There’s volatility in the lifeblood of southwest North Dakota.
And I’m not talking about oil. People often forget how challenging life can be for family farms.
This year is poised to be no different.
In mid-March, myself and Brock White — my co-host on “Insight,” a weekly news talk show that airs on Consolidated Channel 18 and streams on The Press website — interviewed North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring for 25 minutes about the upcoming planting season and the challenges North Dakota farmers are expecting this year. Goehring, early in the interview, put it bluntly.
“It is a bit depressing,” he said, laughing quietly before quickly turning serious.
I, like so many others in our area, grew up a farm kid and understand the importance farmers, ranchers and the agriculture industry have on our economy and our culture. This year, Goehring said, all signs point to struggles for many North Dakota farmers.
“We have a lot of farmers who, first of all, are very concerned — and have been for the past year and a half — about falling prices,” he said. “We’re to the point where it doesn’t even look like there’s a flashlight or any daylight at the end of the tunnel.”
Many balance sheets just aren’t penciling out for farmers this year, Goehring said. With current prices, most aren’t even looking at profi ts. Their projections show big losses.
Goehring and I even shared similar stories that we’ve heard about longtime North Dakota farmers who didn’t get approved for their operating loans by banks they’ve been going to for years.
In short, they’ve reached the point where it’s fi nancially uncertain if they can even continue farming. And for most, it’s the only livelihood they’ve ever known. All this is happening because of sagging commodity markets.
The price for 14 protein spring wheat — which is medium-quality — closed at $4.34 a bushel on Thursday. Hard amber durum was at $4.60. Those are extraordinarily low prices in today’s markets. Corn, sunfl ower, canola and soybean prices also are all low as farmers head into the planting season.
“You’re trying to fi nd that crop that’s not going to do as much harm to you,” Goehring said.
Most commodity prices are the same — or lower — than they were 20 years ago.
At the same time, operating costs for farmers keep going up. Machinery is more expensive, insurance prices keep climbing, fuel — while at fairly moderate price levels today compared to a couple years ago — still isn’t cheap.
Goehring, in our interview, mentioned an equipment dealer who had sold one tractor between last fall and this spring. That points out the obvious ways in how other livelihoods in our state are affected by farming.
On top of all this, we live in a world where farmers are expected to produce more and more food, which means more production from all farmers — not just those in North Dakota. While it may seem like a cliche point to make, if farmers can’t afford to farm, how are we going to feed 7 billion people (and growing)?
Goehring said his hope is that prices will begin climbing into the summer — possibly changed by weather, production in other ag commodity markets across the world or unforeseen issues altogether.
“We live off from hope,” he said, “and let’s face it, farmers are a unique breed. You live by faith and hope, because you don’t control the weather and you don’t control the markets. And those two things look like they could be rather volatile this year.”