Cal McCurdy, center, farms in southwest Iowa with his son Mike, right, and grandson Aaron, left. Cal and Mike both survived the farm crisis in the 1980s, while Aaron joined the operation just a few years ago.

BRIDGEWATER, Iowa — Cal McCurdy left the family farm for the Navy near the end of World War II. He spent time in Japan, Korea and China, and his LSM (Landing Ship Medium) sailed past the USS Missouri as the peace treaty with Japan was signed on Sept. 2, 1945, bringing the war to an end.

When Cal, now 92, was discharged, he eventually returned to farm in southwest Iowa. He and his wife, Wilma, raised a family and expanded their diversified farming operation.

In the early 1970s, their son Mike started farming right out of high school. He and his wife, Sandy, began a family.

“It was going pretty well,” Mike says.

But in the early ’80s, higher interest rates and inflated land values started to take their toll on the farm economy.

“We wondered if we should give up,” Cal says. “We talked to Mike and Sandy one night and told them to think about it overnight, to decide what they wanted to do. They told us the next day they were staying put, and we told them we were going to hang in there, too. It was a tough time for a lot of people.”

They used an FHA loan to keep the farm afloat, eventually turning to Union State Bank in Bridgewater. The family still uses the bank today.

“We won’t ever forget what they did for us,” Cal says.

A third generation joined the farming operation in 2012, when Mike’s son Aaron returned home after 10 years in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, serving from 1999 to 2009. He was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism.

Aaron had his own business in North Carolina, but when he and his wife, Trish, wanted to start a family, he felt the farm in Adams and Cass counties was the place to be.

“He asked about it and I told him Grandpa’s getting old and I need help,” Mike says. “We went to a sale in Clarinda, bought 30 cows and called Aaron and told him he was in the cow business and there was a note to sign.”

“I worked with the cattle the first year, then we took over a cash-rented farm and did that,” Aaron says. “We’ve just taken it from there.”

The family struggled in the mid-’80s like many farm families, says Paul Lasley, Extension sociologist with Iowa State University. But last several years have been markedly different than the ’80s.

“You really have two issues,” Lasley says. “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 says low commodity prices have cut into farm equity. He says factors that are out of the hands of farmers, such as weather, disease and trade disputes, further exacerbate the problem.

“We are seeing what something like coronavirus can do to the economy because of all the uncertainty in agriculture,” he says. “We have had weather challenges the past two years with wet springs, dry summers and wet falls, not to mention the flooding problems. When you put economic stress on top of this uncertainty, it’s going to weigh on farmers.”

Farmers are making tough choices just to keep their heads above water.

“They are looking where they can cut,” Lasley says. “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.”

The current political climate also has some farmers on edge, he says.

“They are very frustrated with the election process and the polarization we are seeing,” Lasley says. “They are looking for people to provide hope and some certainty, and this is going to cause elevated levels of stress.”

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

“There are still going to be opportunities, but the pale of discouragement will get worse if things don’t improve soon,” Lasley says.

Belt tightening is nothing new for the McCurdys. It started in the 1980s and has continued.

“We take care of what we have,” Mike says.

Things seem to be going pretty well. Cal is selling his cows to his son and grandson this spring.

“Dad’s supposed to be retired, and this year we should finally see it,” Mike says. “He’s giving up the cows finally. It will be good for him not to have to worry about it.”

Cal says he was happy Mike decided to continue farming in the 1980s, and is proud of Aaron not only for his military service, but his role on the farm.

“It was a struggle in the ’80s, but we paid our debt and survived,” he says. “We worked through it.”

Aaron adds the current economy offers its own challenges, but he is happy with his decision.

“We wanted to raise our family in a small community,” he says. “It’s been tough at times, but we’re making it work.”

Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.