I don’t often let anything a newspaper columnist writes about get under my collar. For Mary Papenfuss; U.S. News, I will make an exception. She wrote:
Rural suicides in the U.S. have climbed significantly in recent years; and farm leaders and mental health care providers say the financial toll of President Donald Trump’s trade war could contribute to the tragedy.
An official of the National Farmers Union warned earlier this year that financial stress; including the added burden of disappearing markets in the trade war; appear to be taking a toll on farmers’ mental health.
Is there no shame? I get that most folks in the media don’t like Mr. Trump. But placing our farmers as pawns on a political chessboard with outlandish rhetoric takes things a bit far. Especially when the hyperbole could only be exceeded by a carnival barker’s pitch. Were I, a member of the NFU, I would be irritated at whoever gave her the quote.
To begin with, the U.S. will export about $141,000,000,000 worth of goods this year. That is down about $1.9 billion from last year or about 1.3%. Hardly a crashing, disappearing market. As for China, its purchases represent 6% of the total exports of the U.S. That figure is well down from 2018; mostly in soybeans. But soybeans have less to do with so called trade wars than with the off demand in China because the hog population took a hit from the Africa Swine Fever. They don’t need the feed.
Farm markets are not disappearing in a trade war. In fact, the outlook is for exports to China should be on the order of three times what they have been, once the trade pact is signed. Exports to Latin America are looking up as well under the USMCA structure which is near completion.
Just yesterday Japan’s powerful lower house of parliament approved a new trade agreement with the U.S.A. According to AGWeb, “Under the current deal, Japan is set to lower or abolish tariffs on U.S. beef, pork, wheat and wine, while maintaining protection for its rice farmers. The U.S. will remove duties on Japanese exports of some industrial parts.”
Further, our farmers have been compensated for at least part of that change in the China market, which should provide some comfort that they are not left twisting in the wind.
Our farmers deserve better emotional consideration than the media offers. There are often dozens of contributing factors in anyone’s decision to end their own life. I also know that financial uncertainty leads to high levels of stress. We’ve all been there. But the majority of the financial stress in the farm business isn’t coming from the China trade issues or the work of the POTUS. Writers like Ms. Papenfuss, however, are looking for any chance to make points for their side, illicit as they are.
Danny Klinefelter, of Texas A&M, has spent a lot of time looking into the causes of farm failures, the highest level of financial stress for ag folks. He lists them thusly:
Death or disability of the owner; natural disasters; marital problems; speculation; inadequate information; insufficient monitoring; over dependence on collateral; improper loan structuring; lack of effective market program; tunnel vision toward production technology; poor production management; poor money and time management; failure to control living expenses; emphasis on tax minimization; attempting to support too many people with the operation; managing the family business; lack of management ability; and inadequate attention of personnel management.
Nowhere in there does Mr. Klinefelter mention politics or trade, per se, as causing farm failure that could lead to suicide.
I checked with J.C. Propane in Olathe this morning to see if there is a real propane shortage. The ag news wires have been running hot with weeping and gnashing of teeth over late propane deliveries. Propane shortage headlines have led most every trade publication issue in the last ten days.
I asked, “I am noticing in the farm trade news that there is a propane shortage that is affecting farmers elsewhere in the country. Do we have such an issue on the Western Slope?”
Here is what the JC folks said in response to my email:
“Good morning! We saw your question regarding concern of a propane shortage. We have not had any issue getting propane from our suppliers, as there is no actual shortage of propane.”
I love it when people just blurt out the answer with no equivocation. So I got on the net and did a little looking. Turns out there is a lot of propane. It’s just not been where people need it to be for the last couple of weeks.
The gas was sitting in the Gulf of Mexico. Pipes and trucks that were needed to move it to the distribution point, which for most of the Midwest is in Kansas. From there it pipes to the rest of the central plains states. Things got a little bogged down and some corn farmers had to wait a bit for their gas. Not because there wasn’t any but because the supply chain broke down. Oh, and of course, the prices went up because of the demand exceeding the supply — at the moment.
On Monday, I had the pleasure of meeting Keith Catlin, assemblyman Marc Catlin’s father. The Catlins still live in the house they moved into when it was a chicken coop in 1949. Of course they’ve done a few things to what was a two-room poultry shed.
Keith brought his bride, Donna, to Montrose from the San Luis Valley in New Mexico to start a new life on the mesa above the Uncompahgre River. Keith is now 87 and in good health, except for a sacroiliac problem that he says has been paining him for a little while.
We only talked for a short time but he was quick with the stories and fun to talk to. It’s people like him that make this task not a task at all, but a labor of love. I will pass along some of his recollections in future editions.
Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org