Escaping 1980: How Does the Farm Economy Compare to the ’80s?

Posted by David Widmar on November 16, 2020

by Brent Gloy and David Widmar

“How do current conditions compare to the 1980s?” This is a question we are frequently asked, and it is important for many reasons. First, historical data can provide context – or a benchmark – of current conditions. Second, the Farm Financial Crisis of that decade has affected nearly everyone in agriculture today. More than three decades later, the lessons, stories, and impacts remain. Even if you were not old enough to personally remember the challenges, you have heard the stories.

Usually, the best questions are the most challenging to answer. On the one hand, there have certainly been similarities between the latest farm economy challenges and the 1980s, a significant decline in net farm income, climbing levels of farm debt, and conditions souring with a major trading partner. On the other hand, some conditions – such as interest rates – could not be more different.

It’s like that quote from maybe Mark Twain:

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

We often provide context to the 1980s in our writings and presentation. A few years ago, we even wrote an 18-page summary reviewing key metrics and trends. While earlier efforts were narrowly focused, we often wondered how we could review, summarize, and explain the most consequential decades in modern U.S. agriculture.

Escaping 1980

As most of you know, we launched the subscription-based version of our work, AEI Premium, earlier this year. If you haven’t checked it out you can try a free trial here.  While AEI Premium provides users with access to even more data-driven insights and the AFN decision tool, it has also allowed us to expand the AEI team and product offerings. Earlier this Fall, we sat across the computer screen from rural journalist Sarah Mock to launch a new project. Today, we are excited to announce the seven-episode podcast series “Escaping 1980.” The three of us – Sarah, Brent, and David – reflect on the causes, influences, and lasting effects of the 1980s farm financial crisis.

The first episodes can be found wherever you listen to podcasts, with new episodes released each week (iTunesSpotifyPodcast Addict, or Podcast Index). Escaping 1980 has been a fun project, and we’re excited for AEI readers to have a listen.

In full disclosure, we should note two caveats. First, while we tell the story of years ago, we do so with 2020 on our minds. What lessons can be learned and applied today? How can we think about the uncertainties and challenges of today?

Second, it’s hard to believe we spent seven episodes talking about the 1980s, but we also skimmed the surface of two decades of history. Sarah spent hours editing this project to bring out the most important elements and themes. For example, entire books were written about events covered in this series (here and here). We certainly could have spent more time talking about the Great Grain Robbery or changes in farm lending practices, but those were just threads of the bigger story we set out to tell.

In short, we hope you enjoy the series and that it also challenges your thinking. As Winston Churchill said:

“The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.”

Escaping 1980- The Trailer

Episodes available wherever you listen to podcast: iTunesSpotifyPodcast Addict, or Podcast Index. Please rate, review, and share with your colleagues and friends.

A Few More Details

  • More details available at
  • Listen to “Escaping 1980” wherever you listen to podcasts: iTunesSpotifyPodcast Addict, or Podcast Index.
  • Sponsors: AEI Premium
    • AEI Premium subscribers made this production possible. Learn more here and here, or start your free 14-day trial. #CultivateYourThinking.
  • A special thanks to everyone who has made “Escaping 1980” possible. First, Sarah Mock, the series co-host and producers. Second, the entire AEI team. It takes a village to pull all this off, and we’re thankful for everyone.
  • More question? Learn more here, or check out our media page.


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