Farm returns below 2% for 5th straight year as rural economy slumps

American Sugar Alliance
Farm Forum

The average rate of return for U.S. farmers is 1.3 percent this year, marking the fifth straight year of returns below 2 percent, Dr. John Newton, the chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), said at the International Sweetener Symposium.

That translates to a negative median farm income of -$1,449 this year, forcing most producers to depend on a growing amount of off-farm income to make ends meet. Returns this low create challenges for agriculture – from keeping pace with rising input costs to repaying operating loans – and the impact ripples throughout the rural economy, he said.

“Commercial debt in agriculture is at record highs, loan delinquency rates are rising, and Chapter 12 bankruptcies have increased sharply,” Newton told the group. “Some major lenders are reducing their exposure to agricultural loans and reducing lending volumes.”

Brian Cavey, senior vice president of government affairs for CoBank, said his bank continues to be a major agricultural lender, with 100 percent of its business focused on farm credit, agribusiness lending, and rural infrastructure. But he agreed that current tailwinds in the rural economy are troubling.

“Right now, the name of the game is managing risk and uncertainty,” Cavey said.

This kind of environment necessitates strong farm policies to give lenders confidence that loans will be repaid in a timely manner. Protecting crop insurance and opposing cuts to the farm safety net are top priorities for CoBank, he explained.

The company was one of the biggest champions of America’s no-cost sugar policy during the recent Farm Bill debate for that reason. The National Farmers Union, like the AFBF, was another vocal supporter of sugar policy and its president explained that keeping sugar policy strong will be key to weathering the current storm.

“Farmers are facing an uncertain future, and they need some long-term predictability,” he concluded. “With continued low commodity prices and the impacts that current trade disputes are having on rural America, the real question that we need to be asking ourselves is how to strengthen farm policy even more.”