80s farm crisis, advocacy efforts and its remerging shadow

McPHERSON, KS - The last thing Roger Johnson expected when he knocked on the door of a ramshackle house in western North Dakota was to see the curtain part by the long blued barrel of a rifle.

Johnson, then a credit counselor for a farm crisis program, was far outside of his normal territory. The farmer, an old cowboy with a penchant for swearing and histrionics, had already chased off four other counselors-something Johnson wasn't aware of. Nevertheless he asked the man if he could come in and discuss his plight. The old cowboy finally lowered the rifle and opened the door.

The eighties were trying times for farmers. The previous decade had seen a record of excesses as land prices rose to unprecedented heights and bank loans were handed out like candy. Farm ground was called "black gold," as valuable as the fabled metal. And then it all came crashing down. Land values plummeted by one-third, interest rates soared and thousands of farmers were forced into bankruptcy. Suicides were common. Nor were farmers the only victims; for every four farms that went under, it was estimated, one business collapsed in rural America.

Unlike the Great Depression which impacted almost every American, the financial crisis of the 1980s seemed uniquely and relentlessly the domain of family farms. And like the Great Depression, it was an unforgettable era.

"For those of us who farmed through that time, it is never forgotten," said Kansas Farmers Union president Donn Teske. "People's lives were drastically changed, sometimes violently. Multi-generational farms fell by the wayside to be sacrificed like straw out of the back of a combine. What's really sad is, those discarded farms and farmers were judged to be the failures in society when the events that took them down were out of their control."

Johnson shared his story and others following the screening of the documentary "The Farm Crisis" at the annual Kansas Farmers Union convention in Topeka from Jan. 3-5. With him on a panel discussion were Kansas Rural Family Helpline director Charlie Griffin, Kansas Agriculture Mediation Service director Forrest Buhler, former Kansas Rural Center farm financial counselor Ed Reznicek and Teske.

Johnson was one of a growing cadre of farm mediators and counselors who stepped in to offer support, advice and empathy in response to the Reagan administration's cold shoulder. Occasionally they were able to help farmers but usually the best they could offer was a shoulder to cry on.

The ecumenical response was broadly supportive too, Buhler said. Protestants, Catholics and Jews worked together to find a way to create a support system for farmers in need. "We saw how profoundly they were affected, how it affected them physically as well as mentally," he said. "They needed professional help."

Economists, financial advisers, psychologists and, above all, those with farming backgrounds scoured the land trying to find solutions of which all too few were available. Griffin, raised on a farm but with a degree in marriage, family therapy and stress management, started working with the rural wellness program at the Onaga Hospital when the crisis struck.

"The first meeting I was invited to was sponsored by the Kansas Rural Center," he said. "Room full of guys in bib overalls, very polite, they let me talk an hour on deep breathing and letting go of stress, things we needed to do, but after that all we did was talk. That was the last time I talked about breathing. I told them they needed an attorney, they needed a financial advisor-and yeah, they needed to breathe deep."

Hotlines sprang up to provide relief. Farmers, for the most part inured to change from the weather to uncertain markets, found themselves unable to cope with the suddenness of the crisis. "Change happens to everyone," Griffin said. "What matters is the velocity it comes at you." Finding the right mix of professional assistance proved the key to helping many of those bewildered families survive the storm.

The cowboy's case was typical: too much debt, not enough income. "But," Johnson said, "You still had people. As a person you had worth. Let's figure out how to deal with this farm as a business."

There was nothing radical about the information provided by the counselors, Reznicek said. "We just outlined the structure of the debt problem and gave them strategies farmers could use," he said. A meeting early in the crisis in Effingham brought about 25 farmers and three bankers. After that the phone started ringing and didn't stop.

The crisis lasted a decade. Through their efforts some class-action lawsuits were generated, the number of foreclosures slowed, and some assistance was provided. But it was tough road, and creative measures had to be explored. One seed company donated truckloads of less expensive seed to gatherings, and others followed suit. "It made a difference," Reznicek said.

They made a difference. Farmers started planting milo and soybeans, cheaper, more affordable crops, and cattle prices started picking up. Slowly, at times excruciatingly so, the crisis wound down.

If there were any lessons to be learned, the best one might be attributed to a photographer who sided with Midwestern farmers throughout the worst of the meltdown. He photographed farm auctions and courthouse protests, funerals and moving processions, dispossessed families and armed deputies attempting to keep the peace. He photographed a people both proud and broken.

"I saw this on a sign," he said, "but it stood for what I was seeing. 'Tough times never last-tough people do.' That's the message of the eighties."

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