he sat at home on a June day after pulling the planter into his shed, his soybeans finally in the ground and a rain cloud on the horizon, his hope rekindled.

“I look back ... and the [prior generations] have survived things that were just as bad or worse than this,” says Mr. Brunkow, the fifth generation in his family to farm here, recounting stories of the Depression, years of not having a crop at all, and no crop insurance to soften the blow. “We’ll make it through.”

Across the country, farmers are facing the worst agricultural downturn since the 1980s, according to Bloomberg. It is taking an emotional toll. Calls to Farm Aid’s hotline more than doubled in 2018. And there are concerns about suicides among farmers, with a number of groups cropping up to address mental health and related issues.

But there is also tremendous resilience in this community, not unlike the seedlings they coax through the bare earth each spring. Even when it seems that everything from the weather to Washington politics is thwarting prospects for a fruitful harvest, they have each other to lean on.

Take that January day when Mr. Brunkow’s hay shed collapsed on the combine and grain trucks he had stored there. His best friend from kindergarten called to deliver the bad news. They had to wait until mid-April for things to melt enough to pry the roof off his vehicles – an exploit he described in one of his weekly blog posts for Midwest Messenger. As Mr. Brunkow was driving his last vehicle out, the whole structure started falling in on him. “I just gunned it,” he says with a laugh.

When Mr. Brunkow’s cows escaped out a back gate that was left ajar, a neighbor dropped everything to help. The same goes for when someone’s baler breaks down just as a rainstorm is moving in, threatening to ruin the freshly dried hay in the field.

“You’re a community,” he says. “You never expect anything out of it. You just know when you need help, they’ll be there, too.”

He sees that ethos growing just as strong in the newest crop of Kansans, observing “a little less focus on themselves and a little more on community service and society.”

Kansas Farm Bureau President Rich Felts, who has known Mr. Brunkow since he was a college student and now serves with him on the KFB board, says he holds young people to a high standard, and they respond. “Probably the motivational part is as important as anything,” says Mr. Felts.

Mr. Brunkow has been involved in 4-H since before he graduated from college, and recently was selected to help choose the state leaders for the FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America). At the recent FFA state convention, where more than a thousand young people dressed in blue corduroy jackets with white dress shirts and black slacks or skirts gathered at Kansas State University for four days, he was impressed to learn that many of the top-performing youths wanted to become teachers.

“These kids reach the pinnacle of leadership ... and they want to go back [and help].”

That service-mindedness helps offset his disappointment with Washington politics, where the kind of compromise that legislators like former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole once espoused seems today to have become a dirty word.

“All great societies have risen to a point, gotten too full of themselves, and imploded,” says Mr. Brunkow. “I do think we’re at the crossroads, and I think we’re going to have to be careful about the leadership we pick and the directions we pick in society.” 

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct a misleading statement about suicide rates drawn from a CDC report that has since been retracted.

Read the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Overcoming despair: How a wounded Green Beret came back stronger
Part 2: With compassion and faith, a mayor leads his city through the opioid crisis
Part 3: Amid tariffs and floods, a farmer finds hope in the next crop of Kansans
Part 4: Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee
Part 5: Searching for common ground? Start with the Constitution.
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