All Tom Geisler can see as he trudges through the mud is a big mess. High water from the March floods wrecked pretty much everything on his 1,000-acre farm in Hooper, Nebraska.
"I’ve never seen anything like this before. Never even had water in the yard here before on the place,” said Geisler, who’s been at it for more than 40 years and is a fifth-generation farmer. “It’s just been deep and devastating.”
Things haven’t been easy lately, considering the low prices for corn and soybeans, property taxes close to $100 an acre and now this.
“Always been ups and downs ever since I’ve been farming,” Geisler said. “My dad always said the same thing. Just watch out for the bad years and prepare for it because you’re going to have them, no matter what. Too bad it has to be that way, but that’s the way it is.”
It’s a common story in Nebraska and across the Midwest, especially in Iowa and Missouri, which also saw flooding devastation. Some farmers and ranchers are struggling to stay in business. Net farm income has been down for a while and many farmers and ranchers have more debt than they did a few years ago.
Tina Barrett, the president of Lincoln-based Nebraska Farm Business, helps Midwest producers navigate tough financial times.
“Everything has been kind of crazy for a while and coming off a significant price decline over the last few years and adjusting to that and now we’re dealing with flooding in significant areas of Nebraska,” Barrett said. “And all of those things are … creating an unknown for 2019 that we haven’t seen in a while.”
Those unknowns can be stressful on farmers and ranchers, who have built their lives around crops and livestock. One place they turn to is the Rural Response Hotline, which since 1984 has provided mental health resources and other assistance.
“This last year, we set four new all-time monthly highs for the most new first-time high-stress phone callers,” Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen said. “This is the worst ag turndown since the mid-1980’s so there’s a great need, of course, for services right now and then, of course, the flood just makes all of that more-so.”
Hansen said many agriculture producers often have a hard time admitting they’re failing.
“It’s their identity, it’s their inheritance, it’s their legacy,” he said. “It’s all of these things and in addition to being a high-risk, capital-intensive, low-margin business.”
Across the Midwest, Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies jumped 19% last year, and Harvest Public Media previously reported that several states have seen bankruptcy numbers rise for three consecutive years. In Nebraska, they were up last year, from 20 in 2017 to 27 in 2018; by comparison, there were just five in 2012.
Creighton University economist Ernie Goss says many of farmers entered this downtown in a good place financially due to a run of high commodity prices a few years ago. And, he said, there will always be a demand for their products.
“There’s one thing that we all need, and that’s food and that’s globally. It doesn’t matter if you’re in China, India, France or Germany, wherever,” Goss said. “They need food and they need it from the most productive farmer on the face of the earth and that’s the farmers in this nation, the U.S., and the farmers in the Midwest, particularly very productive.
“In the long run, you couldn’t be more dependent on an industry than agriculture.”
There are reasons to feel optimistic, said Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson. But he knows some farmers and ranchers won’t make it out of this.
“It could be that it will take a year or two before they understand that they can’t come back from this kind of loss,” Nelson said. “So I have a lot of concern about that.”
Geisler, meanwhile, is fixing and saving what he can.
“You just have to be resilient and keep going and hopefully it will work out for us this year,” he said. “At least something. Hopefully, we’ll have a good crop, but nobody knows that except God, so.”
Surrounded by a landscape he hardly recognizes, he pauses to look around at a scene of mud and destruction.
“Someday I hope to get it back to the way it was. It’s going to be a while,” he said.
Jack Williams is a reporter and producer with Harvest partner NET News.