The ’80s farm crisis, advocacy efforts and its remerging shadow

Author: Kristy

The velocity of change: memories of crisis

Produced by Iowa Public Television, “The Farm Crisis” examines the causes of the farm crisis of the 1980s, explores the difficulties farm families and rural communities faced.

by Tom Parker, Kansas Farmers Union  |   March 17,2014

McPHERSON, Kan. — 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. READ MORE

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