Stress builds as Michigan farmers are ‘hit from all directions’

Wet conditions kept farmers out of their Michigan fields this spring, delaying planting more than a month. Many farmers were unable to plant corn, the No. 2 farm crop in the state. (Photo courtesy Michigan Farm Bureau)

September 2019: Besieged Michigan farmers back new trade pact with Canada and Mexico
August 2019: Michigan farmers testify of widespread crisis and uncertainty 

For farmers nowadays, the clues are subtle but unmistakable.

“You can hear it in their voice,” said Sarah Zastrow, a Saginaw County exercise physiologist whose husband and father are farmers. “There’s a little more wobble in their walk, a shake in their hands.”

Amid the third wettest year in history, Michigan farmers are stressed by potentially devastating crop losses because sodden fields have prevented planting or portend smaller yields because planting is a month or more behind.


At a recent meeting in Lenawee County to talk about crop insurance, loan options and potential second crops, a mental health expert was also on hand to discuss how to recognize stress – as a colleague handed out wallet-sized suicide prevention hotline cards.

“When we’re dealing with stress, it rubs off on our families,” said Kris Swartzendruber, who works for Michigan State University’s Extension Office, which provides a  wide-range of services to farmers.

Lately, the stress has come from more than the weather: Trade wars are roiling grain markets, fruit farmers in southwest Michigan lost crops to the polar vortex, cherry farmers along Lake Michigan face cheap imports from Turkey, and dairy farmers statewide are getting crushed by low prices and lost feed crops.

The heavy rains that have confounded farmers from Iowa to Ohio have also complicated farming in Michigan, with growers across the state filing crop insurance claims and scrambling for options. One suggestion from farm lenders: Consider getting a second job, off the farm.

“At this point a lot of guys are just in survival mode,” said Lenawee County farmer Calby Garrison. “You don’t want to throw money in a black hole.”

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

More than 100 farmers attended a meeting in rural Lenawee County recently to hear about insurance and crop options as they face one of the wettest years in Michigan history. (Bridge photo by Mike Wilkinson)

Bad all over

Food and agriculture in Michigan is a huge industry, contributing over $101 billion to the state’s economy and employing over 900,000 workers. There are just under 48,000 farms covering roughly 9.8 million acres and producing about 300 products, making Michigan second only to California in diversity of products, said Trey Malone, an agriculture economist at Michigan State University.

This year, the most immediate problem has been near-constant rains that have pushed May planting into June and possibly July. Wet fields last fall hurt the harvest and those conditions have continued into the spring, making it impossible to plow and plant.

In early June, just 68 percent of corn was planted at a time when well over 90 percent is typically in the ground. Only a third of those seeds had sprouted, down from the 93 percent average.

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

Late last week, Perdue granted some relief, relaxing rules that will allow farmers to sell crops raised on land on which farmers filed insurance claims. Whitmer hailed the decision as she also announced the state had approved $15 million to help farmers, growers, processors, and farm-related retailers secure low-interest loans.

The wet weather has prevented Calby Garrison of Lenawee County from planting corn and soybeans. He and his father just made their first cut of hay, well after they’d typically do so. (Bridge photo by Mike Wilkinson)

Also last week, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, last week pushed for an additional $10 million in federal funding from the farm and ranch stress assistance network, after hearing from farmers in the Mason area tell her about their rising stress levels. That measure, if passed, faces an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate. 

Swartzendruber, of MSU Extension, and Zastrow, of Saginaw County, who produced a video aimed at helping farmers, agreed on the symptoms – a tight chest, angry shouts, more drinking and less sleeping.  

“We need to address that,” Zastrow told Bridge Magazine. “And know that you’re not alone.”

‘Hit from all directions’

They definitely aren’t alone.

Changing economics have forced thousands of farmers to quit, with the number of Michigan farms falling by 4,500 between 2012 and 2017, a 9 percent drop.

Farming has always been a high-risk venture but many say it’s become more so for a number of reasons:

  • Customer demands have changed markedly –  think about the rising demands for gluten-free and organic products, putting pressure on farmers to correctly guess food consumption trends.
  • Weather has become more volatile, with earlier springs and bigger temperature swings. The state’s fruit crops were almost destroyed in 2012 after a frost followed an early spring, losing over 85 percent of peach, tart cherry, apple and grape crops. 
  • Trade and domestic farm policies have frequently changed

Although many Michigan farmers have been hurt, dairy farmers have been among the worst hit by weather and trade issues, said Trey Malone, an agriculture economist for Michigan State University.

“It’s never-ending,” said Steve Paradiso of the Michigan Farm Bureau. “There are a lot of people getting hit from all directions.”

Trade war raises the stakes 

Many farmers are now weighing whether to file insurance claims on their crop insurance. The good news: Far more farmers today are insuring their crops.

But insurance claims may generate less than half the income that a crop would produce, causing some farmers to “plant something late and roll the dice,” said insurance agent Nate Gust of Farm Bureau Insurance, who covers southeast Michigan.

In typical wet years, corn growers would switch to soybeans because they can be planted later. 

But with China levying $60 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods, including soybeans, market fears make the corn-to-soybean switch another gamble, even with anticipation of billions of dollars in federal aid to ease the pain of tariffs.

“The cutback in exports have hurt,” said David Oppedahl, a senior business economist for the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago. 

Dairy farmers, who produce the state’s most valuable agricultural commodity valued at $1.8 billion, have been particularly hard hit. Increased automation pushed production levels way up, lowering prices to levels that don’t cover costs

Thousands of dairy farms have closed nationwide, including hundreds in Michigan.

Dairy farming is “probably the most tragic story in agriculture right now,” said MSU’s Malone.

Tariffs from Mexico on U.S. cheese, in retaliation for U.S. tariffs, have made it even harder for dairy farmers. Now the wet ground has hurt their ability to put feed corn down, leaving them scrambling even more.

“We’re kind of in the middle of the whole mess here,” said Blaine Baker, a Lenawee County dairy farmer who has a 550-cow operation west of Adrian.

Clouds roll in as Calby Garrison and his father bale hay on their Lenawee County farm. The wet weather has put them and many other farmers behind, preventing or delaying the planting of corn and soybeans. (Bridge photo by Mike Wilkinson)

‘Most stressful year’

Weather is always an issue – Will there be enough rain? Too much? There are late frosts and early frosts to fret about, along with funguses and bugs.  And trade has long played a role – the 1980s farm crisis had its roots in the then-Soviet Union’s decision to buy U.S. grain in the 1970s and a 1980 embargo of grain.

When interest rates approached 20 percent in the early 1980s, many farmers were crushed and lost their farms.

Interest rates now are far lower – just over 5 percent, according to the Federal Reserve. More farmers are now buying crop insurance and politicians are more attuned to the impact of trade, propping up prices with massive aid packages

But with all the help from afar, it hasn’t eliminated anxiety. 

“This is the most stressful year in several decades for farmers,” said Zastrow, who has her own business, Bay Area Wellness.

In other years, farmers know that if they’re down, someone else is up –  weather patterns don’t typically hit the entire corn belt, for instance. Or the entire state; a bad year for fruit growers might be a good year for sugar beets.

But this year, it seems every farmer is getting hit – from rain, an early frost or chilly international trade relations. 

Garrison, the Lenawee farmer, 36, is resigned to a tough year. He and his dad haven’t planted their corn and only last week got their first cutting of hay, well behind previous years.

“Every year is difficult,” he said. “Every time you put a seed in the ground you’re taking a risk.”

Perhaps offering some balm has been the enormity of the weather woes, with almost the entire corn belt, from Iowa to Ohio, hit by heavy and near-constant rains.

That’s started to push corn prices up over 30 percent since May, to $4.40 a bushel, the highest price in five years, though well below the $7 a bushel last seen in 2013.

That might sound like good news but Garrison adds some hard-earned perspective. 

“It’s only good,” he said, “if you have a crop.”

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Tue, 06/25/2019 - 8:41am

LOL!! Hell they can not event sell last years corp thanks to their god tRUMP!! Last fall and this spring most of the crops were still in the field NO rain then to stop them from harvesting!!! Besides their crops still being in the fields they still had their signs up " Make American great vote tRUMP" and Hillary for prison" Si the rain has not a thing to do with anything! And what is really SICK is that the will vote for tRUMP in 2020 if he not in prison!!

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 10:29am

No migrants to pick crops, tariffs, and no such thing as climate change, according to Trump. But oh yes, they keep voting Republican. Should we feel bad?

Anna Davis
Tue, 06/25/2019 - 11:17am

YUP! Trump promised the tariffs and the farmers loved it.
VOTED for him.

Paul Jordan
Tue, 06/25/2019 - 11:23am

Don, you act like this doesn't effect you--but it does. (I'm assuming that you eat.)

Roger Cargill
Tue, 06/25/2019 - 9:06am

Is this weather the new normal?

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 10:27am

Certainly seems that way... cooler and wetter with a messed up jet stream. But our federal government is just pretending that everything is fine, nothing to worry about; just 'a cycle'.

But it isn't.

Paul Wohlfarth
Tue, 06/25/2019 - 9:22am

Farmers need a diverse income. Depending on one source is a receipt for disaster. The author recommends getting a job off the farm. Harvesting energy is another option. Solar and wind makes a farming community more resilient against increasing climate change and trade wars. In Riga Township Lenawee County we tried to get a wind farm back in 2012 but the residential community didn't want to look at the turbines. We argued a diverse economy is a more stable economy but the community didn't see it cause times were good for farming. Now maybe different and this could be a lifesaver for farming communites across the state.

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 11:12am

"Amid the third wettest year in history..."; climate change, ya'll. Get hip to it and expect more of these "wettest years in history" coming down the pike.

Anna Davis
Tue, 06/25/2019 - 11:14am

Didn't Michigan farmers vote for trump? He promised tariffs in his campaign. They vote for the guy and when he does what he promised, they cry.
Have they done anything about climate change? Have they changed fossil fuel usage? What have they done to make sure they're not contributing to the changes in climate?
People make their own fates and then sit and cry for help.

Paul Jordan
Tue, 06/25/2019 - 11:22am

Farming is the oldest form of gambling. That said, we all ultimately depend on farmers for the food we eat, so this is an issue that effects us all.
One element of climate change is less predictable weather--and we're seeing that now. Making farming less risky involves, among other things, controlling the things that they/we can control. We could control the amount of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere.
Another is electing and supporting representatives who will zealously work to limit the human causes of climate change.

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 11:58am

Soy farmers had a bumper crop, and great trade contracts to sell to China. Trump imposed tariffs on China just as farmers were ready to ship. China retaliated by cancelling those contracts. Farmers were forced to store their crops in bins where they would rot. Then trump pretending to be the good guy sent lots of "welfare" to the farmers, paid for by the American tax payers. It's truly that simple and that stupid.

Sun, 06/30/2019 - 7:16am

Wow! I wonder what a "president" Hillary would have done? I guess we'll never know!

Sat, 09/21/2019 - 11:02am

She sure wouldn't have put tariffs on China and thus this whole situation wouldn't have occurred. Also, she and the Democrats are paying attention to climate change and working for our future. But thanks to voters' short-sightedness and selfishness (although yes, 3 million more than voted for Trump did give her the popular vote win), the Electoral College and yes, Russian interference - here we are.

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 1:39pm

"Food and agriculture in Michigan is a huge industry, contributing over $101 billion to the state’s economy and employing over 900,000 workers"

Why couldn't we use the $101 billion to assist the Farmer's in their time of struggle? Besides, half of the 900,000 workers are migrants. They get to leave with the money they made in the State of Michigan!!!

Sun, 06/30/2019 - 8:17am

First of all the migrant workers you're complaining about usually have a fixed route that follows the harvests in the U.S. so don't fall for that GOP nonsense, second the same farmers you want to give this welfare $101B to will turn around and vote for the same people who got them into this mess and then blame the poor who get government help(they don't realize they're getting the same under a different name) and it will get worse unless they change by cutting fossil fuel use and diversifying.

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 2:07pm

My two brothers got all of their corn and beans planted. About 8,000 acres total. Marlette and Owosso areas. I don't understand what President Trump had to do with it?

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 3:18pm

Well Jim I guess Stan Rogers summed it up pretty good. Sadly not too many of small family farms left, Now mostly all corporate.

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 6:39pm

One thing no one in the new covers is what will be the effects of a much shorter growing season on food prices, not just in Michigan but throughout the agricultural heartland of the Midwest and Plains, and how nationwide food shortages and fast-rising food prices may likely hurt the consumer and the economy.

Sun, 06/30/2019 - 7:46am

FEDERAL CROP INSURANCE COVERS these types of losses, IF the farmer was smart enough to buy coverage...”prevent plant” is included in the basic policy

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 12:05pm

Note those talking about the "new normal" rains being Trump's fault don't mention this has been the COLDEST January-June in the U.S. historical temperature records, but they don't talk about global warming anymore.

This wild weather is a result of the sun going dormant which in turn allows more galactic cosmic rays to reach the earth's surface causing more clouds to form and seed with water. This has been replicated in a laboratory by Dr. Heinrich Svenmark. His hypothesis has now been officially tested and verified.

So all you "climate change" witch hunters need to learn a little science stop with the supersitions. CO2 does not control anything. In fact, at any time scale, temperatures precede changes in atmospheric CO2 levels. It's quite elementary.

In our lifetime we've been blessed with quite stable weather, with most years being record crops for the better part of the last century. Included in that is the fact that CO2 has been most beneficiary to increased plant growth throughout the world. Rather than the global warming hysteria non-existent "permanent drought" the earth has been getting greener. Look it up, it's a fact.

Sun, 07/21/2019 - 3:19pm

Generations of dairy farmers have been wiped out because of CAFOs (confined animal farm operations). You know, the "farms" where 3000 cows are confined in buildings and never set foot on dirt until being shipped for slaughter. They have forced contracts on milk haulers to agree to only haul milk from these large producers. This forced hundreds (four within 5 miles of me) to go out of business. And if that didn't work, they've flooded the market with low priced milk. 1.39 a gallon at Walmart. These mega milk factory operations, along with the large corporations buying up all the farmland after low-balling the farmers prices, are the reasons the farmers are being forced out of business and off their land.