Producers struggling with high property taxes, low prices reaching out in record numbers
December 7, 2018
Nebraska's Rural Response Hotline is the longest continuously serving farm crisis line in the country, a literal lifeline for farmers and ranchers in trying times. Established late in 1983 during the height of economically devastating times in agriculture, the hotline is far more than a voice on the other end of the line reading a script.
It is a collaborative effort between farm and ranch organizations Nebraska Farmer's Union and Women Involved in Farm Economics, and the Nebraska Grange, as well as church groups, all represented on the board.
Nebraska producers, hit particularly hard by high property taxes and retaliatory tariffs, are reaching out in record numbers for support. In fact, the hotline has set four new monthly records for the most new, high financial stress callers to the hotline.
"We're nearing year five of prices at or below cost of production," John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmer's Union said. Hansen has served on the hotline's board for 29 years.
“They know what happens when the wheels come off in farm families. They’re very good at assessing what is really going on and what is needed.”
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The cost of production between operations, he said, can vary wildly depending on whether the land is paid for, the main factor driving overhead prices. Cash rent in Nebraska is higher than surrounding states, a symptom of property tax rates.
"If you owe very much money on machinery or capital improvements of one kind or another or you're borrowing most of your operating capital and your land costs are fairly high, you're in trouble," he said.
Off-farm income, as it has been in years past, is a necessary part of farming, especially in years that require equipment or technology purchases. Callers to the hotline hail from operations of all sizes and types, all areas of the state, and all ages, though Hansen said young farmers are particularly vulnerable.
"We've had a tough go but we've had a tough go over a longer period of time," he said. "One year is tough but you can usually work your way through it, two years is tougher, but when you get down to three, four, five years in a row you've used up a lot of cash and you're losing equity. You can only live on depreciation so long."
Hansen said he survived a significant market downturn in the 1970s and had to make tough decisions in the 1980s as well. He said he's witnessed a huge loss of agriculture operations in the past 30 years and is committed to the hotline and it's value to Nebraska producers.
AG EDUCATED STAFF
The hotline is staffed full-time and contracted with Nebraska Legal Aid. The person on the other end of the line is likely also a farmer or rancher and is familiar with the stressors and more able to effectively help than those unfamiliar with the industry. Being versed in multigenerational transfers and other scenarios farm families work through makes them better able to help.
"They know what happens when the wheels come off in farm families," he said. "They're very good at assessing what is really going on and what is needed."
Callers to the hotline can access more assistance than simply an understanding ear, though that's also available. Hansen said many calls are prompted by the receipt of a letter from the bank, declining future funding. Hotline operators can then ask questions to delve in and get the assistance necessary whether it's food assistance or help gathering and updating financial records to get a clearer picture of financial standing of the operation. The hotline is also able to provide mental health counseling vouchers from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for $75 per hour professionals in nearby communities who are familiar with agriculture.
"When people are trying to talk about their cattle, they understand rather than telling them if things are tough, they should quit," he said. "That is who these folks are, their identity, their inheritance, their legacy. This is not an average, run of the mill business."
Financial clinics are also offered through a partnership with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture covering recordkeeping, financial management, and other means of gaining an accurate financial picture of the operation.
"When times get tough, who wants to spend time going over books that just confirm your worst suspicions?" he said. "But if you don't have those numbers, how do you work with your lawyer, how do you work with your banker, how do you have an accurate financial assessment of your operation?"
Attendance at financial clinics across the state has been high this year. A partnership with Nebraska Legal Aid allows the hotline to provide legal assistance from legal professionals who specialize in agriculture. Interchurch Ministries administers the program and the grant that makes it possible and provides callers a cohesive program of help.
"What goes on in the ag community and what people perceive goes on in the ag community are often two completely different things," he said. "When you're talking to folks outside of agriculture and you're saying farm bankruptcies are up, we're going to see five to 10 percent of ag borrowers this year are in serious trouble and another 20 or 30 percent are on the bubble. People read it in the paper but say they thought things were going pretty well in agriculture."
The toll free number for the hotline is (800) 464-0258. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.