Hard times teach lifelong lessons

With the uncertainties surrounding trade wars and tariffs, it’s a stressful time to be a farmer.

But farmers have seen this before, and there are always lessons to be learned from the past.

In January 1980, President Carter enacted a grain embargo against the Soviet Union in response to that country’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. As a result, prices of wheat, corn and soybeans tumbled. Farmers were left with tons of grain and nowhere to sell it.

In northern Indiana Harold Parker was raising cattle and growing corn. “We were still harvesting in late December,” remembers Parker, co-owner of Parker Farms in LaPorte and Porter counties and INFB District 1 director. “Then the embargo happened. We were stuck with a lot of corn that we couldn’t sell. It was a very tough time.”

Steve Maple was a young farmer in the early ’80s. “I never planned on raising pigs my whole farming career,” said Maple, who co-owns Maple Acres in Miami County and is INFB’s District 4 director. “But it was a way to leverage our grain and diversify the farm. Having pigs at that time helped our cash flow and helped us stay afloat.”

Bruce Everhart graduated from Purdue University in 1978 and soon began what would be a 40-year banking career. In the early ’80s he was with Farm Credit, helping farmers work out their loans. He saw the challenges farmers faced firsthand.

“Corn went from $2.80 a bushel to $1.60 a bushel in less than a month. On top of that, farmers were dealing with interest rates at 18 percent,” he said. “It was a devastating period of time.”

Harold Parker was bound and determined to bring his farm through this challenging time. “We lived on a modest budget. I learned to fix everything myself. I worked longer hours and I worked harder.” He also tightened up his relationships with his bankers, landlords and suppliers right away.

As Indiana farmers start to deal with the impact of this trade war, Parker and Maple can’t stress enough the importance of good communication, something they both benefitted from 40 years ago.

“Some of our landlords were great people. They understood what we were going through and they were willing to work with us,” Parker explained. He also made a point to reach out to his banker early. “When things get tough it’s important not to leave your lender until he last minute – have that conversation early.”

Maple and Everhart agree. “It’s critical that you open up with your lender and suppliers so they know where you are,” said Maple. Everhart added, “Communicate with your banker. Don’t wait to have those conversations.”

“There is no crystal ball and we don’t know how long these tariffs will last,” said Parker. But he stressed that “we all need to stay positive” and that farmers can’t control outside forces.

“Agriculture is all about change,” said Maple. “It always has been and always will be. The most important thing to remember is change is not always a bad thing. It’s painful when you are going through it, but it’s just a dot on the ribbon of life.”