WASHINGTON — "Senator," said 16-year-old Renee Fenski, "it's as if we don't exist. We're suffering so much . . . and no one hears our cries for help." An elderly woman in large rubber boots, munching a sandwich in the high school cafeteria, told me, "It's no longer a crisis. It's a way of life."
Signs of crisis were everywhere. Hunger is at a 15-year-high in parts of the nation's breadbasket. Soup kitchens and emergency food pantries in Missouri reported a 24% increase in requests for emergency food assistance in 1985 compared with 1984--and a 45% rise in rural parts of the state.
This was the Christmas season; my sons Teddy and Patrick, my nephew Mark Shriver and I were in Memphis, a small farm community in Scotland County in northern Missouri. We had been invited to visit a farm and learn about what many there simply call "The Depression."
Suicide, alcoholism, drug use, broken families, child abuse and child neglect show unprecedented increases--all caused by the strain of farm foreclosures. Health care is neglected; insurance policies expire; treatments and checkups are postponed. The shortage of rural doctors is rising as more and more communities are unable to support a practitioner.
The student body at Scotland County High School has declined 27% in four years, as families abandon blighted towns and farms. Principal Leroy Huff told us, "Not since the 1930s has a cloud of such proportions hung over rural America."
The source of the cloud is the collapse of the farm economy, brought on by rising farm costs, falling farm prices and plunging farm exports--the result of massive federal budget deficits, high interest rates and a still-high dollar. Yet this is one of America's richest agricultural areas. Bill Heffernan, a farm expert and a University of Missouri rural sociologist, told me, "If you can't make a living farming here, you can't make it anywhere."
Not a single farm foreclosure was recorded in Scotland County between 1973 and 1980. In the next five years, 45 farms in the county went on the auction block; in other nearby counties, the figures reported are worse. Overall, one out of every five farms in Missouri has been lost since 1980.
Much of the food saving lives in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa is grown by American farmers. Yet, many of these farmers and their families bought holiday dinners with food stamps; many others have become refugees from their own farms and homes, forced out by declining markets and mounting debt.
The families we met resent the suggestion that their own inefficiency has caused the crisis. As one farmer told us, "You don't work a farm for 50 years and then all of a sudden become inefficient."
We spent a night in the farmhouse of Bill and Donna Shoop. Bill had been named the county's best farm manager in 1975 and won two statewide awards in the '80s. Now, his farm and home are in bankruptcy. Bill explained why he invited us: "We hope we can convey that we are honest, hard-working people out here under severe pressure."
The fundamental decency, strength and character of American farmers were obvious in this community; the courage of these families and hundreds of thousands like them is challenging Congress to develop a sensible food and farm policy that respects their dignity, hard work and commitment to their country.
Several farmers I met had worked through the night before we arrived, fighting cold and snow to salvage crops. "Every minute counts now," explained Donna Shoop. "If we get another three inches of snow on top of what we already have, we'll probably lose everything that's left in the fields, and that's a lot."
Yet they may soon lose everything. At a small meeting with nine families in the Shoop's living room, senior citizens Herbert and Mary Jones of Hamilton, Mo., spoke last. They have already lost their farm and may lose their house this spring. They worry about themselves, about Jones' 84-year-old mother, who has had a stroke, and about their two sons. The younger son had been farming rented land, but had to stop when his equipment was repossessed. The older son is retarded. When the bank foreclosed, it ripped out fences and demolished useful buildings. Holding back tears, Herbert Jones gave us snapshots of the damage.
One of the most frequent complaints concerned the credit practices of lenders, including the Farmers Home Administration (FMHA) and banks. In recent years, many farmers have had to accept variable-rate loans that allow a rise in interest on short notice. Sudden higher costs are often the final straw. In a market already swamped with distress sales, more foreclosures and bankruptcies produce a domino effect; land values go down and the worth of the collateral put up by those still in farming also declines, impairing their future ability to borrow. Shoop's 1983 bankruptcy followed a variable-rate loan. He had borrowed $200,000 at 10% in 1979, then saw the rate rise to 18% in 1980, 21% in 1981.