John and Sue Hughes

John and Sue Hughes started farming in 1979 and experienced the challenges of low prices and droughts in the 1980s and other challenges in the years to come. But all considered, they would do it again, John said.

STREATOR, Ill. — Starting farming is like having a baby: If you wait until it’s the right time, you would never do it, said a northeastern Illinois man who has been farming full time for more than 40 years.

“There’s no perfect time to start farming,” said John Hughes, a LaSalle County crop farmer

who started his career in 1979, before the downturn in grain prices, rise of interest rates and periodic droughts of the 1980s.

“It wasn’t a great time to start farming. I don’t know if there’s ever been a good time,” said John, now 67.

He and his wife, Sue, raised three children on their farm. Sue said one of the best things about farm life was seeing her children grow up interacting with their grandparents.

“They were loving and giving and it felt warm and nice,” she said.

Two years ago, the couple sold their cow-calf herd and switched to grazing fewer cattle for locker meat, which is in demand in their community. This allows them to travel more easily outside the busy cropping seasons.

“If I knew then what I know now, I …” John started to say, then paused and said he would choose to be a farmer again.

Starting out

John worked for the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Services, after graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

“When I went to college, I didn’t think I’d come back to the farm. I didn’t think there would be an opportunity,” he said.

But an opportunity arose when land became available. He and his father shared equipment but had separate operations.

“It was the smartest thing I ever did,” John said.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he wondered if that was true, but he enjoyed those early days. They would shell corn, bale and work together, often with neighbors.

“We had all the good things and bad things that come from working with family,” John said.

John’s first decade farming full-time had almost as many ups and downs as an elevator in a Chicago office building. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter put an embargo on Soviet grain in retaliation to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. grain “took a dip,” John said. And a drought followed in 1981.

Two years later brought more drought. In 1988, there was a third drought.

“Until 2012, ’88 was the worst crop we ever had,” John said.

Grain prices were higher that year, John recalled. That same year was the last one they raised hogs.

“Looking back at the 26-year-old me, what I didn’t know was probably a good thing I didn’t know,” John said. “It would have worried me to death. Now, at age 67, we have a buffer.”

Surviving the ’80s

Gary Schnitkey, Extension economist with the University of Illinois, said the biggest difference between the downturn in the 1980s and today is then the lower commodity prices were combined with high interest rates, inflation and high land prices. In recent years, land prices and interest rates have been stable. Another difference is the aid for farmers provided through the Market Facilitation Program, which helped some farm another year, Schnitkey said.

As for the attitude of farmers this year, the agriculture economist said, “I wouldn’t say optimistic — but more even keel.”

The current farm climate has farmers dealing with a great deal of uncertainty, said Paul Lasley, Extension sociologist with Iowa State University.

“You really have two issues,” Lasley said. “For some, this has been the best of times. For others, it has been the worst of times. For those who want to get into farming, the timing is good with the falling land values. For those with a large amount of debt, they are unable to rein in their production costs.”

Lasley said low commodity prices have cut into farm equity. He said factors that are out of the hands of farmers, such as weather, disease and trade disputes, further exacerbate the problem.

It has farmers making tough decisions just to keep their heads above water.

“They are looking where they can cut,” Lasley said. “They are making do with the equipment they have. They aren’t spending as much money. That has a ripple effect on rural communities and the ag business sector.”

He fears if the bad stretch continues much longer, farmers who got started in the last decade may face even more severe challenges.

Keep going

The 1980s and 1990s were challenging years for farmers, but John and Sue made it through.

“We had a good support system,” he said of family and community.

Kevin Nelson, a certified crop advisor and agronomy consultant who has worked professionally and on community projects with John, sees basically four reasons why farmers who farmed in the 1980s are still farming today.

“They had good support networks that they depended on and listened to. Some had family, some had trusted advisors, many had both,” Nelson said. They had a strong faith. They did everything they could to not be overextended. And they were able to go without sometimes to keep the operation above water.”

For John some of the most fun in farming started in 2007-08, when he was able to pay down debt.

“Crop yields were good. Prices were good,” he said. “I enjoyed those years.”

Johns said he would tell a beginning farmer to “start small. Trade labor for equipment. Know there’s going to be some lean times.”

Additional reporting by Jeff DeYoung.

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