Ten tactics to face farm financial issues

Melissa O'Rourke image

Contributed by Melissa O’Rourke, B.S., M.A., J.D. Farm and Agribusiness Management Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, morourke@iastate.edu

The farm economy is cyclical in nature, and in recent years has been impacted by one crisis after another. Agricultural credit conditions are described as having an overall decline which deepened in the first quarter of 2020 after some signs of improvement in the fourth quarter of last year. On the ISU Extension and Outreach Farm Management team, we hear from farmers and agricultural lenders about rising debt levels, cash flow issues and farm financial stress. 

Farm financial stress can generally be thought of as an inability to meet debt service payments – both principal and interest. The severity of the financial stress depends on the debt level, interest rates (cost of the debt), and the farm income available for debt service. In recent years, low interest rates and sufficient farm income have kept financial stress at bay for many operations. Nevertheless, we continue to hear from producers and lenders about elevated levels of financial stress on the farm.

Confronting a tough financial situation is a challenge for anyone. It’s not unusual for producers to procrastinate and avoid facing the problem. Just hoping things will get better is not a solution – but many folks do not know where to start.

Following are several suggested actions to get started in figuring out how to proceed. This list of tactics to consider are not necessarily in a particular order – but presented as possible approaches to move forward and address the problems, depending on the farm business and family circumstances.

Tactic One: Seek support for stress management

Financial difficulties can cause significant emotional stress. Start by talking to someone. Do not be embarrassed to reach out to family members, friends, or professionals who can just listen. A good place to start may be the Iowa Concern Hotline via the website (which includes e-mail or chat) or the toll-free number: 1-800-447-1985. Since 1985, the Iowa Concern Hotline has been available 24/7 with trained counselors who can provide access to an attorney for legal education, stress counselors, information and referral services for a wide variety of topics.

Tactic Two: Gather debt and income information. 

While good accounting would direct us all to have current financial documents – starting with a balance sheet (or net worth statement) and income statement – folks who are facing strained finances may have avoided record-keeping tasks. Start by gathering all debt information – both for the farm as well as personal debt (vehicles, credit cards, personal spending). It’s useful to have an online or computer-based accounting system, but do not hesitate to get back on track with a pad of paper or the back of a pizza box. Write it down – balance owed, to whom, and when the next payment is due (monthly, quarterly, annually) and the payment amount. After starting this process, explore the financial planning resources available on the Ag Decision Maker website. Guidance is available on how to build financial statements, including information on understanding and building net worth statements (the balance sheet) and farm income statements

Next, estimate available expected income during the next twelve-month period. Again, include all possible income from on-farm and off-farm sources.

Part of this information gathering should include collecting any written communication or notices that may have been received from lenders. The act of compiling this financial data is a first step in facing the extent of the problems faced. Defining the problem may help stimulate ideas for solutions. And, to get help from advisors, a fairly-accurate picture will be necessary. 

Tactic Three: Evaluate the assets

Again, an updated balance sheet would enumerate and place values on current, intermediate and long-term assets. But think about assets that may not appear on the balance sheet. Go over the most current balance sheet available, and add any assets that might not appear there. Include farm and personal assets. Are there items of equipment no longer needed? Is there a motor home no longer in use? Is there a land parcel that is no longer an essential part of the farm operation? Make conservative, best estimates of the value, and consider whether the asset could be used to generate cash.

Tactic Four: Outline possible plans, identify advisors

Have a personal brainstorming session. This is not intended to be a final, detailed plan, but an outline of possible strategies going forward. To assist, think about who might be able to help identify strategies. This might be the farm bookkeeper, accountant, tax or other financial advisor, a personal lawyer, an insurance professional – someone that can help with financial troubleshooting to focus on where solutions may lie. There may be other respected people with good judgment and a set of clear eyes who could give a fresh perspective on the operation. These are the kinds of people to sit down with, talk things through, and see what ideas might arise. 

Tactic Five: Cash generation and belt tightening

Basically, financial problems arise when income exceeds expenses – due to an assortment of causes. Contemplate assets which could be used to generate cash, either through sale or lease—but remember there may be tax consequences of selling depreciated assets. Is there custom work or other services that would raise some income? Explore off-farm employment of one or more household members. Consider both farm business and personal or family-living expenses. Eliminate or reduce discretionary spending. Medical insurance is a significant expense which may be decreased via off-farm employment. Ideas on how to stretch cash flow can be found on the Ag Decision Maker website.

Tactic Six: In-depth farm financial analysis

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a free farm financial planning and analysis program. This service consists of confidential financial counseling, a computerized analysis of the farm business, and possible referral to other useful programs or services. The program uses FINPACK software to provide a more complete picture of the farm’s financial situation. An in-depth plan with options helps a farm operator work with lenders to make decisions for the future. Trained extension associates meet with farm operators to discuss the results of the analysis as well as the impacts of possible changes. The service is offered at no charge. 

Tactic Seven: Communicate with bankers, lenders, creditors

Avoidance is not a winning strategy, and it’s common for those facing financial stress to sidestep those to whom money is owed. Make a list of set times to visit in-person about the situation. Bring along the data that has been gathered – accompanied by an outline of proposals to address the problems. Before the meeting, review guidelines of good communication skills. If communication has become strained, consider bringing along one of the other advisors or professionals that may have assisted in brainstorming or analyzing the situation. A third party may be able to serve in a facilitation role, at least to take some of the stress out of the conversation. As part of the communication process, openly share ideas for cash generation or expense reduction. There is the possibility some aspects of the farm operations have become unprofitable and should be eliminated. Talk about ideas for debt restructure – perhaps debts that could be consolidated, or stretched out to reduce payments.  In this regard, it may be worthwhile to talk to other lenders who might have a different view of the future potential of the farm business.

Tactic Eight: Professional advice on debt restructure or bankruptcy

Depending on a wide range of factors, it may be wise to seek professional advice on the need for debt restructuring. Iowa State University’s Center for Ag Law and Taxation (CALT) provides a number of resources and articles that can facilitate the thought process. In particular, there is an article on how to find an attorney who has expertise in this field and can provide solid advice on next steps.  

Tactic Nine: Explore mediation services

Mediation is a process where parties meet with a neutral third-party who assists in identifying solutions to a problem or dispute. Information is available about agricultural mediation services at the CALT website, including a video about how mediation works. In Iowa, mediation may be a voluntary process – but it may also be mandatory. Iowa Mediation Service is a non-profit organization founded in 1985 and dedicated to solutions for farmers, families, and anyone who may find themselves in need of a dispute resolution expert. There is even a short video that explains agricultural mediation services. If the farm’s financial situation has reached a point where professional mediation services are needed, this is an excellent resource available to Iowa farmers.

Tactic Ten:  Contemplate retirement or liquidation

For some folks – depending on age, health, family situation, and many other circumstances – it may be time to consider retirement or partial to full liquidation. Retirement from farming can lead to a new phase of life which could result in new accomplishments. Lessons learned in farming can be a basis for new experiences. While some approach retirement or liquidation with apprehension and a sense of uncertainty, many later report a feeling of relief and freedom to move on to other opportunities and interests. Of course, it is important to consult with a range of advisors regarding tax consequences and obtain guidance on managing future life plans.

In summary, these tactics are offered to provide possible actions for farm families facing financial issues. Consider each action and move forward. Most importantly, avoid isolation at times of stress and work to surround yourself with people who can listen and perhaps provide encouragement or assistance.

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ARC/PLC Decision Deadlines Loom

Steve Johnson, headshot

Contributed by Steve Johnson, Extension Farm Management Field Specialist, sdjohns@iastate.edu

Iowa producers on row crop farms have until March 15 to make a 2-year election and then enroll by commodity crop and USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) farm number. There really is no reason to delay, as no ARC-CO/PLC payments are projected for the 2019 crops. Besides, many FSA offices could be swamped as the deadline approaches.

Undecided producers should start by understanding the importance of the effective reference prices of $3.70 per bushel for corn and $8.40 per bushel for soybeans. In order to trigger a PLC payment, the final national cash for the entire marketing year must be below these levels. The national cash price projections for the 2019 crop as of January 10, 2020 are $3.85 per bushel for corn and $9.00 per bushel for soybeans, respectively. Thus, no PLC payments are expected for corn and/or soybean base acres that are elected and enrolled in the PLC program.

If there are 2019 ARC-CO or PLC payments, it will likely be in a county with exceptionally low 2019 final yields. These final county yield numbers from the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) will not be known until later this year. The 2019 Iowa yields from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) January report were estimated to be 198 bushels per acre corn and 55 bushels per acre for soybeans. Such levels indicate that most final county yields are likely too high to trigger a 2019 ARC-CO payment.

If there is a 2019 payment, it will likely be under the ARC-Individual (ARC-IC) program. The producer probably has a farm with poor 2019 yields and possibly prevented planting acres. That producer should consider electing and enrolling all crops by FSA farm number in the ARC-Individual (ARC-IC) program if a likely payment will be generated. It will require further examination and production evidence for each commodity crop produced on that farm since the 2013 crop year.

It’s actually for 2020, that an ARC/PLC payment seems more likely. Corn and soybean planted acres are expected to increase by roughly 11 to 12 million total planted acres for both crops as a result of the large prevented planting acres in 2019. Two sources of 2020 price projections released last fall are the USDA Outlook and the Food Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri. Both sources project an increase in 2020 US corn planted acres by 2.5 to 4.5 million acres and use 30-year trendline yields assuming normal production. Those 2020 crop cash price projections for corn are $3.40 and $3.53 per bushel, respectively. Thus, the likelihood of a 2020 PLC payment for corn that would be received in October 2021, as the final cash price would fall below the reference price of $3.70 per bushel.

Using those same two sources for 2020 soybean cash price projections, US soybean planted acres would increase between 7.5 and 8.5 million acres as compared to 2019.  Again, they use 30-year trendline yields and normal production. Those 2020 crop cash price projections for soybeans are $8.54 and $8.85 per bushel, respectively. Thus, no 2020 PLC payment for soybean base acres is expected as the final cash price is not below the effective reference price of $8.40 per bushel. However, the lower national cash price improves the chances of ARC-CO payments for soybean base acres depending on the final county yields.

Producers will also have a one-time chance to update their PLC Farm Yields starting with the 2020 crop. Even if a producer elects the ARC-CO or ARC-IC program option, the PLC yield can be updated and becomes the public record of the farm’s yield. Supporting evidence for the PLC Yield Update will likely come from a producer’s crop insurance records if a program crop was produced in the 2013 thru 2017 crop years. In some cases, the yields for a crop insurance unit might not match with the FSA farm number and will need to be averaged. Note the farmland owner on cash rent farms will need to approve this PLC Yield Update and sign the form CCC-867 unless a power of attorney form is on file.

Use the ISU Ag Decision Maker ARC/PLC Payment Estimator and PLC Yield Update Tools to provide your analysis. More Information on the 2018 Farm Bill, including web casts on various pieces of the program, can be found on the Ag Decision Maker Farm Bill page.

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Income Tax Changes for 2019

Charles Brown headshot

Contributed by Charles Brown, Extension Farm Management Field Specialist, crbrown@iastate.edu

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was signed into law December 22, 2017. Among many changes, it created new tax brackets for 2018 thru 2025. It also eliminated the deduction for personal exemptions and raised the standard deduction in 2019 to $12,200 for single fliers, $24,400 for married filing jointly and $18,350 for head of households. Keep in mind that most of the changes in TCJA end in 2025 and move back to pre-2018 tax law.

Table 1. Tax Brackets and Rates, 2019

Section 179 Expense election was one of the changes that was made permanent. In 2019, this is now $1,020,000 and the phase-out starts at $2,550,000. On Iowa returns, the maximum amount is $100,000 and the phase-out starts at $400,000. In 2020, Iowa couples with the Federal amounts.

One of the other major changes in the TCJA was the repeal of like-kind exchange treatment for traded personal property. Under old law when a farmer traded machinery, the farmer depreciated the difference paid plus any remaining basis on the item traded in and no taxes were due. Under TCJA when a farmer trades machinery, the trade is considered a sale in the amount the dealer allowed for the trade-in, triggering ordinary taxable gain, and the farmer gets to depreciate the full purchase price of the machinery received. If the farmer does not want to pay tax on the gain of the trade-in, they are forced to use Section 179 or bonus depreciation to offset the taxable gain. Iowa did not couple with the Federal change in 2018, but maintained the old like-kind exchange rules. In 2019, for Iowa returns, farmers may use the old rule for like-kind exchanges or use the new Federal rule. In 2020, Iowa will couple with the Federal rule.

If farmers are forced to use Section 179 or bonus depreciation to offset gains from trading machinery, there can be other consequences. Excessive accelerated methods of depreciation reduce net Schedule F income, possibly taking it down to $0 or maybe even a negative situation. IRA and other retirement plan contributions are based on earned income (Schedule F). The deduction for self-employed health insurance is based on Schedule F net income. Contributions for self-employment tax are based on Schedule F net income. Reducing Schedule F income affects money available for retirement planning and other “above the line” deductions taken on the 1040. Also new in 2018 was the new “post card” 1040 Form that also had multiple schedules attached to it. After numerous complaints, there is another new 1040 Form for 2019. This one is a combination of the old 1040 and the 1040 from 2018. Maybe eventually they will get it right. I am not sure I can stand more simplification in our tax code.

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Pricing drought damaged silage

Contributed by William Edwards, extension economist

Corn that has suffered severe drought damage is sometimes harvested as silage instead of as grain. It can still have significant feed value if harvested at the right stage. See the article “Alternatives for Drought-damaged Corn—Grain Crop or Forage” for harvesting recommendations. Any damaged acres that are covered by crop insurance should be viewed by an adjuster and released by the insurance company before harvesting takes place.

Grain producers may be willing to sell to the corn standing in the field, to be harvested by the livestock producer or a custom operator. The buyer and the seller must agree on a selling price.  The seller would need to receive a price that would give at least as good a return as could be received from harvesting the corn as grain. The buyer would need to pay a price that would not exceed the feeding value of the corn.  Within that range the price can be negotiated.

One ton of normal, mature standing corn silage at 60% to 70% moisture can be valued at about 10 times the price of a bushel of corn. For a $3.50 corn price, a ton of silage would be worth about $35 per ton. However, drought stressed corn may have only 5 bushels of grain per ton of silage instead of the normal 6 to 7 bushels. A value of about 9 times the price of corn would more appropriate. For silage with little grain content, a factor of 8 times the price of corn can be used.

If the crop is sold after being harvested and transported, those costs must be added to that value, typically $5 to $10 per ton, depending on whether it is done by a custom operator or the buyer, and the distance it is hauled. A buyer would only consider the variable costs for harvesting and hauling, whereas a custom operator would need to recover fixed costs, as well.

More information on valuing forage in the field, including an electronic spreadsheet for estimating a value for corn silage, for both the buyer and the seller, is available from Ag Decision Maker.

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Videos provide financial tips, explain mediation

Chad Hart, ISU Extension Grain Marketing Economist, highlights new Iowa State University Extension and Outreach videos for today’s current farm financial situation.

With commodity prices low and projected to stay that way over the next couple years, farmers have begun to feel the pinch in their pocketbooks. This has made managing the finances of the farm that much more important. With this in mind, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has released two videos that deal with the current farm financial situation and what can be done to alleviate financial pressure.

I host the first video, titled Tips for Managing Margins. It offers ideas for how to weather the next few years of low crop prices like protecting capital, reviewing production costs and renegotiating loans.

The second video, called Understanding Farm Mediation, was created in partnership with Iowa Mediation Service and is about the process of mediation. Mediation is an option available to farmers as they work with their creditors to find a mutually beneficial solution to a delinquent secured agricultural debt of $20,000 or more.

This short video provides tips to help farmers better understand what mediation is and when it may be necessary. It describes the process and provides a step-by-step guide on how to prepare for mediation.

While mediation is available should it be needed, ISU Extension and Outreach also provides these financial resources to help farmers create a financial plan for their operation:

  • The Iowa Concern Hotline provides free legal information to both rural and urban Iowans. Services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 1-800-447-1985.
  • The Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation provides information about the application of developments in agricultural law and taxation.
  • Farm Financial Associates are available to provide a no-cost look at a farm’s complete financial situation.
  • The Beginning Farmer Center helps inform and support those who are getting started in farming. It also works with established farmers on succession planning for when they leave the industry.
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