A friend once described the most traumatic experience of her life. It wasn’t an assault, an accident or even any physical injury. As a child, her father was laid off as an air traffic controller at O’Hare International Airport in a labor standoff that President Ronald Reagan sought to make into labor’s Waterloo. Her whole family had deeply identified with her father’s service and never really recovered, she said. A sense of alarm and despair pervaded her childhood ever after.
Similar trauma is being relived horribly in farm country right now. Farming is deeply personal; I know no farmer for whom it's just an occupation. Over the years, I’ve sadly witnessed the catastrophes of farm families for whom farm foreclosures, traumatic in themselves, resulted in divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and other tragedies, including the worst — suicide.
In my experience, although farm foreclosures feel altogether personal, they rarely reflect a farmer’s competence. The terrible wave of farm losses in the 1980s and the current crisis in the farm community were both a long time brewing — a consequence of federal policies that favor agricultural and market concentration, and of disparate policies related to trade, agricultural markets, research, credit, water, immigration and more.
Given the enormity of the crisis facing farm communities across Wisconsin and the nation, it would be reassuring to see an all-hands-on-deck approach to its alleviation and correction. Mostly, however, I see token gestures.
At the federal level, steps that can be taken to avert this trauma pertain to the Farm Services Agency, the U.S Department of Agriculture's credit arm. I called my friend Scott Marlow, with Rural Advancement Foundation International, in North Carolina for specifics, since he has spent years working with distressed farmers.
“The agency must make it clear to county-level offices that they should use every tool available to keep farmers on their land and in their homes,” he told me.
Such tools, he said, include restructuring farmers’ debt, offering temporary interest-only payments, requiring lenders of guaranteed loans to participate in good faith mediation before foreclosing, and “lease back-buy back” arrangements that allow farmers with over-valued properties to meet interest payments at current lower market value property assessments.
These and other remedies mustn’t be allowed to lie on the shelf.
“We must recognize that urgent times breed predatory behavior,” Marlow told me, “and the agency must make be diligent about keeping farms from foreclosing. And when all remedies have been exhausted, and foreclosure is inevitable, if the house is on a farm loan, the agency should split it off from the land; keeping the house can help reduce family trauma.”
The state also has responsibility for helping farmers, beyond Wisconsin’s excellent farm crisis hotline. Gov. Tony Evers' administration and the state Legislature should make this a bipartisan priority, including expanding funding, even if temporarily, for programs that help farmers create new markets, such as the "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin" grants program. Having invested $3 billion in the Foxconn plant whose payback to Wisconsin was improbable or decades at best, this is the moment to invest in farmers’ resilience and capacity to innovate and reinvigorate their rural communities.
But the crisis is now, and companies and nonprofits dealing with farmers, as well as every government agency, should provide mandatory mental health training. No farmer in stress should face this anguishing time without support.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
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