NICKERSON - Geoffrey Burgess filled his grain drill with more seed as the sun faded on a fall afternoon - a new season on the farm is just beginning and all the hope is there.

First-generation farmers, he and his wife, Jenny, had just harvested their best wheat crop in their eight years of farming. Four months later, however, it is evident that elation has disappeared. As he plants the wheat he will harvest in June, he admits sometimes it is tough to be optimistic. Even when you're a farmer.

Their bumper wheat crop didn't make them a penny.

Cash-strapped, with bills piling up, the Burgess' sold their wheat over the elevator scale at harvest - taking the low prices instead of holding on for an uptick.

"It was the best growing season I ever had," said Geoff, then added in his soft-spoken manner, "It’s hard to get excited."

They are among the 2 percent of the population who make their living on the farm, said Jenny. But she also knows much of the rest of America - becoming more removed from their agricultural roots - have no idea the struggles occurring in the Farm Belt.

"It literally cost us to grow wheat this year," said Jenny.

Even veteran farmers affected

Sowing a new crop of wheat typically brings renewed hope to the rural plains. Yet, across this same landscape, the stark reality is evident in the mountains of grain piled high on the ground.

In May, the Kansas Farm Management Service reported net farm income in 2015 hit a 30-year low - reaching a level not seen since the 1980s farm crisis. Last month, the Federal Reserve reported farmers are borrowing more to pay bills, repayment rates are plunging and the number of bankers requesting additional collateral is the highest in 25 years.

It all comes to a head just a few years after farmers reaped record commodity prices for both crops and cattle and oil prices were higher. And with extra cash, farmers were spending money.

Then, everything dropped.

"We don't need $7 corn," said Geoff, who farms in Reno County. "But something in the fours would be nice."

The supply-and-demand cycle is nothing new in farming. Big harvests often mean lower prices and vice versa. And this year, the mountains of grain outside elevators signal a bin-buster harvest.

"We had 80-year-old farmers who haven't seen anything like this," said Scott Co-op CEO Jason Baker of the unprecedented 100-bushel yields. "We might not see it again in our lifetime."

But the signs of hard economic times are evident. At one point, the Scott County cooperative had 10 million bushels of wheat and milo on the ground. Today, there is still roughly 8 million bushels in piles. And the price board inside isn't encouraging, either - hard red winter wheat last week was $2.66 a bushel.

No one is immune. Veteran farmers like Jim Sipes are looking through the books for places to trim. Wheat seed sales at his Stanton County operation have plummeted. Farmers are saving back seed instead of buying from a certified grower in an effort to cut expenses.

Now, after seeing some reprieve this year from a multiyear drought, the climate has turned dry again. Stanton County hasn’t received a rain since Sipes planted wheat in late September. Without moisture, the crop hasn't emerged out of the ground.

When he returned to the farm in 1993, his family was just digging out of the economic slump of the 1980s. In fact, he said, it took their operation until just a few years ago to get back to a sound financial position.

In 2017, he said the farm will very likely be back at the same financial position as the early 1990s.

"I’m going to have my farm basically on life support by this time next year," he said. "We survived this year because of the exceptional yields. We ought to be looking at replacing equipment but we are just trying to survive and see if we have enough money to pay the bills."

Tightening their belts

If it isn't one issue, it is another, said Geoff.

For the past eight years, he and Jenny have been working hard to keep their farm going. They didn't inherit land or equipment - making them a minority among most Kansas farmers. Geoff came from England to work for a local custom cutter. He fell in love with the Kansas landscape and farming. He married Jenny in 2004 and by 2008, they found land to farm.

They expanded in 2013 when they bought out a retiring farm couple - purchasing their machinery, home and taking over the management of their land.

The road hasn't been easy, Geoff said.

Amid the busyness of fall harvest, his cell phone rang as he headed to the local cooperative with a load of soybeans. On the other end is Jenny, relaying that the 30-year-old combine broke down. They could use newer equipment, but the expense of a half-million-dollar combine or tractor isn't in the budget, said Geoff. 

“When we started in 2008 – it was paycheck to paycheck driving a borrowed pickup,” said Geoff as he headed back to the soybean field with parts. "It’s still paycheck to paycheck, but we have our own pickup.”

Every little bit helps, said Geoff. He has a business repairing farm equipment – which keeps him busy through the winter. He hopes to see an increase in work with farmers doing more repairs to machines rather than trading them in. Jenny writes about farm life for several farm publications like AgDaily and Pink Tractor Magazine.

Government programs like crop insurance and conservation programs provide a safety net, said Geoff.

"We are getting $28 an acre from the government to do" best management practices, he said. "In a year like this, it helps a lot."

They always had a strict budget, but amid the leaner times, it is now tighter than before. On the farm, they've returned to conventional tillage to cut back on expensive herbicides. And they continue to repair machinery, including the combine.

"We are cash poor all the time trying to ride it out," said Geoff. "But some of these newer farmers who have new everything ... a whole yard of brand new equipment that they are trying to make payments on with these kind of prices. That would scare me."

In the home, they've tightened their belt, too, including for Christmas, said Jenny.

"There won't be a lot underneath the tree," said Jenny, but added they also do handmade items at Christmas.

"Handmade things are more sentimental than a brand new toy. I think this year a lot of things will be more sentimental because it came from a time of scraping by."

"Every dollar they spend matters"

The Rural Mainstreet Index created by Creighton University, based on monthly surveys of lenders across 10 Midwestern states including Kansas, dropped in October to the lowest since April 2009. The banks expect about 22 percent of farmers to suffer negative cash flows in 2016, and some lenders said farm foreclosures will be an increasing challenge.

David Klaassen, a Marquette attorney who specializes in bankruptcies, said he has seen a steady influx of reorganizations, including farmers filing chapter 11 because their debt load of specialized equipment and inputs has increased above the threshold for more favorable Chapter 12 filings.

It is not just that prices are low, said Kansas State Universality agricultural economist Mykel Taylor, who, along with other extension economists are preparing to do a road tour to discuss the farm economy.

"We've had commodity prices this low, but the difference is cost of production really went up when commodity prices went up. We could afford to pay for land, buy more machinery, we could afford to spray more or fertilize more," she said.

Those inputs haven't necessarily come down much, said Taylor.

"We are coming off a record number of years of being very high - so it is a very dramatic shift," she said, adding farmers can't do anything about commodity prices.

But they can focus on their cost of production.

"Every dollar they spend right now matters," she said. "It is not an impossible situation to get out of, but it will take careful planning and intensive management to make sure they can make it with these lower commodity prices. ... The survival approach is 'How can I bring the cost of production down so I'm able to profit at $3 corn?

"Everything should be on the table," she said.

How long will it last?

Taylor said the depressed prices could last two or three years.

"This isn't hold on, next year will be better," she said.

Some farmers who are highly leveraged with expensive equipment they bought during the boom times, could struggle, she said. Some farmers, nearing retirement, might consider getting out now rather than spending the next five years trying to build back up, she said. Good managers - especially those who survived the 1980s or learned from a parent who did, know how to weather the storm, she said.

And, thankfully, she said, interest rates aren't as high as they were in the 1980s. But the dollar is strong, meaning countries like China are buying at a slower pace.

“The strong dollar is hurting our export markets," she said, adding that could continue for a while. "One reason we have grain on the ground is we don't have the foreign buyers."

Deep-rooted

Sipes said his mother didn't want him to come back to the Stanton County farm. Now Sipes, a fifth-generation Kansas farmer, is in the same boat. His son, Caleb, wants to return to the farm.

Farming out on the hardscrabble landscape is tough. Old-timers say you'll lose one in seven crops, said Sipes. And over the past five or six years, through an exceptional drought, "we lost a lot more than that."

His family has been in the seed business 75 years, but this year was the worst in sales since he started farming. There is room for his son to come back, but Sipes said he might need to look at different ways to diversify if the seed business continues to decline.

When he returned in 1993, he looked over the books. He was surprised by the debt load the farm took on from the 1980s.

"We fought and we fought hard and we dug ourselves out," he said, but added, "Our expenses have gone up 250 percent since 1993. Yet I'm trying to survive on a farm with commodity prices at the same price as when my grandfather started."

He made some money on the wheat ground he owns - thanks to above-average yields in June, but on his rented ground, he figured he needs, along with good yields, $3.86 a bushel to break even. He won't see those prices this year.

"We will be able to pay the bills this year because of the high yields," he added. "There will be a little bit left in the bank but not enough to live on."

If the downturn continues, their operating note will be at a high level. They might have to borrow money to pay the day-to-day expenses.

Yet Sipes persists because of his deep-rooted passion – just like his ancestors. The economy will cycle.

"My office is a huge outdoor space," said Sipes. "I enjoy the sunrises and sunsets. I enjoy being productive. What drives me is working to turn out the best yields."

The same lifestyle is what keeps Geoff and Jenny Burgess farming, no matter how tough it gets at times. Farming together, they lean on each other. They try to keep business and their personal life separate - even making a rule not to talk about the operation at the dinner table.

And, despite it all, they remain optimistic.

The Burgess’ children, Dillan, 9, and Jessica, 3, are making memories on the farm. They can play outside, climb trees, ride the equipment with their parents, watch the crops grow and then help with the harvest. Dillan is even learning to drive the grain cart, Jenny said.

For Jenny, it is hard to put her passion into words. But she added, “It’s an emotional draw,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

So for now, they'll try to keep going while waiting for the uptick. But not everyone is, said Jenny. In the last month, they've seen a few older farmers not wanting to deal with the market volatility. Some are making changes. 

They are renting 500 more acres because of it.

"We are trying to ride the wave," said Jenny. "We know it will hit the beach one of these days but it is just how are we going to land."

Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at abickel@hutchnews.com or by calling (800) 766-3311 Ext. 320.