CORNING, Iowa — Rev. Andrew Bardole makes a cross on the forehead of a patron at Background’s Coffee Bar & Boutique, a part of Ash Wednesday observances in this Southwest Iowa community.
Bardole is the pastor of Corning United Methodist Church, just up the road a few blocks. He and another minister are out and about in the community on this first day of Lent, administering to those who want to participate.
Many members of Bardole’s congregation are farmers, and he says the struggling ag economy has them worried.
“I’ve talked to a few farmers, primarily regarding financial issues,” he says. “Many of them have had to diversify more than in the past to add income, and they are feeling some stress.”
Rev. Jessica Jacobsen sits across from Bardole. She is the pastor at United Methodist churches in nearby Villisca and Grant, and says the combination of low grain prices and a long winter is affecting everyone’s mood.
“People are hauling grain farther and farther, when the snow allows them to get out on the road,” Jacobsen says.
Both pastors said despite the financial struggles of some, they have not counseled farmers who are having difficult dealing with that stress emotionally.
“I’m really not seeing that, or at least people aren’t talking about it much,” Bardole says. “The farm economy will come up in conversations because that is pretty much common ground for most at our church.”
Financial stress can start affecting farmers emotionally, says Paul Lasley, Iowa State University Extension sociologist. He says rural hotlines are seeing more and more calls, and more people are being impacted by the struggling ag economy.
“The consensus seems to be that unless things turn around quickly, the situation is going to become exacerbated over the next two or three years,” Lasley says.
Many farm families have had to add off-farm income to make ends meet, he says. This can add to the stress load.
“They are working harder and longer hours just to get by,” Lasley says. “It just makes it tougher.”
Less farm income also means less disposable income, meaning farm families are spending less in their communities.
“Discretionary expenditures are often the first thing to go,” Lasley says. “That has a ripple effect throughout the community, and pretty soon that will begin to hurt those communities.”
Lasley says it could also push residents to relocate.
“They look down the road and see their neighbors are also struggling, and that’s tough,” he says. “Those who are struggling financially are likely dealing with high levels of anxiety and uncertainty. How long can that continue before we see some relocation?”
Cora Fox, ag policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., says divorce rates and other family problems will likely rise as the economy continues to struggle.
She says this is not the time for farmers to keep problems to themselves.
“Communicate with your family. Let them know what is happening,” Fox says. “Farmers are proud people, but there is no shame in talking to someone.”
Economic woes have resulted in less tithing, both pastors say. Congregation members are more willing to provide services, Bardole says, because the extra money just is not there.
“People want to give as much as they can,” he says. “When they can’t give money, they give us time. They want to help out, and we certainly appreciate it.”
Their communities seemed to be handling the current economic situation as well as can be expected. Jacobsen says Villisca recently lost its grocery store, but Dollar General has announced plans to open a store there. Jacobsen says the community is working to open a daycare center.
Bardole says Corning continues to have a nearly full Main Street, but adds it is difficult to tell how well businesses are doing.
“We seem to be doing pretty well at the moment,” he says. “We’re all hoping the economy turns around quickly.”