Iowa Public Television

 

Getting northwest Minnesota farmers back on their feet

posted on February 11, 2000


EVEN TO THE MOST CASUAL OBSERVER IT WOULD APPEAR MANY FARMERS THIS YEAR TASK OF MAKING SOME IMPORTANT DECISIONS. FACING BLEAK MARKET PROSPECTS THE QUESTION FOR MANY OF WHAT TO PLANT THIS SPRING WILL INSTEAD PROVOKE THE QUESTION OF WHETHER TO PLANT AT ALL.

SUCH LIFE DECISIONS ARE NOT MADE EASIER FROM THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR. AND THAT IS WHERE MANY IN FARM COUNTRY ARE DWELLING THESE DAYS.

RECOGNIZING THE SITUATION A MINNESOTA ALLIANCE OF PUBLIC, PRIVATE AND SPIRITUAL ORGANIZATIONS, HAS "WRAPPED" ITS TALENTS INTO AN AMBITIOUS PROGRAM TO HELP GUIDE FARMERS THROUGH THE FINANCIAL AND PERSONAL GLOOM THAT HAS ENVELOPED THEM. TYLER TESKE REPORTS.

THE DESOLATE WINTER LANDSCAPE IN NORTHWEST MINNESOTA ISN'T NEARLY AS SOMBER AS THE MOODS OF MANY ITS FARM FAMILIES. LINGERING EFFECTS OF THE EIGHTIES FARM CRISIS ALONG WITH EIGHT YEARS OF WET WEATHER, FLOODING, CROP DISEASE, AND LOW PRICES HAVE TAKEN THEIR TOLL ON THE RURAL RESIDENTS IN THIS PART OF THE STATE.

STRUGGLING FARMERS IN THE REGION FREQUENTLY ARE UNABLE TO MEET THEIR FINANCIAL OBLIGATIONS. THE WEAR AND TEAR OF INCREASINGLY LARGER DEBT AND DIMINISHING EQUITY OFTEN LEAD TO DEPRESSION AND THE INABILITY TO MAKE ANY SORT OF LONG TERM PLANS.

WILLARD BRUNELLE: "of course they're getting more stressed, they're getting more depressed, and that's how we get them into mental health. I get a new family into mental health every week, every week. And that's telling you what the difficulties are out there."

OUT OF THESE STRUGGLES HAS GROWN A DIVERSE SUPPORT NETWORK CALLED FARM WRAP. WILLARD BRUNELLE WORKS FOR RURAL LIFE OUTREACH, A JOINT VENTURE OF THE LUTHERAN AND CATHOLIC CHURCHES IN THE REGION, AND AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE FARM WRAP NETWORK. WHEN FARMERS NEED HELP, CLERGY, LAWYERS, BANKERS, PHYSICIANS AND OTHERS IN THE FARM WRAP NETWORK REFER THE FARMER IN NEED OF ASSISTANCE TO BRUNELLE OR ONE OF HIS COWORKERS AT RURAL LIFE OUTREACH.

BRUNELLE SPENDS MOST OF HIS WORKING HOURS ON THE ROAD AND IN OTHER PEOPLE'S HOMES. OFTEN HIS ENTIRE JOB CONSISTS OF LISTENING, SOMETIMES FOR HOURS. THE RELATIONSHIPS HE BUILDS WITH THOSE HE HELPS ALLOW BRUNELLE TO TRULY ADDRESS THE NEEDS OF A DISTRESSED POPULATION.

BRUNELLE: "The other thing is when we're sitting at the kitchen table as Rural Life Outreach workers, we have emergency funds. A lot of these people don't even open any letters. I go into many homes where the where the bills are you know eight inches high. And I say, you know 'Let me see your electric bill' and well they say, 'It's somewhere in this pile. I know that they'll call us and they're going to cut us off but I don't have any money to pay for it.' And so we do pay those bills. We pay a lot of bills."

THAT EMERGENCY MONEY, AND ALL OF THE FUNDING FOR RURAL LIFE OUTREACH AND FARM WRAP, COMES FROM AN EVER REPLENISHED SUPPLY OF GRANT MONEY. THOSE FUNDS ALSO PROVIDE PARTICIPANTS WITH MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES, ACCOUNTANTS, LAWYERS, FARM MANAGEMENT TRAINING AND A HOST OF OTHER SERVICES, MOST OFTEN AT NO COST TO THE FARMER. LAST YEAR, MORE THAN 150 FAMILIES IN NORTHWEST MINNESOTA WERE HELPED BY SOME ASPECT OF FARM WRAP.

RICHARD SCHMITZ HAS BEEN FARMING THE LAND SINCE 1976. HE EXPANDED INTO LIVESTOCK WHEN HE BOUGHT A DAIRY HERD FROM HIS DAD IN 1980. AFTER YEARS OF WILDLY FLUCTUATING MILK PRICES, SCHMITZ DECIDED TO SELL THE HERD IN 1998 AND AVOID EXPENSIVE REPAIRS TO HIS DAIRY BARN. BUT THE MONEY FROM THE SALE WAS NEVER REALIZED.

SCHMITZ: "..So I sold the cows and then I had all this money and then F-H-A, you know, took that. And I had to do something so I wouldn't have to pay taxes and that's when Willard Brunelle, through Rural Life Outreach, he come in and helped me out."

SINCE THAT TIME, FARM WRAP HAS PROVIDED SCHMITZ WITH FARM MANAGEMENT TRAINING THROUGH A LOCAL COLLEGE. THE GUIDANCE HE HAS RECEIVED IS HELPING TO BRING BETTER FINANCIAL ORGANIZATION AND REDUCE INPUT COSTS ON THE FARM. SCHMITZ HOPES TO CASH IN ON AN ORGANIC SOYBEAN CROP THIS YEAR AND ELIMINATE AT LEAST A FEW OF THE FIVE JOBS HE CURRENTLY WORKS TO MAKE ENDS MEET.

ON THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM ARE THE FARM FAMILIES MAKING THE TRANSITION OUT OF FARMING AND INTO A NEW OCCUPATION. FARM WRAP IS GIVING THESE FAMILIES ALTERNATIVES TO SELLING THE FARM AND MOVING TO THE CITIES.

THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, CROOKSTON HAS SEEN A NUMBER OF FARMERS TURNED STUDENTS SINCE THE INCEPTION OF FARM WRAP THREE YEARS AGO. BUT THE UNIVERSITY'S GOAL AS A MEMBER OF FARM WRAP GOES BEYOND A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE.

BARBARA MUESING IS THE DIRECTOR OF OUTREACH PROGRAMS AT THE CROOKSTON CAMPUS. SHE HELPED DEVELOP FARM WRAP ALONG WITH BRUNELLE AND OTHERS.

MUESING FEELS THE UNIVERSITY PROVIDES A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY FOR AREA RESIDENTS IN TRANSITION TO GAIN NEW SKILLS AND PURSUE A NEW LIFE WITHOUT BEING UPROOTED FROM THEIR FRIENDS, CHURCHES, AND COMMUNITIES.

THESE NON-TRADITIONAL STUDENTS ARE GIVEN A LIFE SKILLS ASSESSMENT AND ARE OFTEN GRANTED CREDIT FOR MANAGEMENT, TECHNICAL AND OTHER SKILLS AND EDUCATION THEY ALREADY POSSESS. FINANCIAL AID IS ALSO FOUND TO HELP THE "NEW" STUDENTS BEGIN THEIR CONTINUED EDUCATION.

BUT THE HARD PART ISN'T PROVIDING AN EDUCATION.

LANE LOESLIE: "I remember my first contact basically to ask for help was the career councilor here at UMC and that was extremely difficult. Extremely difficult. But I mean they were ready. They said, 'Well, this isn't anything new' you know. And 'you'll do fine'."

LANE LOESLIE STOPPED FARMING AND STARTED SCHOOL WHEN HE WAS FORTY-TWO. LOESLIE SAW HIS ASSETS DIMINISHING AND DECIDED TO GET OUT BEFORE EVERYTHING WAS GONE.

LOESLIE: "When I went in and talked to my banker and said that I was going to quit farming, I think he told me you know "it's it's a sad state of affairs", he said "that that our farm economy is not supported anymore than it is." But he said, "I don't think you'll regret it" He said, "In five years from now" he said, "You'll be extremely happy with your decision."

LOESLIE AND HIS WIFE ATTENDED THE UNIVERSITY AT THE SAME TIME, AND NOW, FIVE YEARS LATER, THEY BOTH HAVE DEGREES AND JOBS. LOESLIE WORKS AS A PROGRAM SPECIALIST FOR THE AGRICULTURAL UTILIZATION RESEARCH INSTITUTE. HIS WIFE IS AN INFORMATION SPECIALIST FOR A LOCAL INTERNET PROVIDER... AND THEY STILL LIVE ON THEIR FARM. WHICH IS EXACTLY HOW FARM WRAP IS SUPPOSED TO WORK.

FARM WRAP'S SUCCESS HAS RECEIVED A LOT OF ATTENTION. AND BECAUSE IT IS MORE OF A CONCEPT THAN A SPECIFIC PROGRAM, MUESING AND OTHERS HOPE FARM WRAP CAN EASILY BE REPLICATED IN OTHER AREAS OF THE COUNTRY.

MUESING:"I think it's most successful because it is that network of agencies and organizations and it depends a lot of referral and cross-referral. So a farm family, a farm man or woman in need of some kind of service might be visiting with their clergy, might be visiting with their banker, their lawyer, their extension educator, someone at the university, a neighbor, and it might obvious that that farm person or farm family is in need of help. So that the kind of service and support that's needed at that particular time is provided."

FOR MARKET TO MARKET, I'M TYLER TESKE.

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