Saturday Feb 04, 2023

GABEL | Tying our calloused farm hands like it’s 1984 –


Rachel Gabel

The loud crack startled the banker and interrupted his 1,000-yard stare in the general direction of the wood-paneled walls of his office. It was 1984 and the stack of files before him mirrored the courthouse lawn where — crack, crack, crack — a man was hammering another white cross on the lawn. There were more than 70 crosses, each representing a farm in the county that had been foreclosed upon. Many of the families represented by those crosses had sat across from the banker as he had told them they had 30 days to pay off their note.

The crack of the hammer startled the banker for other reasons, as well. He had heard about a man who called a bank, asking to see a farm they had foreclosed upon in hopes of purchasing it. The banker met the man there and it’s unclear if the banker realized the man was actually the farmer he had foreclosed upon or not before he fell, dead, on the dry ground. The farmer’s body was found a few hours later.

Farmers had been found by their wives, hanging from barn rafters. Their brides left to move their children out of their home all the while making lists of equipment and tractors and cattle and crops that were hauled off the farm by the semi-truck load. Bankers were shot in their offices by desperate men, many of whom they had known most of their lives.

It was a perfect storm, really. The 1970s had been good. Prices were solid, inputs were reasonable, and it was raining. Farmers had a little jingle in the bank and chose to upgrade equipment, purchase ground and even purchase the new Harvestore bin to store that valuable grain in on the farm. High land valuation translated to borrowing power and lenders were knocking on farmhouse doors, telling them they could borrow cash to make the operation really substantial. Strike while the iron’s hot, they said. Increased demand for trade was adding to the optimism in farm country.

The 1980s were ushered in by a dry year but, coming off the year previous, farmers were ready to ride it out. The dry year was followed by a year so wet that there was little to no crop across most of the fly-over states. A drought year followed, no crop again. In an effort to squelch inflation, interest rates were raised from 6% to 12% and then again to 18%. Land values dropped 60% and equity dissolved. The lenders who had once been knocking on farmhouse doors to lend money, now were banging on the same doors, calling notes due and posting eviction notices. The hulking Harvestore bins, once symbols of prosperity, were referred to as tombstones, marking the corpses of family farms.

The children who watched from the stairwell as their parents calculated and re-calculated income and expenses are now in their 40s and 50s. They, now, are the ones calculating and recalculating how to make the operation pencil when cow calf pairs are worth $1,000 and a tank of diesel in a pickup is worth nearly $6 per-gallon, or better. They’re listening to the ag broadcaster report on the fed raising interest rates. They’re hearing about a wheat crop in the high plains that is dominated by poor crop conditions. They’re driving and checking expensive sprinklers on corn …….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top