Office with pen and paper

Joe Coultas has always been frugal. So he hasn’t had to make major adjustments during the hard times farmers are experiencing.

“I operate pretty lean anyway,” said Coultas, who farms near Woodlawn, Illinois, in Jefferson County. “I’ve been in this game my whole life, and I’ve learned to cut costs as much as I can.”

Low grain prices and supply-and-demand pressures have created some economic unease over the past several years. But farmers, perhaps more than those in some other professions, are cognizant of their cash.

Jerry Miller has a reference point for dealing with hard times. His father, Larry, survived the farm crisis of the 1980s. He did it with a combination of strategies, including cutting costs.

“My dad lived through the ’80s and I tried to pay attention to some of the lessons,” said Miller, who farms in Thompsonville, Illinois. “One thing we’re doing is keeping credit cards paid down. When the money was good, we didn’t really think about credit. We’ve been focusing on those that might be a bit out of hand.”

Net farm income in Illinois has yo-yoed over the past several years, but living expenses have not moved much, according to figures compiled by the University of Illinois. Average annual net farm incomes go up and down drastically, from more than $200,000 to negative numbers.

During the four-year period from 2014-17, the last year numbers were collected, household farm living expenses ranged from about $82,000 to $89,000.

“Living expenses are pretty sticky. It’s hard to get them to come down,” said University of Illinois ag economist Gary Schnitkey. “Once you start living at a certain level, it’s hard to back it down.”

Many expenses are so essential it is difficult to trim them.

“You have consumables, but a large part of that is often medical,” Schnitkey said. “We’re talking insurance premiums and that sort of thing.”

Long-time farmers who have been successful learn to bridge the high economic times with the low ones. Miller is aware that he needs to watch expenses, but admits it is difficult.

“We’ve tried to curb the eating out, but it’s hard to do,” he said. “We probably have not done a very good job with those things. On a daily basis, we were watching things before all this happened, so we were staying the course.”

He said he is delaying major purchases.

“I try to keep my wife in as nice a car as possible, but instead of trading the car we have, we’re keeping it for another two or three years,” he said. “That seems to help tremendously. Also, I have a barn full of stuff I don’t need that could be sold.”

Coultas hasn’t done much different lately, even as farm income has been inconsistent. He doesn’t have satellite television, using only an antenna. He doesn’t have internet.

“It’s not worth a nickel out here in the country,” Coultas said. “So I don’t have an internet bill.”

But he winters in Florida every year.

“I still live a good life,” he said. “I crappie fish, so I eat a lot of fish. My girlfriend is a good cook. We don’t go out much.”

He does have one idea for how farmers in Illinois can save money, though it’s not a practical solution.

“One thing I would do if I could is move out of the state of Illinois,” he said. “The taxes are getting ridiculous.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.