This segment is part of the The Farm Crisis documentary, which examines the tragic circumstances faced by farmers for most of the 1980s, when thousands were forced into bankruptcy, land values dropped by one-third nationally, and sky-high interest rates turned successes into failures seemingly overnight.
They're not only taking away my parent's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I have kids standing down here. Someday they wanted to be a farmer. Everyone of these kids, they've taken from all of us, from all of you!
Protests were staged to hinder sheriff's sales and auctions of foreclosed farms. In some cases, farmers became activists helping others face the loss of their farmsteads, farmers like Bob and Theresa Sullivan.
Theresa Sullivan: But we were there to support those people, you know, people need support. People need support when they're hurting.
We have been to many foreclosures and to many sheriff's sales and we have seen human dignity taken away from people, just destroyed.
Bob Sullivan: We were some of the first ones to go and our bank was the first one maybe in the state. So we got invited to quite a few places, what do you do when your bank closes, something, you know, go to different towns and they'd invite us to come and talk to them. And, you know, people wanted to know, how do you handle it or what can you do? So we didn't have an answer, we just said here's what we experienced and here's what we think together we might be able to do.
Frank Cordaro: When we did do a demonstration, we had a number of them, I was always impressed with the empowerment it gave to people, a sense of, you know, we did something, we didn’t just lay down and take it. And it was always fun to experience that with people, lift them up. And I call those redemptive moments, catharsis moments. The people I worked with, even though they were losing, felt good that they were finally putting out there their side of the story, their truth.
Out of the crisis, a new generation of religious, labor and political leaders had grown to give voice and direction to the rural insurgency. By 1985, half the counties in Iowa had some form of grassroots effort to address the crisis.
In reality we know this is the worst point of this depression, farm depression in this country and it's the worst depression for 50 years.
Governor, upon how well you listen to our people and respond will decide on how or whether people are going to live or die.
And we're here to say to that system that we're not going to stand back and take it quietly anymore, the kinds of actions that you're taking on our people and we're going to fight back.
Hundreds of these crosses have already been planted in the fertile soil of the Heartland of America to mark the loss of family farms. Today, just an hour or two ago, 250 of these crosses were planted in Lafayette Park just across the street from the White House because that is the number of farms that are going bankrupt each day.
Willie Nelson: -- waiting to get on the road again. On the road again, going places that I've never been.
One of the most well-known national organizations was Farm Aid founded by singer Willie Nelson.
Willie Nelson: I had heard some rumors in Texas about some of the farmers and ranchers having a rough time and I asked some of my friends around who were ranchers and farmers and they said, well it's really bad in the Midwest, it hadn't really got that bad here yet but it's on the way. So we started talking about what we might do and call some attention to it and see if we could help the situation in some way. And so we did.
(music) He said, I worked hard on this land as a boy and as a man and I'll lose it now to no damn bureaucrat.
The first Farm Aid concert was held in Champaign, Illinois in September of 1985. 54 acts performed before a crowd of 78,000 and millions of dollars were raised for farm families.
Willie Nelson: I was glad we were there. I was glad that we were there to give them a voice. We had a press conference. We had a lot of people on the stage. We had a whole lot of farmers, people and press everywhere and people all over the place would get up and say what they thought about the situation. This farmer or this farmer or this lady so it was one of the best things that happened as far as I was concerned to get us all together talking about it and I knew we were onto something and I knew if we could give these farmers a voice then that would help them and that’s what we've been trying to do.
The national tractorcades to Washington, D.C. in 1979 and 1980 are among the best remembered6 expressions of discontent in the Heartland. Led by the American Agriculture Movement or AAM, the protests were some of the earliest signs of distress in farm country.
David Sentor: We were pushing for higher price supports or higher prices for our commodities. You know, you can't produce and sell at less than the cost of production and survive. And so farmers were just looking for a fair shake.