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Harvest of Distrust : Hard Times Hurt Values of Farm Life

November 15, 1987|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

DOW CITY, Iowa — For many years he had been growing corn and raising livestock on several hundred acres of Iowa's most fertile land. Until the last months, he had earned a decent living--not great wealth, but enough to provide comfortably for his wife and three children, whom he had reared as honest, churchgoing sons and daughters of the prairie.

The Farm Belt recession ended all that. When the farmer could no longer feed his family, he did something that rasped against his moral grain--and the law. He butchered a cow after telling his bank that the animal had been lost. It was a lie that prevented the bank from seizing the cow and selling it to pay his debts.

"It makes you feel like you're really crooked," said the farmer's wife, who has put beef from the cow on the table for nearly a year, "but you've got to do what you've got to do."

Old Ways Fading

Across the Farm Belt, where the struggle for survival is the fiercest since the Great Depression, the dark, rich topsoil is not all that is eroding. Trust, honesty and good will--values long considered part of the fiber of American farmers and their compatriots on the rural landscape--seem to be slipping away.

"In the depths of the Depression, trust and integrity were still the most important elements in farm people's lives," said Neil E. Harl, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, "but in the current crisis they are eroding, and that is disturbing, profoundly so. I suspect the problem won't decline quickly, and those values probably will never go back to where they were.

"It's the kind of cancer that eats away at the community."

Here in Iowa, the epicenter of an economic quake that has lasted five years, the deterioration of values and relationships has bred division and confrontation.

Mediation Gains Popularity

There are hopeful signs, to be sure--down-and-out farmers coming to each other's aid, for example. Some borrowers and creditors, encouraged by a new state mediation service, have begun working more cooperatively to settle debts short of foreclosure.

Yet desperation, bitterness and breakdown persist. One-tenth of Iowa's farmers have already been forced out of business; of the survivors, fully one-tenth are facing almost certain bankruptcy and another quarter of them are suffering from financial stress. Banks are failing and farm-dependent businesses are going under.

The erosion of values, first noted by University of Minnesota economist Michael Boehlje at a congressional hearing two years ago, is most easily seen in business relationships gone sour.

"What causes all the damn problems is money," said Dick Zaun of Indianola, a longtime farm equipment dealer who was forced out of business last year. "Money is, indeed, the root of all evil."

The changes have several dimensions.

- The trust once symbolized by a handshake in rural communities has deteriorated substantially. Merchants are demanding more legal documentation of transactions. Farmers are insisting on getting credit pledges in writing. Bankers are requiring far more collateral and farmers are threatening to go bankrupt to gain concessions from lenders who used to be their hunting and fishing companions.

- Honesty, though still prized in the Farm Belt, has suffered under withering economic pressure. Hiding and converting assets to shield them from bank seizure, misrepresenting loan security agreements, exploiting loopholes in government programs--these and other strategies have been widely observed to circumvent legal and ethical standards.

- Good will--a unifying force that helped farmers get through the emotional strain of the Depression half a century ago--has begun to yield to a growing split between those who are relatively prosperous and those who are not. Neighborliness, in many situations, is but a nostalgic memory.

"Everybody was having trouble in the '30s," Harl said. "There were relatively few who escaped unscathed. In this current phenomenon, not everybody is facing jeopardy, and I think there is among some a feeling of unjustness about this."

'Corruption Everywhere'

Moreover, he added, many of today's farmers believe their troubles are "aided and abetted by the fact that corruption is everywhere, in government and business."

Chuck Ryan, rural life director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, put it this way: "People say, 'Hell, they're ripping it off at the top, and I'm simply trying to feed my kids here.' "

Father John F. Cain, a Catholic priest in Dow City who counseled the family that butchered the "lost" cow, said he has given hard-pressed farmers this advice: "When you don't have food for today's table, the food that's around becomes common property in an ethical way."

When the economic shock waves hit, trust was the first casualty.

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