Michigan farm country testifies of widespread crisis as crops go unplanted

Michigan farm

Sixty-four of Michigan’s 83 counties have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an emergency designation and the governor has implored U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to help the state’s farmers.

September 2019: Besieged Michigan farmers back new trade pact with Canada and Mexico

LANSING — One of Michigan’s wettest planting seasons in history forced Doug Darling to leave about two-thirds of his Monroe County farmland unplanted. And the corn, soybeans and wheat he managed to plant in between downpours? He doesn’t expect any of it to grow up normally. The soil moisture wasn’t quite right.

The ripple effects will extend far beyond Darling’s 186-year-old family farm — and they’ll linger for who knows how long in the local economy. With less work in the field, he’s not purchasing parts for his combine or other machinery. He’s not calling for service. He’s maxed out his storage of unused fertilizer (and he’s paying to store more unused supply in Toledo) — meaning he won’t need to contract with local dealers next year. The same goes for the insecticides he typically sprays. 

“The economic impact of this is going to be far-reaching and it’s going to last for years,” Darling, who also serves on the Michigan Farm Bureau’s board of directors, told state lawmakers Tuesday at the Michigan State University Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education.

The sixth-generation farmer was among a chorus of industry representatives, academics and government officials to describe widespread hardship and uncertainty in Michigan farm country after record rains and flooding coincided with chaos in agricultural markets that has escalated during President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. 

The testimony came at a joint hearing of the House and Senate agriculture committees organized by Rep. Julie Alexander, a Republican, who chairs the House agriculture committee and whose family grows corn, soybeans and hay in Hanover Township, outside of Jackson.


Farm hearing in Lansing

Doug Darling, left, a sixth-generation corn, soybean and wheat farmer from Monroe County, testifies at a joint meeting of Michigan House and Senate lawmakers about challenges following a near-record wet planting season. Right, Stephanie Schafer, a sixth-generation Clinton County dairy farmer, who also testified. (Photo courtesy of Steve Paradiso, Michigan Farm Bureau)

Alexander said she organized the hearing not only to get an update on conditions across Michigan’s 48,000-plus farms, but also to publicize a wide range of federal and state aid programs available to reeling Michigan farmers.

The meeting comes as federal and state officials are trying to respond to the emergency.

Sixty-four of Michigan’s 83 counties have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an emergency designation and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in June implored U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to help the state’s farmers. 

In July, Perdue designated five northern Michigan counties as “primary disaster areas,”  making producers in Antrim, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Otsego counties eligible for emergency loans. The declaration also made farmers in 10 contiguous counties eligible to apply. 

That came after Perdue relaxed rules to allow farmers to sell crops raised on land on which farmers filed insurance claims. Whitmer hailed that decision as she also announced the state had approved $15 million to help farmers, growers, processors, and farm-related retailers secure low-interest loans.

Michigan farms produce more than 300 commodities commercially, making the state second only to California in diversity, and last year it exported nearly $2 billion in agricultural products, primarily corn, soybeans, dairy products and various feeds. 

The escalating stress on farmers has come from more than just weather: Trade wars have upended grain, corn and soybean markets. 

(“The U.S. position as a reliable supplier of ag products has been damaged, likely irreparably,” said Tim Boring, vice president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association.) Meanwhile, southwest Michigan fruit farmers are still smarting from a crop-killing polar vortex. Cherry growers along Lake Michigan face cheap imports from Turkey — including one fourth-generation farmer in Grand Traverse County that has been selling off his land this summer amid rock-bottom cherry prices. Dairy farmers, meanwhile are struggling due to years of low milk prices.

But much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on the fallout from what Michigan officials call the third-wettest planting season in history.

The word “crisis” echoed throughout the hearing. 

“This state of crisis has been created by extraordinary weather conditions,” Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development, told lawmakers. “The impact of these unfortunate events have yet to fully materialize, and they have the potential to impact everyone in Michigan.”


Michigan farmers are among those across the region grappling with historic challenges after wet conditions pushed May planting into June and even July. Farmers nationwide couldn’t plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres, according to a USDA’s Farm Service Agency report released Monday. That’s the most since the agency started tracking those figures in 2007 — and the Midwest has seen the vast majority of those unplanted acres. 

Michigan’s 870,000 unplanted acres was the eighth most in the United States, according to the federal data. 

Joel Johnson, Michigan State Executive Director of the  USDA Farm Service Agency, said his agency has received 440 “notices of loss” from Michigan participants in the federal Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which covers loss of otherwise uninsurable crops due to natural disasters. 

In many cases, crops that went into the ground won’t reach maturity, said Boring of the Michigan Agri-Business Association. Farmers late start in planting means harvests will likely stretch into winter, and concerns about crop size and availability will likely last through harvest of 2020.

July 2018: As Trump pushes tariffs, Michigan farmers and businesses ‘getting clobbered’
May 2018: Rural Michigan helped elect Trump. Now, farmers are sweating a trade war.
May 2018: Low milk prices are a big headache for Michigan’s family dairy farms

Where to get help

More information about state aid for farmers can be found here.

Information about federal aid for farmers can be found here.

Beyond pushing farmers into the red, that means corn-dependant ethanol plants may need to temporarily shut down, and livestock farmers may have trouble finding feed for their animals, Boring said. Importing corn would be expensive because neighboring states are facing similar and even worse corn crop conditions. 

Stephanie Schafer, a sixth-generation Clinton County dairy farmer, is among those wondering how she’ll feed her 300 cows.  She’s cut feed costs amid a five-year tumble in milk prices, but she’s not sure how she’ll continue to operate if corn prices skyrocket amid a shortage. 

“Where’s the corn going to come from?” she asked lawmakers Tuesday. “This has a long tail to it. Because I’m going to be sitting here next year saying, ‘yeah, my corn silage stinks.’ At least I hope I’m sitting here.” 

Michiganders who don’t farm won’t realize the turmoil until they see their grocery bills increase, Schafer added. 

Dave Armstrong, president and CEO of Greenstone Farm Credit Services, which underwrites 30 percent of the state’s dairy protection policies, offered the rare shred of positive news: Of his firm’s 11,600 full-time farm customers, just 22 are currently in bankruptcy or foreclosure as others have found ways to cut costs and weather the ups and downs of a cyclical industry. 

“This isn’t our first rodeo with tough times...[Many farmers] cut their teeth in the 1980s,” he said, referencing that era’s farm crisis. 

But Schafer told Bridge Magazine suggested bankruptcies and foreclosures could escalate. 

“He’s talking about right now,” she told Bridge Magazine, referencing Armstrong’s rosy figures. “We don’t know what crops will look like in the coming months and years.” 

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Wed, 08/14/2019 - 7:20am

Farmers have nothing to worry about. Trump is currently bailing them out with $28 billion, courtesy of their fellow taxpayers, and has promised plenty more. If farmers object to being labeled welfare queens, then trying being honest: accept that Trump ran on doing trade wars, they voted for him, and are now getting what they voted for. If they don't like it, quit blindly supporting Trump, and tell him he's making a mistake. Otherwise, stop whining.

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 12:18pm

That money ONLY goes to corporate farms>>> Family farms are being bought up by tRUMPs Bank of Russia!!!!

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 12:19pm

How can the plant when last years crops are still in the fields along with sings " Lock Her UP" and Hillary for prison"?????

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 1:59pm

I know this is a huge problem for everyone, not just these farmers, but it's hard to feel bad for them when the agricultural community consistently votes for the party that's actively destroying the environment they depend on. Isn't there some kind of folksy saying about chickens coming home to roost? Yeah.

Thu, 08/15/2019 - 8:41am

Interestingly, the Michigan Farm Bureau still does not list 'climate change' as a 'priority issue' on their website. Expect more of these "wettest years on record" down the pike!

mary therese lemanek
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 9:49am

this systemic problem which has developed over time has been exacerbated by climate change and the ridiculous tRumpian trade wars. Until people wake up
and accept that significant and immediate changes in how we do business are needed, crops will not be planted, foreclosures will increase, food prices will increase....

chris justice
Sun, 08/18/2019 - 10:34am

The trendlines for extreme weather - in the midwest, the kind of torrential rains that leave fields underwater and prevent planting - are clear. For the past 30 years the frequency and intensity of these events has been accelerating and finally it is disrupting the farmers' businesses. The NOAA has been tracking this stuff, its not "fake news" unfortunately. I have observed it personally in its impact on flower gardens - I have had increasing difficulty over the past decade getting finely seeded flowers like foxglove to survive pummeling by torrential downpours we now routinely experience in May & June, just when these varieties are small and unable to withstand such heavy rain.


Other data shows that roughly 15% of greenhouse gas emissions are tied to agricultural practices (http://worldwatch.org/agriculture-and-livestock-remain-major-sources-gre...) and our farmers have a hand in this accelerating climate change. Michigan's dairy segment has a not insignificant hand in methane (cows) and nitrogen emissions (spreading manure on fields).

Cheap milk, yoghurt and cheese has a big environmental footprint these days...

So our farming community and end consumers need to re think our unsustainable contributions to greenhouse warming. This is a much bigger issue than subsidies for family farms and tariff relief...