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.
The 1970s often are viewed as a decade of misplaced expectations. Who can blame lenders for putting their money to work in such productive ways? And who can blame farmers for trying to become more competitive? Yet the sad truth is that agriculture, like any endeavor, will always have some who fail. And their numbers were magnified during the farm crisis.
Mark Pearson: There were periods in the 80s where nothing worked. I mean, if it was cattle they weren't making any money. The hogs weren't making any money. Hogs were disastrously low in 1980. Wheat, corn and beans were disastrously low in the marketplace. Everything at some points weren't working, everything that we produced was at a loss. You can't do that for very long.
Paul Lasley: And I think that was one of the problems we had in the 1980s is we were slow to respond because of resistance that some of these people deserved to fail because after all they were, they were high rollers, they were land hogs, they were big wheels, they got too big for their britches. I've heard all of those stories and indeed there was some of that. But for the vast majority of people they were just like you and I, they were trying to make a living, they did the best, made the best decisions they could based on the advice they got.
The farm crisis of the 1980s accelerated a long established trend of farmers leaving the land and farms being consolidated. In 1935 the number of farms in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 6.8 million. By 1990 there were only 2.1 million farms.
Mike Rossman: There has been a rapid increase in the number of acres operated by a single farm enterprise. That trend toward very large farms was initiated during the 1980s and it continues unabated up to the present day. Now, there is a concurrent, ongoing trend also for the development of small family farming enterprises, mostly organic, that is producing many new farm people. So we would probably not have these changes had not the farm crisis of the 80s ushered in some of the shifts in the demographics of farming.