Betting the farm on record crop, livestock and dairy prices has turned into a losing investment for an expanding share of America’s agricultural heartland. The level of debt to income is the highest in three decades, and growers are increasingly unable to make loan payments.
Four years after record U.S. crop and farmland values boosted purchases of land and equipment, a global surplus has sent prices tumbling and farm income into the longest slump since 1977. The Federal Reserve says growers are borrowing more to pay bills, repayment rates are plunging, and the number of bankers requesting additional collateral is the highest in 25 years.
While low interest rates and savings from big paydays not long ago have kept farmers in better financial shape than the bankruptcy crisis of the mid-1980s, signs of stress are increasing, especially for growers who invested during the boom years. Farm income is down 42 percent from a record in 2013, government data show, and MetLife Agricultural Finance predicts farmland values will tumble 20 percent by 2018.
“Unquestionably, some farmers are not going to make it,” said Dan Kowalski, director of research at CoBank, an agricultural lending cooperative based in Greenwood Village, Colorado. “If they made aggressive growth decisions and did it with debt, that won’t work out well. Credit quality is starting to slip on the farm and smaller agricultural businesses. Bankers are asking if they have the cash flow to pay bills.”