One of Kate Huffman’s early memories is of looking out over crop fields, as she sat on the “windowsill” of her grandfather’s tractor, riding alongside him while he tilled the soil. She now lives in her grandparents’ farmhouse, across the street from the house where she grew up.
For Huffman, the smell of freshly turned dirt reminds her of the farmers in her family who have worked this same piece of land in Kewanee, Illinois for six generations.
“It really just evokes hard work,” she said. And that connection she shares with this land and her family is a “really big part of who I am, and the character behind me,” she said.
Today, Huffman’s farm grows soy and corn, two crops whose prices have dropped as stay-at-home orders change consumer demands here in the U.S. and in overseas markets.
But despite that, she’s in the midst of planting next year’s crop, though it’s uncertain what demand for that crop will look like in the future.
“You’re still out there trying to do the normal day, trying to get the crop into the ground so that the world can be fed,” she said.
Farmers like me are struggling
Huffman also works as a financial officer for farmers, helping clients secure loans for land, equipment and other costs. She said she sees that work as a way to help others create, secure and pass on a farming legacy like her own family’s.
“I love being a financial officer — being able to guide our farmers in the right direction financially, to be able to create that legacy for generations to come,” she said.
But upheavals like COVID-19 sometimes threaten to undo those farming legacies. Huffman said the pandemic’s disruption comes after a particularly difficult time for farmers, who’ve seen a downturn in prices over the last six years, as well as a trade war with China and unusually heavy rains.
“Last year, 2019, Mother Nature really wreaked havoc on us,” she said, referencing heavy rains that kept farmers from being able to sow seeds during their usual window.
“As COVID-19 enters the picture, there’s a lot dimmer light,” she said. “There’s the question of consolidation, there’s the question of ‘Do I just retire?’”
But she notes that it’s too soon to tell whether the pandemic will force many farmers to close up shop for good. Farmers are used to dealing with all kinds of challenges. The industry’s business model is, after all, “based on multiple variables outside of our control,” including weather patterns.
Huffman said she’s optimistic because she’s seen the resilience of farming families. No matter what faces them, they always make a comeback.
“They’re going to whine about the weather. We didn’t get enough rain, we didn’t get enough sunshine, whatever,” she said. “You’re also going to see people smile and laugh and talk about the good times. They’re going to talk about the legacies. They’re going to tell you stories that you wouldn’t even believe they survived.”
Isabel Carter is an intern for WBEZ. Joe DeCeault is a senior producer for WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter at @joedeceault.
Paula Friedrich is WBEZ’s interactive producer. You can follow her on Twitter at @pauliebe.