There’s something about humans – we always use past events and people to give context to current experiences. Every political scandal, no matter how large or small, is compared to Watergate. Every so often the terminology changes as there become fewer people who lived through an event. When I grew up, the Great Depression was the economic event by which all others were judged. I suspect my grandchildren will come to view the Great Recession in a similar manner. Every basketball star is still judged by the standard of Michael Jordan.
While these provide a reference for people on a national scale, this past month two others have been on the top of my mind. First is the Flood of 1993, which happened before I was old enough to truly understand the devastation it wreaked on the Midwest and in Manhattan where I now live.
In July of that year, rain pounded the watershed of Tuttle Creek Lake, filling the basin to the point that the Corps of Engineers opened the emergency gates on the spillway. The release of some 60,000 cubic feet per second flooded entire neighborhoods.
The “bomb cyclone” that caused so much pain along the Missouri River this spring also contributed to the Corps holding water in Tuttle, which dumps into the Kansas then Missouri and finally the Mississippi. Then May hit and round after round of storms filled the lake to just inches from having to open the gates for a second time. Tensions rose along with the water and by Memorial Day some had evacuated their homes. Thankfully sunshine and controlled releases averted another disaster, but every rain still puts people on edge.
The other event I’ve heard repeated mentions of recently is the 1980s farm crisis. It came up at the Agricultural Relations Council’s annual meeting in Kansas City last week as part of a session on “hot topics” in ag. The ’80s farm crisis featured record production, trade problems, soaring prices for inputs and other factors present today. Panelists said a repeat of the 1980s is unlikely.
The University of Missouri’s Scott Brown noted that while some factors may be similar, farms are structured differently today, and bigger operators have more options when they get in trouble.
Kansas State University professor and agricultural economist Mykel Taylor admitted that two years ago she believed farmers were on the verge of a similar event, but she’s changed her mind. “It’s complicated, but not the same,” Taylor said. “We have our own special drama going on.”
Taylor said debt is increasing and lenders are seeing demand for loan restructuring, but government payments, like the Market Facilitation Program, helped inject cash into farmers’ hands to service their debt. “Those are floating us,” she said. Land prices also have fared better than expected with demand from investors and recreational buyers, giving owners breathing room. And interest rates have stayed low.
Taylor and Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn both said agriculture will see blue skies again, though neither offered a date. Chinn believes genetic engineering will limit the disease risk not only for crops, but livestock as well. Taylor said big data will help farmers and ranchers make better decisions.
I do know one thing that does not change throughout the ages.
No matter what problem or crisis arises, farmers and ranchers will continue finding ways to stay in the game. It’s what they were made to do.
“Insight” is a weekly column published by Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service. This week’s contributor is Greg Doering, Kansas Farm Bureau. Visit kfb.org.