Even with the advantages Missouri offers agriculturalists, farming is not an easy task in any given year. The profession requires long hours and relies heavily on the weather.

Advancements are made each year to make farming and ranching more efficient and more productive. Genetically engineered seed allows crops to survive with less water and requires fewer chemicals. Precision technology allows farmers to apply fertilizer in a constant, controlled manner. Genetic data allows ranchers to make more informed culling decisions. And that’s just to name a few.

The Show-Me State has an $88 billion agricultural industry employing nearing 400,000 people across the state working 28.3 million acres on nearly 100,000 farms. 

It’s to no surprise that agriculture is the number one industry in Missouri. And quite the diverse industry it is. 

In 2016, the top agricultural commodities in the state are, in order: soybeans, corn, cattle and calves, hogs, and broilers. Across the nation, Missouri ranks in the top ten in production for beef cattle, soybeans, corn, goats, turkeys, hogs, rice, hay, cotton, rice, broiler chickens, and horses. 

Part of the diversity can contribute to the terrain. Fertile soil, great for growing crops, is plentiful across the state. The Ozark Plateau, the largest part of Missouri, is covered in forested hills and known for its large lakes and clear rivers. In the Bootheel region, rich farmland supports crops ranging from cotton and rice to corn and soybeans. 

This varied terrain allows the state to produce many different and unexpected crops including several grape varieties that make Missouri wines. 

But agriculture is an industry that depends heavily on the weather. The lack of snow last winter combined with the lack of rainfall this summer has put many Missouri farmers in a tough situation. Combined with the escalating trade war, Missouri farmers are facing ongoing struggles. 

An ear of corn in northern Missouri during the drought (ALISHA SHURR/THE MISSOURI TIMES).
An ear of corn in northern Missouri during the drought (ALISHA SHURR/THE MISSOURI TIMES).

The Drought

“I’ve never fed hay in August in my entire career as a farmer, all the way from being on my dad’s farm. But, I did two weeks ago for the first time, and I’m not the only one who’s doing that,” said Missouri Governor Mike Parson on August 20.

From livestock to row crops, the drought in Missouri has affected nearly every sector of agriculture, putting increased strain on the industry.

While Missouri is dry during the month of July 2018 had less rain than average. Aggravating the effects of the lack of rain during the recent months was a lack of snow during the winter months, ponds that farmers use never had the chance to replenish. 

“Agriculture is more dependant on weather than any other industry, except maybe golf,” said David Drennan, the Executive Director of the Missouri Dairy Association. 

The lack of rain hindered the growth of pastures and feed crops for livestock along with corn, soybean and other row crops. 

Some farmers were forced to bring in hay at a high price from out of state, some harvest their crops early, and some sold portions of their herds to make the bills. 

“Some people are not going to make it, unfortunately,” Parson said during an August press conference on the drought. 

But there were portions of the state that didn’t suffer the drought conditions to that extreme. Some farmers got enough rain throughout the summer for their crops to survive, if not thrive.

Twenty-eight percent of Missouri’s corn was rated as good to excellent by the United States Department of Agriculture over the summer. 

“Where I live, we were fortunate enough to get some rain,” said Todd Hays, Missouri Farm Bureau Vice President. “It’s kind of a mixed bag.” 

Market Uncertainty

Farmers and ranchers are also taking a hit with market uncertainty on a multitude of fronts. Not only is an escalating trade war with China hurting the bottom line, but negotiations over North American Free Trade Agreement is ongoing and the EPA granting of hardship waivers is unexpecting decrease renewable fuel demand.

“The tariffs are on everybody’s mind. I think most people want to see something done,” said Jones. “Getting a good trade deal negotiated is essential to get more stability for future generations.”

But in the meantime, agriculturalists in Missouri are feeling the effects. 

Prices on products have dropped and industries across the spectrum have suffered billions in damages nationwide. In Missouri alone, the soybean industry has lost $36 million in economic activity due to a 10-cent drop in prices. The National Milk Producers Federation estimates that the industry across the country has suffered $1.8 billion in damages from the tariffs. 

Depending on the agricultural commodity, Mexico and Canada are Missouri’s two biggest exports for goods. 

Drennan called the President Donald Trump’s move on trade “long overdue” saying that “some of the trade deals we have had have not been the best.” 

“We are optimistic we will get a negotiated NAFTA soon,” said Shane Kinne with the Missouri Corn Producers Association. “We want to make sure we get that locked down and get that certainty with our biggest trade partners.”

But the tariffs and trade deal negotiations aren’t the only factors to an uncertain market. 

While leading the EPA, former Dir. Scott Pruitt granted an unprecedented number of hardship waivers for the renewable fuel standard, with more waivers granted that decreased the demand for crops that are used in renewable fuel.

“When farmers go to plant they look at that demand and if that demand is cut in the middle of the year that is problematic,” said Kinne. “We are hopeful that with Pruitt leaving the EPA will gain some stability back.

“We are working to get some of that certainty back so that when farmers go to plant, they have a better picture of what their demand will be.”

PHOTO/ALISHA SHURR

Ebb & Flow

Like any industry, agriculture has its ups and downs. There are several industries within agriculture expanding — or were expanding before the drought hit. 

“We all have our low points and farmers aren’t immune to it,” said Hays, “but there are also high points.”

While sheep may not be a major commodity in Missouri, it is one of the faster-growing livestock species in the state. 

Ray Jones, President of the Missouri Sheep Producers, said he doesn’t really see any livestock area expanding at the same rate as sheep. 

“I think overall the industry is poised to increase in the state with new people coming in,” said Jones. “I attribute that too with smaller acreage, it is easier to have a larger number of sheep.”

In Missouri, the state has seen an increase in the popularity of hair sheep. There is a lack of accessible markets or shearers to handle wool. 

The pork industry in the state is also in a growth phase though the actual number of hogs is nowhere near 1940s numbers. And before the drought hit, the cattle industry was also on the fast track to expand. 

“We were increasing the herd size in the state, we are the second largest cow/calf state in the nation, and we have a lot of farmers involve,” said Mike Deering, Executive Vice President of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association. Missouri has the second largest number of cattle ranchers in the country with more than 52,000 producers. 

The dairy cattle industry, on the other hand, is in a holding pattern until the weather improves and the economic situation improves. 

“I don’t think there is anyone going to be expanding their herd or operation right now,” said Drennan.  

Moving Forward

“Farmers are getting really good at being good stewards of the land,” said Kinne.

The agriculture industry is making advancements everyday. The industry is working to raise livestock better and growing crops more efficient. 

Don Nikodim, the Executive Vice President of the Missouri Pork Association, notes that the way hogs are housed currently is a huge advance compared to 50 years ago. 

“Hogs are in much better environments nowadays,” said Nikodim. “The vast majority of pigs are held in environmentally controlled buildings where we protect the pigs and the farmers from mother nature. This means the pigs don’t have to suffer through the heat in the summer and the cold nasty weather in the winter.”

Data technology as a whole has been a boom for the livestock industry. Genetics markers and DNA can be used to make sure each industry is putting the best product forwards. DNA testing also helps screen for potentially fatal diseases. Feed technologies have also made improvements.

There have also been advancements made in seeds, fertilizers, and chemical applications. 

“Farmers are getting better and better every year at growing a crop,” said Kinne. “Weather conditions that may have eliminated a crop 10- or 15- or 20-years-ago, we are seeing better biotechnology to help get farmers through. Genetics getting better and better, so you see farmers producing more each year.”

Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at alisha@themissouritimes.com.