Welcome to Iowa Public Television! If you are seeing this message, you are using a browser that does not support web standards. This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device. Read more on our technical tips page.

Iowa Public Television

 

Causes of the Farm Crisis

posted on September 5, 2013 at 2:05 PM


During the 1980s, American farmers confronted an economic crisis more severe than any since the Great Depress. Agricultural communities throughout the Midwest and across the nation were devastated.  Families were forced from the land, lenders went belly up and businesses on rural main streets closed, many to never reopen.  It was a decade of turmoil.  Grassroots activists chanted "no sale," politicians marched alongside struggling farmers hoping to change government policies.  Voices were raised in song and protest letting farmers know they were not alone.
And let's tell the President that we're not going to fade away quietly into the countryside.  Every day 250 farm families go out of existence, 250 today --

The farm crisis was the result of a confluence of many things -- failed policy, mountains of debt, land and commodity price booms and busts.  And add two droughts, one in 1983 and the other in 1988.  Farmers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time were crushed.  Iowa was the epicenter of disastrous events that brought generations of farmers to their knees.  In 1983 public farm auctions numbered around 500 a month.  White crosses covered courthouse lawns, symbols of farms lost to the economic catastrophe.  By the end of the decade, an estimated 300,000 farmers defaulted on their loans, and more banks failed in 1985 than in any year since the 1930s.

(music)

In the shadows of insolvent banks, abandoned farmsteads and shuttered businesses, there was human misery.

Karen Heidman: The opening statement of the suicide note was, "the farm killed me."

Senator Tom Daschle: It was one of the worst times that anyone in agriculture could remember.  It was a time of attrition, a time of deep, deep pain, a time of great uncertainty.

Dean Hagedorn: There was always a feeling, an underlying feeling of fear, waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Paul Lasley: Being displaced from farming is more than simply the loss of a piece of real estate.  Often times it is part of one's identity, one's heritage, one's status.

Norma Fetter: When we came home, the little one, Joe, he was five years old.  He said that daddy was out in the barn and he was out in the machine shed with a rifle.  And that's how we found him when we came home from church.

The seeds of the 1980s farm crisis were sown decades earlier.  During the roaring twenties the nation's farmers were saddled with debt.  When those debts came due in the 1930s, half of Iowa's farms were lost.  History would repeat itself 50 years later.  The 1980s economic crisis would wipe out nearly another one-third of Iowa's farms.  While every sector of life was affected by the Great Depression, the farm crisis of the 1980s was not the concern of many Americans.

Rep. Jim Leach: In the 1930s, everyone in America suffered -- urban people, the rich banker, the poor farmer.  Everybody lost massively.  Everybody was living close to survival.  And it meant for kind of a national unity.  With the farm crisis in the 80s, basically it was only the farmer.  And this meant the farmer was alone in an island of difficulty.  And that is really something that eats at the soul sometimes deeper than being part of a more general phenomenon.

Tags: agriculture documentaries farm farm crisis farmers Iowa rural