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Mental Health & Agriculture: There is Always Hope

Mental Health & Agriculture: There is Always Hope

Agriculture is known to have numerous unique occupational hazards. Physical hazards include heat and sun exposure and the potential dangers of working with heavy machinery. Working out in the elements also brings the risk of venomous snakes, spiders, and disease-carrying mosquitos. What is less often discussed, however, are the mental and emotional hazards associated with working in agriculture. The volatile farm economy, long days at work, social isolation, and natural disasters can add stress beyond what is expected or tolerated in other industries. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and is a significant opportunity to remind anyone struggling that they are not alone and do not have to suffer in silence. A 2021 poll commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that farmers and farm workers were more comfortable talking to friends, family, and doctors about stress and mental health than in 2019. Open dialogue about stress and mental wellbeing can help reduce stigma in the community, which is often cited as a barrier to seeking care for a mental health challenge. Emotional wellness is a key dimension of our health and must be maintained, just like physical wellness, to live a fulfilling life. If you are struggling or notice someone else struggling, seek help. Recovery from a mental health challenge or illness, like recovery from a heart attack or other physical illness, is possible.  There is always hope.

The following resources are designed for agricultural producers and families:

Authors:  Miquela Smith, MPH Extension Program Specialist – Health and Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, Associate Professor & Extension Specialist – Ag Law

Impact of Increasing Fertilizer Prices and Interest Rates on Farm Supply Cooperatives

Impact of Increasing Fertilizer Prices and Interest Rates on Farm Supply Cooperatives

Fertilizer prices exploded during the past year and are now further fueled by the Ukraine conflict.   Interest rates have also increased substantially. There is a theory, associated with economist John Taylor that for every percentage point of inflation, interest rates should be raised by a similar percentage.  That principle would suggest that our interest rate climb is not over.  Numerous articles have discussed the impacts of these trends on farm and ranch profitability.  Many producers are also member-owners of agricultural supply cooperatives.  Those cooperatives are also impacted by both fertilizer prices and interest rates.

The impacts can be illustrated using a cooperative financial simulator developed at Oklahoma State University.  Prior to interest rate and fertilizer increases, the representative wheat marketing and farm supply cooperative had a return on assets of 6.8% and a return on equity of 11.5%.  The representative cooperative distributed 50% of profits as cash patronage and needed 29% to service an 18-year equity revolving program.  The remaining retained profits allowed the cooperative to grow at an annual rate of 2.4%.  If interest rates and fertilizer prices double, the cooperative must either increase farm supply profit margins by 8% or reduce cash patronage to 45%.  The impacts are even more dramatic if members expect to maintain the value of their equity position in the cooperative. If length of the equity revolving period is reduced to 10 years, the cooperative must either reduce patronage from 50% to 35% or increase farm supply margins by 42%.

These results illustrate the challenges that will be faced by cooperative boards of directors.  In coming months, protecting the financial viability at the cooperative level may require increases in margins or reduction in cash patronage.  If interest rates impact producer expectations of equity revolving periods, those challenges will be even more substantial.  Cooperative boards may be tempted to try to isolate the members from increasing interest and inventory costs.  The danger of that strategy is that cooperative’s reserves and growth rate may be reduced to the point that it will not be in a position to serve future members (Table 1).

In Historic Town Centers Beauty is More than Skin Deep

In Historic Town Centers Beauty is More than Skin Deep

Amid widespread decline and disinvestment, numerous small towns and rural communities throughout the US have taken action to restore their downtown as the focal point for economic, social, and civic activity in the region.

Downtown revitalization approaches—such as the widely adopted “Main Street Program”—typically operate from the principle of “if you build it, they will come,” requiring community leaders, business owners, and volunteers to invest their resources and efforts in a vision that is hoped for, but not guaranteed. This involves capital investment toward building rehabilitation and corridor beautification, as well as less tangible investments of time and coordination toward promoting downtown, organizing events, and managing limited resources. 

But does it work? The continuing popularity of the Main Street Program—with 1,500+ participants and counting—would suggest that downtown revitalization programs are, to some degree, effective. For many policymakers, however, anecdotal data is not sufficient to justify the investment of time and resources required to engage in revitalizing downtown.

In a pair of recent articles, I examined the quantitative effect of the Main Street Program. The first study focused on job growth, finding that small towns in Iowa gained new retail jobs and establishments in the years after adopting the program. In the other study, I focused instead on residential property values, finding that homebuyers placed a higher premium on homes located closer to downtown districts with an active Main Street Program. Together, the two studies provide evidence for the idea that revitalization efforts go a lot further than simply beautifying a town’s historic business district. Vibrant downtowns are building momentum as places where people increasingly desire to live and work, creating the conditions for strong rural economies to flourish.

Reliance on H-2A Workers Continues to Spike as Specialty Crop Producers Face Labor Shortages

Reliance on H-2A Workers Continues to Spike as Specialty Crop Producers Face Labor Shortages

Access to farm labor continues to be a significant challenge for specialty crop growers,1 who face challenges filling positions with domestic workers. This is due in part to the physical and temporary nature of employment, and the ability of employers to offer salaries that are competitive against employment opportunities in other sectors. Farm wages were only 59% of the wage rate of comparable positions in other industries in 2020.2

The decline in the farm labor supply has resulted in a growing reliance on the H-2A temporary agricultural program. This program allows employers to recruit foreign workers to fill seasonal positions. During the last decade, the number of H-2A visas issued increased at an approximate average rate of 17% annually, quadrupling from 65,345 in 2012 to 257,898 in 2021 (Figure 1). This growth was stronger in the specialty crop sector. The expansion in H-2A employment is, in part, the result of an increase in the number of workers petitioned and the number of operations—including small and medium-scale—employing H-2A workers.3 The H-2A program has its challenges and can be costly for producers who must provide transportation and housing for H-2A workers and pay the state’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is often higher than the local worker hourly pay. 

With an aging farm labor force3, agricultural labor issues are likely to persist, posing a significant limitation to the specialty crop industry. Mechanization and immigration policies that improve the H-2A program and make it more accessible for farmers will be crucial for maintaining the competitiveness of the U.S. industry.

Data source: US Department of State. Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics. Available at: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/visa-law0/visa-statistics/nonimmigrant-visa-statistics.html/

References

1 American Vegetable Grower. 2020 State of the Vegetable Industry Survey. Available online: https://www.growingproduce.com/tag/2020-state-of-the-vegetable-industry/

2 US Department of Agriculture. Economic Research service. Farm Labor. Available online: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-labor.aspx3 2019 State of the Vegetable Industry Survey – American Vegetable Grower Magazine. Available online: https://www.growingproduce.com/vegetables/which-issues-have-your-attention-2019-state-of-the-vegetable-industry/

Market Trends for U.S. Blueberry:  Implications for Southeastern U.S. Producers

Market Trends for U.S. Blueberry: Implications for Southeastern U.S. Producers

Annual harvested U.S. blueberry acreage has increased from 40,820 to 91,400 from 2000 to 2020 (Figure 1). In this same period, average blueberry yields increased from 4,480 to 6,630 pounds per acre, and the value of utilized production jumped from $177.8M to $904.8M. Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida were among the top eight producing states, with 21,700, 7,500, and 5,200 acres harvested, respectively, representing 30% of all U.S. blueberry acreage in 2019. Most of these Southeastern-grown blueberries are sold to the fresh market during the early season window of March through June. The 2019 average farm gate value for these three states was $256.2M, or 28.2% of the overall U.S. average farm gate value for cultivated fresh and frozen blueberries. While yields are relatively lower compared to northern growing states, ranging from 4,160 to 4,740 pounds per acre, grower prices are relatively higher, from $2.64/lb. in Florida to $1.42/lb. in Georgia.

As evidenced by the improved U.S. demand for blueberries, coordinated research and promotion efforts have proven successful drivers of industry profitability. Growers are encouraged to inform production decisions based on historical market trends and current price movements, with the goals of producing to market specifications and building in swift targeted responses to anticipated consumer demand shifts. Produce buyers possess the market side data metrics and timely analytics while growers are capable of manipulating inputs and varietal choices. Adopting a grow-on-demand approach built on shared data analysis between producers and retailers may allow the industry to capture added revenues and provide higher quality fresh berries to consumers.

Source: Developed from U.S. Department of Agriculture. May 2021. Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts 2020 Summary. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Link: https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/zs25x846c/sf269213r/6t054c23t/ncit0521.pdf
Digital Divide in Rural Communities

Digital Divide in Rural Communities

Broadband access has increasingly become a basic utility, but it is still out of reach for many rural communities. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) claims that broadband internet is not available to 24.7 million people in the United States, data from Microsoft indicated that 162.8 million (almost half the population of the United States) do not use internet at broadband speeds. Digital Divide Index provides an overview of the disparity across the United States. COVID-19 pandemic further emphasized the need for broadband as schools and businesses shifted to virtual mode. The digital divide can be addressed by:

  1. Reducing Municipal broadband restrictions: As of 2021, municipal broadband was restricted in eighteen states across the United States. Some states have allowed electric co-operatives to provide broadband in their service territories.
  2. Providing Incentives for Internet Service Providers: Population density in rural areas is much lower than urban areas, thereby increasing the relative cost of installing fiber-optic cable. Providing incentives for internet service providers would help reduce the costs of providing internet to rural areas.
  3. Reducing the Burden on Right-of-way and Easements: Obtaining permissions for right-of-way and easements to lay fiber-optic cable are often difficult and slow. A public-private partnership that can reduce the costs and time delays in obtaining right-of-way and easement will expedite the process.
  4. Improving Adoption and affordability: Lower-income residents experience a higher economic burden due to lack of devices and affordable broadband subscription plans. Programs such as Emergency Broadband Benefit and the new Affordable Connectivity Program can help improve adoption of broadband. Further, demand-side management programs if offered through internet service providers can improve access to broadband.
  5. Supporting Broadband Programs: Library mobile hotspot lending programs, downtown wi-fi programs have been widely successful A public-private partnership promoting these programs will improve education, business development, healthcare, tourism and recreation opportunities across communities.