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It's that time of year again when your intrepid commentator whips out a divining rod, a scrying ball, a set of tarot cards and three marbles to prognosticate the most critical ag stories for 2020.

Before we dig into 2020 let's review last year's top five.

USMCA

The United States Mexico Canada Agreement has been a political football in 2019.  Democrats demanded stronger more enforceable labor standards.

U.S.-China Trade War

The trade war remained front and center of U.S. agricultural concerns throughout the year.  For much of the year the war escalated with tit for tat tariff increases ratchet up by the two trade superpowers. 

Alt Meat

I suggested 2019 could be the year that alternative meat products hit retail outlets and groceries in a huge way and that is exactly what has happened.  Traditional meat producers are doing what they can to stop consumers from buying alt meat by picking fights over whether its appropriate to actually use the word meat in the labeling of alt meat products.  Meanwhile newly marketed alt burgers and alt chicken products are being snapped up by consumers.

Dicamba

We mostly missed on the continuing fight over the use of dicamba to control soybean weeds.  Not because it no longer is a problem.  Quite the contrary.  What we didn't see what how complicit the Environmental Protection Agency has been in ignoring dicamba drift killing crops in other fields.  Rather than acknowledging dicamba needs a major overhaul to solve the drift problem the EPA approved new application labels it claimed would fix the problem.  Uh no.

Climate Change

The do nothing White House has brought the world to the brink.  Much more on this later.

Alright on to 2020.  Not completely trusting in my assembled guessing tools I reached out to my fellow staffers at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting to get their thoughts.  The list is both eclectic and informative. Some issues have great immediacy while others have huge ramifications for years ahead. I picked one issue from each reporter to wax on … but give full props to them for coming up with some hot topics.

Farm Bankruptcies

The eye catching disturbing top line number came in October from the American Farm Bureau Federation.  The AFBF reported farm bankruptcies rose 24 percent from 2018 to 2019. Farm bankruptcies rose to or above decade-highs this year in Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Driving factors for the bankruptcy spike include a multi year down turn in farm economy, and adverse growing seasons in both 2018 and 2019.  Retaliatory tariffs issued by China on U.S. pork and soybeans in response to the POTUS trade war have created cash flow problems only partially alleviated by trade assistance, crop insurance, disaster aid and marketing programs.

Without an end to the U.S. China trade war it is unlikely farmers will dig out of their financial hole in 2020.

Mental Health on the Farm

As Americans we tend not to talk much about mental health issues citing issues of privacy.  But the financial woes over the past year are stressing farmers to the breaking point. Robin Tutor-Marcom, with North Carolina Agromedicine Institute in May put together a massive list of stressors for farmers to monitor:

  1. Decline in care of crops, animals and farm
  2. Deterioration of personal appearance
  3. Increasing life insurance
  4. Withdrawing from social events, family and friends
  5. Change in mood and or routine
  6. Increase in farm accidents
  7. Family shows signs of stress
  8. Increase in physical complaints, difficulty sleeping
  9. Increase in drug or alcohol use
  10. Giving away prized possessions, calling or saying goodbye
  11. Feeling trapped (no way out)
  12. Making statements such as “I have nothing to live for” and “My family would be better off without me; I don’t want to be a burden”

Although measuring the scope of the problem is hard to come by anecdotal evidence is alarming, Farm Aid reports phone calls to its crisis hot line more than doubled last year. 

Ground zero for crisis calls is Wisconsin where dairy producers are losing their farms in record numbers.  Wisconsin's state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer protection reports the loss of 1,654 dairy farms since 2017. 

But farmers of other commodities, especially soybeans and pork, are also feeling huge stress. This problem will not heal itself on its own but requires focused attention from both state and federal agencies. 

Agricultural Land

A major factor that has kept farm income from completely falling off the table has been federal support.  All those taxpayer dollars flowing to farmers have masked real time indicators showing the overall health of the farm economy...especially land values and cash rents.  In 2019 agricultural land values fell 14 percent in Iowa, 4 percent in Indiana, and 3 percent in Illinois.  Meanwhile the Deposit Insurance Corporation quarterly report shows 2.1 percent of commercial ag loans are more than 30 days past due, the highest level in 8 years.  Could land values fall further in 2020? Most assuredly. 

Water

Most Americans got it good (well, not the folk in Flint, Michigan) when it comes to water.  It's generally clean and plentiful. But there's a world-wide water crisis. Some 785 million people lack clean water world-wide.  Every two minutes a child dies of a water related disease.

Closer to home water demand in the U.S. demand is expected to broadly increase as the population grows from its current size of approximately 328 million people to 514 million people in 2100.  And yet water has not become a national issue of significance. 

Climate Change

Everything we've written about thus far for 2020 is certainly important, but all those issues pale in comparison with climate change.  Here is an iron clad take it to the bank truth. Humanity is slowly killing our planet and we've reached a tipping point where a world wide response is necessary to to deal with release of carbon into the atmosphere. 

While my managing editor might get miffed if I turned in a climate change blog every week, I believe I would be totally justified in writing about climate change 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (and on leap year 366 days).  Just in the last month we've learned:

1. It's very likely that thawing permafrost – carbon-rich frozen soil across huge stretches of Siberia, Greenland, Canada, Alaska – has resulted in the Arctic becoming a net emitter of CO2. How much?  The 2019 Arctic Report Card estimates that permafrost ecosystems could be releasing as much as 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually.  That's equivalent to all CO2 released by Japan and Russia.

2.  Extreme weather patterns are making it more likely of a massive simultaneous  crop failure of corn and beans. The study, published in Nature Climate Change, suggests climate change is modifying the summer jet stream, increasing the likely hood of bulging heat domes that create record heat and dry spells.

3. While Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about the impacts of climate change there is huge gaps in knowledge and understanding of climate science.  A survey by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation shows while 3 in 4 Americans agree that humans are influencing climate change a third of adults say they can't do anything about it.  That's a huge problem because Congress is unlikely to do anything to stem the planet's suicide without a massive grass roots effort to compel the government to act.

4.  A report from the United Nations says the 2015 Paris Accord to limit carbon release has thus far been a bust.  The UN's annual emission gap report says global temperatures on on track to rise by 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.  The UN report concludes that global greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling this year and every year by 7.6 percent to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

I could go on for days and not exhaust all the reporting and issues surrounding climate change in 2020 and beyond.  Nothing (that's nothing) is more important. Educate yourself on the issue. Challenge your state and federal representatives to be part of the solution.  Make climate change a key issue when you go to the ballot box this November. Right now there is a child being born somewhere, maybe right in your family, who could very well live to see the turn of the next century.  If world leaders fail to pull the earth back from the brink of irreversible climate change damage, it will be a very different and perhaps more harsh environment for future generations.

There's still time to act...but just barely.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dikcey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.