It’s been a stressful year to be a farmer.

Just ask Jay Schutte, who grows corn and soybeans on 2,800 acres in eastern Audrain County.

First came the rains that brought devastating floods to the Midwest and delayed planting on his Audrain County farm.

That meant hoping for a long growing season, so the crops had time to mature. Now, as he’s harvesting, he’s trying to beat the fall rains that can delay harvest by making fields too muddy for heavy equipment and the grain too wet to store.

He said he's had a lot of sleepless nights lately. Harvest is a few weeks from being finished and the biggest concern right now is an early snow. Schutte normally would start harvesting the first week of September and be finished by Halloween. He’ll likely finish during the first half of November, if the weather cooperates.

"Snow could stop us for a good long while, and these rains we've been having pretty consistently aren't doing us any favors as well," Schutte said. "We're at the mercy of the weather, the markets. We've got to be optimistic, but have to have Plan B through Plan Z."

Those are the challenges farmers face every year. Farmer also are dealing with the ongoing trade war with China and delays in Congress, where a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico has stalled.

The loss of Chinese markets mean a surplus of grain, keeping prices low. And farmers raising soybeans and corn also are upset over the relaxation of federal rules requiring biofuels such as ethanol and soy diesel to be blended with petroleum-based products.

Many farmers don’t have an opportunity to talk with someone about this stress, which can affect their mental health and lead to tragedy.

"It's not the most pleasant topic, but farmer suicide rates are up," Schutte said. "Suicide rates are up on a lot of demographics, but it's up on farmers as well."

Production issues

Through weekly and monthly reports, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service tracks plantings and then the progress of major crops.

At this time of year, corn has typically all matured and most of it is harvested. For soybeans, the other dominant row crop, almost all has matured and the harvest is about half over.

This year has been anything but typical. A small fraction of corn has not matured and only about half has been gathered. The soybean crop is even further behind, with only about one-quarter in.

"It's a really tough year for Missouri farmers and American farmers in general," said Gary Marshall, executive director of the Missouri Corn Growers Association. "We had all the flooding so a lot of ground didn't get planted. We were expecting to see higher prices by now and those prices are only slightly higher. It's still below the cost of production."

The USDA reports show there will be no harvest on almost 1.1 million acres of corn, soybeans and wheat that Missouri farmers expected to plant.

Of 3.5 million acres farmers reported in March they intended to plant with corn, only 3.05 million will be harvested. Farmers intended to plant 5.5 million acres of soybeans, but only 5.03 million will be harvested. Another 170,000 acres of winter wheat, planted in the fall of 2018, were lost before harvest.

Crop yields, especially corn, are doing much better than expected, Marshall said. Corn prices, however, are not enough to cover costs related to this year's planting and harvest seasons, he said.

Yields in 2018 were 140 bushels per acre. This year’s yield, on the acres that were planted, was estimated early this month at 155 bushels per acre statewide, enough to make this year’s crop larger overall than last year. Schutte is getting about 150 bushels per acre.

Corn was bringing $3.58 per bushel Wednesday at MFA Agri Services in Mexico, according to data from Missouri Farm Bureau. POET Biorefining in Laddonia was paying slightly more at $3.68 per bushel. The average price per bushel last year in Missouri was $3.46.

While prices are trending up right now, they are nowhere near the 2011 base price of $6.02.

"In the Mexico, Missouri, area we are fortunate,” Schutte said. “We've got good land. Not super great like in Northern Iowa, but we have very good markets and with POET and ADM being as close as they are, they have been a blessing in this area.”

The soybean base price in 2011 was $12.50 per bushel.

Soybeans as of Wednesday were bringing $8.84 at Archer Daniels Midland in Mexico, according to Farm Bureau data. But farmers are receiving calls that the ADM storage facility is close to being full, Schutte said.

The USDA reports back that up -- the unsold stock of Missouri soybeans from past crops stood at 48.8 million bushels on Sept. 1, up 147 percent from last year. Yields are expected to be about 46 bushels per acre, up slightly from 2018.

Soybeans are bringing less at MFA locations in Centralia and Laddonia — $8.64 and $8.74, respectively.

"Markets have a way to go to be what we’d want to see," Christine Tew, Missouri Soybean Association director of communications and public relations, wrote in an email. "Prices continue to be down, and farmers are most definitely feeling the impact of the price declines we’ve seen in the markets over the past 18 months or so."

Prices on corn still could increase, Marshall said. South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota saw an early freeze before corn was mature, which may affect the test weight and yield for that crop, he said.

"We're fortunate here in Missouri that if you were able to get that crop in, it's mature," Marshall said. "Our corn crop is better in Missouri from a yield standpoint than the northern tier states."

Schutte currently is working to harvest soybeans. His corn crop is about 20% harvested and he’ll return to that crop once beans are harvested.

He didn't plant as much corn as he normally would have due to the wet spring. He usually starts planting in the first week of April, but he wasn't able to start planting until May. One neighboring farm planted corn in July, but plan on just cutting those crops for silage for cattle feed, he said.

"We had some unfortunate weather delays in the spring that we thought would take a lot of yield potential out," Schutte said.

The relatively mild temperatures through the summer and the consistent summer rains have helped with yields, though, at least in Audrain County.

"Prices are not the best though, but at least we have yields," Schutte said.

Policy issues

Trade and biofuel policies are working against farmers,

Agriculture is getting caught up in the middle of the trade agreements because industries, such as steel and petroleum, both heavily needed for farming, are the main focus of the tariffs.

China will purchase 10 million tons of soybeans with tariff waivers, according to reporting from Bloomberg.

That is a blessing for now, Schutte said, but he would prefer to see trade relations normalize. "It's going to take a long time to work through [these crops]. I would like to see a permanent solution, not a temporary Band-Aid," Schutte said.

China grows much of its own corn as the No. 2 producer in the world, Marshall said. Soybeans sold to China is generally used as cattle and hog feed.

Corn growers are hoping for some good news out of Washington on both the trade and ethanol fronts, Marshall said. Corn growers invested in ethanol to take them through the lean times of corn production, but the trade war is affecting ethanol prices too, he said.

The biggest concern about biofuels right now is small-refinery exemptions, Schutte said. The exemptions allow refineries which process fewer than 75,000 barrels to avoid the renewable fuel standard of blending biofuels with petroleum products.

The EPA granted 31 exemptions in August, which added to the already granted 54.

The standard requires 15 billion gallons of biofuel be a part of fuel mixes. The exemptions meant around 4 billion gallons of biofuel are not in the mix.

The EPA has proposed a rule change to increase the share of biofuels in products from larger refineries to make up for the mixture loss.

Schutte, chair of the National Corn Growers Association Ethanol Action Team, is going to Michigan on Wednesday to testify at an EPA hearing on the renewable fuel standard. The agency is granting too many exemptions for small refiners, he said.

“We’re going to be talking about just how much demand destruction has been caused by these small refinery exemptions,” Schutte said. “I don’t want to get real political with everything, but between the trade war, SREs, various other issues that have not been friendly to biofuels as a whole, (President Trump) has not been the friend to the farmer that he’s claimed to be.”

Uncertain future

In 1978, there were 121,955 farms in Missouri, according to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture. The most recent census, taken in 2017, showed 95,320 farms, still second most in the nation behind Texas but evidence of the consolidation that has made farms bigger.

Schutte, who is 56, has been the main operator on his family farm for around 23 years. His family’s farming roots run deep.

His ancestors have been farming in the U.S. since the country’s founding. He worked as an accountant before taking over the farm due to his father’s brain cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“My family on my mom’s side actually fought in the Revolutionary War. When the Continental Congress could not pay the soldiers, [my ancestor] was given a land grant in the state of Kentucky. That’s how we got into agriculture,” Schutte said.

His father’s parents are of German heritage and came to the U.S. just before WWI.

“Most farms are still family owned. Our farm is incorporated, but still we’re owned by the family,” he said about the assumption that many farms are corporate-owned. “That’s a story that gets distorted quite a bit. The next level up in the process, that is certainly more industrialized.”

Family farms are getting larger, however, he said. There are fewer operators on larger acreages, which is consolidating production.

“It’s sad to say, there’s fewer kids that want to stay on the farm. I worked as an accountant for 11 years,” Schutte said. “In 1996, my dad just couldn’t find help and I was asked to return and this is where I’ve been ever since.”

He wants to be able to hand his farm to the next generation, which in his case is the 40-year-old husband of his niece.

Schutte has no children of his own.

Compounding stress

This year’s late harvest compounds farmers’ existing worries about prices and trade, Schutte said.

Exactly how much suicide rates have increased for farmers is a matter of dispute, but some data suggests it is far higher than the general population. A 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that indicated the suicide rate for farmers was five times the national average was retracted due to what the CDC called coding errors.

But an in-depth review of that coding from the National Farmers Union showed that farm owners were lumped into a broad management subgroup that included business executives and school principals,

The suicide rate for farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers subgroup was double that of the general population in 2012.

Farming isn't the simple life people may think, and farmers need emotional support, too, Schutte said.

"There's a lot of groups doing outreach in the different communities. More of that needs to be done," Schutte said.

One group working on outreach programs and providing resources to address mental health concerns is University of Missouri Extension. It is participating in a multi-state project to bring mental health resources to farmers.

University of Missouri Extension received 16 calls between February and August last year seeking mental health and suicide prevention resources. Extension has received 30 calls during the same timeframe this year, Extension Human Environmental Services Specialist Karen Funkenbusch wrote in an email.

There's a parallel between financial concerns and mental health. The increase in call volume is due to weather concerns, planting and harvest and the trade war, she said during an interview earlier this month.

"Look at what we've had in Missouri. We've had flooding, we've had drought, tornadoes, the dairy crash, trade issues, crops didn't get put in, flooding again,” Funkenbusch said. “Mother nature has not been kind to our farmers.”

The states working to provide mental health resources to farmers are Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio. Missouri's Extension office has received information requests from farmers from every age demographic. Younger farmers often will have an off-farm job and they are seeking resources on how to manage the stresses of both on- and off-farm jobs, Funkenbusch wrote.

"They are concerned about losing their farm and trying to figure out ways in which to save it. [They will] openly talk about areas within their comfort zone which is stress, fatigue, sickness, lack of sleep and appetite. Some will openly talk about depression and other related topics," she wrote.

The extension office developed its own resource publications. While the materials published are for anyone, they resonate most with farmers, Funkenbusch said. Informational brochures feature farmers, livestock and other agricultural images.

"The information [looks at] signs, symptoms, who to call. We marketed the material so that they resonate with our farmers. So that farmers know that it's OK to have stress, it's OK to talk about stress," Funkenbusch said.