Nick Dodson

Nick Dodson started farming on his own in northeast Iowa four years ago. He is involved with Iowa State University’s Beginning Farmer Center and Ag Link Program

DAYTON, Iowa — Nick Dodson will be the first to admit the past few years haven't been ideal for starting a farming operation, especially for someone doing it on his own.

There have been issues with weather, trade disputes, and now a worldwide coronavirus threat is impacting commodity prices and the stock market.

“It can be very challenging,” said Dodson, 36. “Why I'm doing this does cross my mind. I'm hoping this thing turns around in the next two to three years. It would be nice to get back to $4.50 to $6 corn. That makes a good balance.”

Dodson, who was adopted from India as a child, grew up here. His father and uncles worked for the International dealer in Stratford and Dayton, and that's where he was first introduced to agriculture and farm machinery. His interest in farming grew during his years in Prairie Valley FFA.

Following high school he completed the diesel technology program at Des Moines Area Community College. Six years ago, he started Dodson Truck and Tractor Repair in Dayton. He works on tractors, trucks and construction equipment, sells tractors, other farm equipment and lawnmowers, and makes hydraulic hoses.

After working on farms during high school and helping friends with their operations over the years, Dodson started farming on his own four years ago. He grows corn, soybeans and hay on rented ground and has a small, mostly Angus cow-calf herd.

He uses cover crops on most of his acres. He's experimented with rye, winter wheat, radishes, turnips and sudangrass.

“Cover crops do help for erosion and have helped with some things for the cows,” he said.

Not having family to fall back on does make it difficult for a beginning farmer.

“But having people tell me I can't do this is part of the drive to prove that I can at least make an attempt at it,” Dodson said.

The stresses of the farm can be particularly hard on young farmers, said Josie Rudolphi, University of Illinois assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, who specializes in studying 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, closer to one in five, or 20%, show this level of depression or anxiety.

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 the level of 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, AgrAbility, 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.

Always on the lookout for new opportunities, Dodson got involved with Iowa State University's Beginning Farmer Center and Ag Link Program, which helps match beginning farmers who do not own land with retiring farmers.

Looking 20 years down the road, Dodson said he hopes to be able to expand his farming operation and own farm land.

To help beginning farmers, he would like to see the Iowa Finance Authority increase the tax credit for cash rent and crop share leases.

“It's doing all right now, but if it could get up higher, it would be better,” he said.

At the federal level, he would like to see a provision where first-time land buyers could borrow from their individual retirement accounts without paying a penalty, similar to what first-time home buyers are allowed to do.

Security Savings Bank at Dayton and the Farm Service Agency have been good to work with when it comes to financing, he said.

“It's good to have lenders that will work with you and watch out for you,” Dodson said.

For young people thinking about getting into farming, especially those who have no family to rely on, outside income is essential, Dodson said. He also urges young people to finish their education.

It isn't easy to start farming, but Dodson has this advice: “Don't give up on what your dreams are just because someone says you can't.”

Additional reporting by Phyllis Coulter.