Brian and Therese Romsdahl are a case study in the many pressures hitting farmers.
Life on the Butterfield farm that Brian grew up on has gotten steadily more difficult as high health insurance costs, low commodity prices, trade wars and taxes have taken a toll.
In 2018 their health care costs skyrocketed. “Last year, out-of-pocket we paid $41,000,” Therese said. “There was a $7,000 deductible for each of us plus the premiums.”
Brian said rising costs leave him unable to see a future with any profits.
“We pay $20,000 a year in property taxes. You take that and $40,000 for health care costs, and it’s a blow,” he said. “And the input costs, the fertilizer and everything goes up.”
With a low income, the couple was able to find more affordable health insurance this year through MNsure. But other financial issues in the ag economy remain, leaving many farmers struggling and relying on taxpayer subsidies.
The stress has led to more people in rural areas struggling with mental health issues and considering suicide, according to health officials.
In August, the unexpected announcements of the closure of two big ag facilities rocked area communities.
Del Monte shuttered its Sleepy Eye plant as the parent company consolidated operations at other facilities, leaving more than 360 employees, including about 290 seasonal workers out of work.
Generations of area farmers grew sweet corn and peas for the company, which had operated since 1930.
And the Corn Plus ethanol plant in Winnebago fell victim to an industry being crushed by low prices and actions by the Trump administration that have cut ethanol use and collapsed ethanol prices.
Corn Plus was owned by farmer shareholders and was one of the oldest plants in the state. About 40 employees at the plant were laid off.
Trade wars between the Trump administration and China, Mexico, Canada and others continued to hurt U.S. agricultural exports this year as tariffs and counter-tariffs were put on a variety of products.
But ag interests got some good news late this year with news the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement could go into effect as soon as next month.
House Democrats and Senate Republicans in Congress say they have agreements on getting the new trade agreement to President Trump for his signature.
Meanwhile, China said it would ease some tariffs on some farm products, but so far there is only speculation on how much China might buy from the U.S.
Trump’s agriculture secretary raised some eyebrows inside and outside of agriculture during a stop at a Wisconsin dairy farm this summer. Sonny Perdue told reporters he doubts family dairy farms can survive.
“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
Perdue’s visit came as dairy farmers are wrestling with a host of problems, including declining milk prices, rising suicide rates, the transition to larger farms with hundreds or thousands of animals, and Trump’s international trade wars.
When it comes to ethanol production, the administration has been under fire from Farm Belt groups.
While there are targeted goals for ethanol production, the Trump administration has used a waiver program to allow oil refineries to not use ethanol. The waivers sharply reduced the amount of ethanol produced.
Recently the U.S. EPA announced new rules aimed at increasing the amount of renewable fuel that must be used by oil refiners in 2020, but Corn Belt lawmakers and farm industry groups said the agency is violating an agreement they reached with President Trump aimed at making up for refinery waivers that undercut demand for ethanol and biodiesel.
Biofuel supporters say they can’t be sure the 2020 mandate will deliver the demand they expect because of how the EPA plans to account for exemptions that allow oil refiners to reduce their obligations.