Opinion

History of challenges adds to current stresses for Kansas farmers and their communities

April 3, 2022 3:33 am
Kansas farmer Bill Kendall, the father of columnist Dave Kendall, stands on combine during wheat harvest. (Submitted by Dave Kendall to Kansas Reflector)

Bill Kendall, the father of columnist Dave Kendall, stands on combine during wheat harvest. (Submitted by Dave Kendall to Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions.

Kansas farmers, ranchers and rural communities are dealing with challenging conditions these days. Stress is high and uncertainty abounds. Farming has never been easy, but there are a lot of variables at play now that complicate things.

I grew up on a farm on the western fringe of the Kansas Flint Hills. We grew wheat, corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and grazed cattle on our pastureland. It was a typical, average-sized farm for that part of the country.

My father came back to the farm after serving in the Navy during World War II. He took over the operation from his father, whose father and grandfather both farmed the land before him, reaching back to 1859.

When he began to consider retirement in the late 1970s, it appeared that it would be left to me to continue our family’s farming tradition because my older siblings had all moved on. I would have been the fifth generation to continue with our family’s farming operation, if it was to continue.

As much as I disliked the notion of losing our family’s connection to the land, however, there were challenges in making a generational shift in its operation.

Did it make sense for me to stay? Was I prepared to deal with it all?

During the year in which we considered how we might transition the operation of our family farm, the economics of farming continued on a downward trend. Crop and cattle prices were not keeping up with production costs.

A large tractorcade to Washington, D.C., passed through our area as the American Agriculture Movement attempted to rally its forces and gain “parity” in the prices farmers received. Simply stated, parity means that the prices farmers receive for their crops should cover their costs as well as provide a livable income.

During the year in which we considered how we might transition the operation of our family farm, the economics of farming continued on a downward trend. Crop and cattle prices were not keeping up with production costs.

– Dave Kendall

It was a long, slow-moving and cold ride to D.C. that February in 1979 for hundreds of farmers in their tractors, grain trucks and campers. When they finally reached the capital, they paraded through the streets and were corralled on the National Mall, establishing a base from which to stage their protests and venture forth with their lobbying efforts.

At one point, a major snowstorm shut down all transportation in the city. The farmers came to the rescue, helping to clear streets and transport emergency personnel across the city, generating an appreciable amount of goodwill in the process.

Years later, during an interview with former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, she recalled commiserating with the farmers who came to her office on Capitol Hill during the protests. She felt quite sympathetic to their plight, she told me, but she could not support their call for parity due to the negative effect she expected it would have on the economy as a whole.

After about three weeks in D.C., the farmers returned home without achieving any significant changes in federal farm policy. Prospects for the future of family farms remained bleak.

A few months later, the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Afghanistan. It began on Christmas Eve of 1979, and in early January of 1980, President Jimmy Carter placed an embargo on American wheat and corn heading to the Soviets, immediately halting a transaction involving several million tons of grain.

The embargo had little effect on the Soviet Union, but the bottom fell out of the U.S. grain market and farmers found themselves dealing with an even more problematic situation. President Carter’s popularity sank, especially among farmers, and Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981. 

During the 1980s, we witnessed an escalating number of farm foreclosures, which even managed to catch the attention of Hollywood as films such as “Country” (starring Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard and Wilford Brimley) depicted the deep anguish roiling farm families and rural communities throughout the heartland.

By then, I had made the decision to forego the opportunity to take over my family’s farm. My father had sold all his equipment and livestock. I was living in Lawrence, pursuing another degree at the University of Kansas, where I learned how to produce documentaries.

An equipment auction on the Kendall farm attracted members of the public to look at the various items on sale. (Submitted by Dave Kendall to Kansas Reflector)

As “Country” hit theaters in the fall of 1984, a documentary I produced about the future of the family farm premiered on KTWU, the PBS station in Topeka.

“Tomorrow’s Harvest” focused on the challenges facing three Kansas farm families as they considered how to maintain viable farming operations.

Barry Flinchbaugh, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, provided his assessment of the situation as he looked down the road to the 21st century: “I won’t be the least surprised in the year 2000 to find the family farm alive and well, but there will be many fewer of them than there are now.”

As Flinchbaugh predicted, Kansas farms continued to decline in number as they grew in size, and the situation facing those that remain today continues to be challenging and stressful.

There have always been unpredictable weather conditions and volatile markets, but now the armed conflict in Europe’s breadbasket has made the situation even less predictable.

With Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent economic sanctions levied against Russia, farmers now face significantly increased fuel and fertilizer costs. At the same time, grain prices are increasing as a result of the conflict, which is taking place in the geographical region where the wheat we grow in Kansas originated.

Kansas farmers are preparing to plant their spring crops, and they have to determine which mix of crops to plant. If Ukrainian farmers are kept out of their fields by a war grinding on around them, the world will become more dependent on others to step up production.

– Dave Kendall

Kansas farmers are preparing to plant their spring crops, and they have to determine which mix of crops to plant. If Ukrainian farmers are kept out of their fields by a war grinding on around them, the world will become more dependent on others to step up production.

How will this balance out for Kansas farmers? What effects are the additional complications and uncertainties having on their health and well-being?

The current secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, Mike Beam, confirms that farmers continue to experience an extremely high level of stress, noting that a new statewide campaign to address the issue is getting underway this year. (Resources for Kansas farmers in crisis can be found online at Kansasagstress.org.)

This stress on farm families reverberates throughout rural communities. The suicide rate has been on the rise in rural Kansas and is already much higher than in urban areas. It has been exacerbated by the increased isolation brought on by the pandemic, as well as new challenges associated with climate change.

Rural communities typically pull together when a catastrophe strikes. If a farmer suffers a heart attack or illness when their wheat is ready to be cut, we often hear of neighbors coming in to handle the harvest for them. It’s just what neighbors do.

It’s not so easy to help a neighbor when their affliction sits hidden at the core of their being. It requires a keen eye and a kind heart that senses the need for support.

But we all have the ability to show a little compassion for those who may be struggling, even if we may find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence in the ongoing culture wars.

Postscript: The day after finishing this piece, a grassfire flared up and was heading toward our rural home. Our neighbors spotted the smoke and jumped into action to douse the flames. My wife and I were away, and if they had not done so, we may well have had a very sad homecoming.

The response I received when I expressed my deep gratitude: “It’s just what neighbors do.”

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Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. “The Road to Santa Fe: A Convergence of Cultures” is being distributed to PBS stations across the U.S. and is made available for use in schools. The production has received an award of merit from the Santa Fe Trail Association.

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