Joe Schroeder works as a farm advocate for Farm Aid, where he answers calls to the group’s farmer hotline. The calls, which are up 30 percent over last year, range from routine questions about navigating federal programs and exploring credit options to dire pleas for help from farmers who have run out of ways to keep their businesses solvent. He has heard from three or four suicidal farmers each month this summer.
Schroeder talks callers in crisis through Chapter 12 bankruptcy and sends out $500 checks to help them buy groceries and get the lights turned back on. One woman who called was eating nothing but frozen hamburger. Many families have had their electricity turned off, including one farmer who relies on an oxygen tank. Schroeder appealed to the electric company on his behalf, but the head of finance refused to work with them. The family could get him to the hospital if necessary, the farmer’s wife told Schroeder, because they had hidden their car in a barn nearby to keep it from being repossessed. Schroeder hasn’t been able to check in with the family since late July because their phone was disconnected.
Schroeder, who has been a farm advocate for nearly a decade, says the calls now are more desperate than they were even a year ago, when he started at Farm Aid. “They’re more complicated situations. People are calling us when it’s too late [to save their operations],” he says. He can offer help to many farmers, but what was once a robust network of state-funded farmer advocates has shrunk dramatically, leaving those remaining with more limited tools. “There are not many witnesses to this [crisis],” he says and sometimes simply being a witness is all he can do.
These are not isolated stories. As early as February 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted a decline in net farm income to its lowest level since 2002 (adjusted for inflation), with median farm income projected at negative $1,316. For well over a year, worries about a new farm crisis have rippled across rural America. The very term is synonymous with the 1980s, when the bottom dropped out of the agricultural economy, sending thousands of farms into foreclosure and shuttering businesses.