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Opinion: Farmers hesitant entering 2020

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The Missouri Farm Bureau recently took the temperature of the farm economy with its fourth-annual Farmometer survey. Attendees at the MOFB Annual Meeting in early December were asked to complete a questionnaire on agriculture-related topics. The questions have been identical each year of the survey.

Missouri farmers are losing some of their optimism after six years of low commodity prices and two years of record-breaking weather events and trade wars. While two-thirds of respondents are optimistic about 2020, nearly 14% say they are pessimistic. This is more than double the 2018 rate of 6.4% and almost four times 2017’s level of 3.8%. A rise of this magnitude may show farmers’ patience is starting to run out.

For the fourth year in a row, farmers said commodity and livestock prices were the biggest challenge in their farm operations. Input costs held their place as the second-greatest concern out of the Farmometer’s 11 choices. Access to capital was the third-highest concern, continuing a steady rise from No. 9 in 2017 and No. 6 last year. Succession planning came in fourth. With narrow profit margins throughout the industry, financial concerns likely will remain top of mind for quite some time.

One of the most troubling signals coming from the survey relates to the next generation of farmers. In past years, almost all respondents said they would recommend that their children follow in their footsteps as farmers. The first three years of the survey, the number of people who disagreed never broke 7%. This year, the number shot up to 15.4%, nearly triple last year’s 5.3%. Hopefully this only reflects current frustrations and will not lead to fewer young people taking over the family farm.

The survey was not without good news, though. Government regulations sank to the No. 8 challenge out of 11 options. In the 2016 survey, respondents rated overregulation as their No. 3 challenge. Also, for the second consecutive year, uncertainty of federal farm programs rated as the dead-last concern. Farmers appear to be comfortable with the current state of the farm bill and other federal agricultural policy.

Farmers again were almost unanimous in saying they believe it’s valuable to stay involved. Over 98% said activity in farm and commodity organizations is important. The same number said it’s important to communicate with consumers. More than 95% find it important to form relationships with elected officials. These numbers also have remained very stable over the survey’s first four years.

Recent announcements of progress in trade disputes and the potential for a better growing season means 2020 could still have reason for optimism. No matter the sentiment, Missouri’s farmers will move forward, always hopeful that next year will be better than the last.

Eric Bohl is director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau in Columbia. He can be reached at publicaffairs@mofb.com.

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