Scott Brown

For Scott Brown, 2019 was the hardest year since he started farming in 2013. His grandfather, who is now 92, said it was the worse year he has seen for farmers as well.

OTTAWA, Ill. — While it is common knowledge “it takes a village to raise a child,” Scott Brown firmly believes it takes a community for a beginning farmer to succeed. 

Brown, who grows corn and soybeans in northeastern Illinois, said it is especially important to have people and knowledge to draw on during a tough weather year like 2019.

“My grandpa is more than 90 and he has never seen a year like this,” said Brown, who is starting his seventh year of full-time farming. His dad, Marty, and grandfather, Jim, are essential resources to him.

The aftermath of 2019 is clearly seen around the Browns’ LaSalle County neighborhood. Soybeans are still standing in skiffs of snow on land Brown was unable to get planted last spring. The soybeans are cover crops on prevent plant land. This spring he hopes to resume his crop rotation and plant corn here.

This field is representative of many of the cropping decisions he had to make in 2019.

“Last year we didn’t turn a wheel in the month of May. Hopefully we don’t have a repeat of that,” the 35-year-old said.

Brown lives with this wife, Tiffany, and their three children, ages 6 months to 6 years, within a mile of his parents, Marty and Marsha Brown, and his grandparents, Jim and Mary Brown, near here. Jim, now 92, is currently in a nursing home but still offers insight and encouragement his grandson can use.

“When I was younger, I got to see the friendship my dad and grandpa had, and the good communications of everyone involved,” Brown said. “It would be really challenging to get into farming and run an operation without that support.”

His wife, the project manager of health research at Northwestern University in Chicago, is also an essential part of the team.

And it takes a community to run the farm — the co-op, the machinery dealers, the landlords.

“Without all of them working together, we wouldn’t be successful,” Brown said. “It’s so important to get the right people on your team.”

Takes team work

Although he grew up on a farm, Brown said the six years he spent after college working for a construction aggregate company in Naperville, including as a sales analyst, also help him today.

Kevin Nelson, a certified crop advisor who has worked with all three generations, agrees.

“Scott’s business perspective really had an impact in 2019 with unprecedented prevent plant levels in LaSalle County. Scott was able to help separate emotional attachment and business decisions for the operation and move the season along,” Nelson said.

Last year some of the fields had fantastic yields and others were drowned out. How well some of the crops did was surprising considering how late in June they were planted. But 2019 was still stressful when the corn came off so wet.

“It was harder on the augers and harder on the people,” Brown said.

Brown said he enjoys looking at data, something he did at his previous job, but the first few years back in farming, he depended on his dad in helping choose seed varieties.

“I’m blessed to have my dad show me how a successful operator should work. He coached me and mentored me,” he said.

The farm benefits from the technology Brown brought to the operation and uses.

Together, the Browns investigate new products and equipment and decide what brings the most value to the operation, “and what we can afford.” Brown said their goal is to make “the next right decision, one at a time.”

Stress adds up

Not all young farmers have the support system Brown has, and the stress can be immense, said Josie Rudolphi, University of Illinois assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, who specializes in stress and mental health.

Young farmers — identified as age 35 and under — have significantly higher anxiety and depression levels than the general population, she said, citing her study of young farmers in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Dakota. In the survey, 60% showed at least mild depression and 70% at least mild anxiety. In the general population that number is closer to one in five, or 20%.

According to the young farmers, their No. 1 source of stress is personal finance.

“That’s not surprising at all,” she said.

Other factors they cannot control, including trade uncertainty and weather, were big stressors. Time pressure and relationships with employees and family can also add to anxiety.

There is no data yet to compare this generation to older farmers but Rudolphi will be exploring that in a newly funded study.

A next step is gathering together public health, commodity groups, church groups, Agr

Ability, Farm Bureau and other organizations to take an inventory of the mental health resources available to farmers and their families, she said. Then it’s important to get that information out to the people who need it, an effort kicked off with a rural mental health summit March 4 in Bloomington, Illinois.

On another front, this spring or summer, a new Mental Health First Aid program will be offered in Illinois that teaches mental health literacy, information delivery and crisis care to agri-business people, bankers and others who help farmers.

If there were financial stresses and issues when he was a kid, Brown said he never knew about it.

“They may have sheltered us,” he said of his parents and grandparents.

He was aware there were some harder times, but they all got through it.

A young farmer today has the best chances of getting through tough years like 2019 with the support of family and community, he said.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.