Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the public television series “Sunflower Journeys” for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company – Prairie Hollow Productions.

Farmers, ranchers and rural communities in Kansas are facing tough 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 edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. We grew wheat, corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and grazed cattle on our pastures. It was a typical medium sized farm for this part of the country.

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

When he began to consider retirement in the late 1970s, it became apparent that it would be up to me to carry on our family’s farming tradition, as my older siblings were all gone. I would have been the fifth generation to carry on our family’s farming operation, if it were to continue.

As much as I didn’t like the idea of ​​losing our family’s connection to the land, however, there were challenges in making a generational shift in how it operated.

Did it make sense for me to stay? Was I ready to handle it all?

During the year that we considered how we might transition from operating our family farm, the economics of agriculture continued its downward trend. Crop and livestock prices were not tracking production costs.

A big tractor motorcade in Washington, D.C.passed through our region as the American Agriculture Movement attempted to rally forces and win “parity” in the prices farmers received. Simply put, parity means that the prices farmers receive for their crops must cover their costs and provide them with a decent income.

During the year that we considered how we might transition from operating our family farm, the economics of agriculture continued its downward trend. Crop and livestock prices were not tracking production costs.

It was a long, slow, cold ride to DC in February 1979 for hundreds of farmers in their tractors, grain trucks and motor homes. When they finally reached the capital, they marched through the streets and were assembled on the National Mall, establishing a base from which to organize their protests and venture into their lobbying efforts.

At one point, a major snowstorm halted all transportation in the city. Farmers came to the rescue, helping clean the streets and ferrying emergency personnel across town, generating valuable goodwill.

Years later, in an interview with former U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum, she recalled sympathizing with the farmers who came to her office on Capitol Hill during the protests. She felt quite sensitive to their plight, she told me, but she couldn’t support their call for parity because of the negative effect she expected it would have on the economy as a whole. .

After about three weeks in DC, the farmers returned home without making any significant changes to federal farm policy. The future prospects for family farms remain bleak.

A few months later, the Soviet Union launches an invasion of Afghanistan. It started on 1979 Christmas Eveand in early January 1980, President Jimmy Carter has imposed an embargo on US wheat and corn destined for the Soviets, immediately halting a deal involving several million tons of grain.

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

During the 1980s, we witnessed an increasing number of agricultural seizureswho even managed to catch the attention of Hollywood with films such as “The country” (with Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard and Wilford Brimley) portrayed the deep anguish of farm families and rural communities across the heartland.

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

An equipment auction at the Kendall Farm drew members of the public to view the various items for 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, Topeka’s PBS station.

“Tomorrow’s Harvest” focused on the challenges faced by three Kansas farm families as they pondered how to maintain viable farm operations.

Barry Flinchbaugh, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University, provided his assessment of the situation as he looked into the 21st century: “I won’t be the least bit surprised in the year 2000 to find the lively family farm, but there will be far fewer than there are now.

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

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

With Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and subsequent economic sanctions against Russia, farmers now face increased fuel and fertilizer costs. At the same time, grain prices are rising due to the ongoing dispute over the geographic region where the wheat we grow in Kansas comes from.

Kansas farmers prepare to plant their spring crops and need to figure out which crop mix to plant. If Ukrainian farmers are kept away from their fields by a war raging around them, the world will become more dependent on others to increase production.

Kansas farmers prepare to plant their spring crops and need to figure out which crop mix to plant. If Ukrainian farmers are kept away from their fields by a war raging around them, the world will become more dependent on others to increase production.

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

Current Kansas Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Beam confirms that farmers continue to experience extremely high levels of stress, noting that a new national campaign to solve the problem is underway this year. (Resources for Kansas farmers in crisis are available online at Kansasagstress.org.)

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

Rural communities usually come together when disaster strikes. If a farmer suffers a heart attack or illness just as his wheat is ready to be cut, we often hear of neighbors coming to take care of the harvest for him. It’s just what the neighbors do.

It is not so easy to help a neighbor when his affliction is hidden in the core of his being. It requires a keen eye and a caring heart that feels the need for support.

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

Post Scriptum : The day after this piece ended, a grass fire started and was heading towards our rural house. Our neighbors spotted the smoke and intervened to put out the flames. My wife and I were away, and if they hadn’t, we might have had a very sad return.

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

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