By Toby Kahn Joyce Leviton Civia Tamarkin
September 30, 1985 12:00 PM

Though the problem has been critical for years, nothing has focused attention on the plight of the nation’s farmers more than the massive Farm Aid concert scheduled for last weekend in Illinois. A spectacular show of concern for the men and women who form the bedrock of American prosperity, the concert was intended to raise about $70 million for them. But total farm debt is now a massive $213 billion, and that $70 million would be nearly swallowed by a single day’s interest. Financial failure drives 120 farms out of business every day, while statistics show an alarming increase in suicide and child-and spouse-abuse.

The collapse of the farm economy traces back to the boom years of the 1970s, when farmers borrowed heavily to buy land and machinery. Then the 1981-82 recession struck. As farm prices and land values fell calamitously, interest rates soared. Tens of thousands of farmers suddenly faced ruin. Their situation today rivals the darkest days of the Great Depression.

On tour in Beatrice, Neb. three weeks ago, Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson was recognized by a group of farmers. “One told me about his marriage of 29 years that had just gone under,” Nelson recalls. “I had heard about the suicides and similar stories before, but those farmers showed me how close to home it was.” In the spirit that led Nelson to stage Farm Aid, PEOPLE reporters Toby Kahn, Joyce Leviton and Civia Tamarkin filed the stories of five farm families in crisis.

We came here young, bright-eyed and eager,

To make our own place in the sun,

And now we’re leaving empty-handed.

This year we both turned fifty-one.

from Bitter Harvest

by Hazel Hirst

Burdened by a debt of $225,000 on their 476-acre farm in Unionville, Mo., Hazel and Bud Hirst notched their belts in hard. They burned wood instead of oil, dropped their life insurance and cut their hospitalization benefits. Hazel took a job as a restaurant cook and moonlighted selling refreshments at farm auctions. Yet losses on the farm kept mounting. The Hirsts could not even escape their debts by selling out—at current depressed values the land is worth 44 percent less than they paid in 1971. Last year Hazel came up with a plan to raffle off the farm while simultaneously drawing attention to the farmers’ plight. She published Bitter Harvest, a book of her poems on the farm crisis. Retailing at $10 (including postage), each slim volume contains a sweepstakes ticket. When 50,000 are sold (sales now stand at 20,000), the winning number will be drawn and the keys handed to the new owner.

The raffle marks the end of a long-cherished dream. For 20 years Bud and Hazel ran a motel and restaurant in Decatur, III. They were making good money, but the work was long and hard and full of tension. They yearned for something more serene—a better life for their four children—and, in 1971, they made an $18,000 down payment on their farm. A year later they leased the motel and moved to the country to raise hogs and cattle and grow feed crops. Then, recalls Bud, “The bottom fell out of the livestock market.” But the Hirsts loved their new life and, with money still coming in from their old business, they weren’t overly worried. When interest rates began to soar in the late ’70s, the Hirsts kept losing money. “There isn’t one year since we’ve been here that we made a profit and earned a living,” says Bud.

In 1977 the Hirsts sold their motel and paid off their $50,000 farm mortgage, but they were still losing money. In 1980 they tried to sell, but high interest rates kept buyers away. In 1984 the Farmers Home Administration (FHA), a Department of Agriculture agency that provides loans to farmers, cut off the credit they needed to operate the farm for the year. “They were going to freeze us out,” says Bud.

The raffle offers the Hirsts the chance to leave their land with dignity and debt free. And, says Hazel, “It’s a way to give someone else a chance to fulfill their dream.”

Maybe soon the world will see,

What great harm has been done,

They’ll know this nation can’t survive,

Without the family farm.

On March 28, two weeks before the bank was to auction off his farm implements and put him out of business, Floyd Morgan, 42, of Veteran, Wyo., parked his Ford pickup on the shoulder of Country Club Road, aimed the barrel of a shotgun at his forehead and pulled the trigger. “Farming was his life, his religion, his sense of what he was,” says his widow, Irene, 40. “He couldn’t face losing his way of life.”

Floyd Morgan was born on the 80-acre spread that his father, William, bought for $375 in 1932. That land was only good for grazing, however, and both Floyd and his father were compelled to take outside jobs, first at a farmers’ co-op, then at a nearby gas station. Floyd hated that work. “I’ve got to get out of the service station,” he told Irene one evening in 1971. “I feel like I’m in a prison and I can’t stand it another day.” He had an escape scheme: He and his father would buy 160 acres across the road from the family farm and raise cattle and grow hay, corn and grain. “It might fail,” he admitted, “but I’ve just got to try.”

He did try. Floyd, Irene and their two daughters moved into a trailer on the land, and he and his father began cultivating it. But in 1973, just as they were geting started, the price of feed soared and the price of cattle plummeted. When they sold their herd, they lost $200 a head. When they applied for a loan, the banker said he was only lending money on sugar beet crops. So they grew sugar beets. Then a plague of worms ravaged the crop. But Floyd was still optimistic. He took a second mortgage on the place and bought another 160 acres in 1979, hoping to increase his harvest. By 1982 interest rates hit 21 percent, and the Morgans again lost money on their crop. They squeaked by for several years, but last January the bank refused to give Floyd his annual operating loan. With foreclosure looming, he took a job at the co-op where he’d worked 14 years earlier, and sank into depression. “When you talked to him,” recalls his daughter Brenda, 18, “he seemed to stare right through you.” And then, one March day, on a lunch break from the job he hated, he pulled off the road and shot himself.

Today Irene Morgan and her two daughters are living in a trailer park and subsisting on Social Security survivor benefits. Visiting the farm they no longer own, Irene notices that her yellow rose bushes did not bloom this year and that the top branches of the elms that Floyd planted as a teenager are barren. “It’s as though the ground is mourning him,” she says.

It’s so close, I just can’t say whether we’ll lose the farm or not,” sighs Illinois grain and dairy farmer David Schroeder, 41, surveying the fields that his family has tilled for 75 years. If his farm 15 miles east of the Mississippi produces 150 bushels of corn per acre at the end of this fall’s harvest, he thinks he can make it. But while most of the country expects a bin-busting yield, a dry spell has stunted crops in Northwestern Illinois, and some farmers are already reporting dismal results.

Schroeder blames the shifting winds of politics rather than the climate for his straits. “We’re still paying for the [Soviet grain] embargo and for the years Washington encouraged us to increase our yields and plant fence post to fence post,” he says. Banking on the expansionist mood, Schroeder took out loans to add two new steel silos, a milking parlor, a liquid-manure system and other modern machinery totalling $300,000 to make his farm more efficient. When the lean years hit, Schroeder drifted further into debt. It is all he can do to meet the annual $85,000 interest payments.

“Right now we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Schroeder’s wife, Anita, 40, who grew up on a farm three miles down the road. With help from eight of their nine children, who range in age from 6 months to 18 years, they’ve been able to cut labor costs. They use wood for heating, grow their own garden vegetables and get their daily three gallons of milk straight from their own cows. “We don’t want pity,” says Anita. “We just want the country to realize how important the family farm is. We’re being penalized for producing food that a whole world needs.” As tears come, she explains, “We don’t want a lot of money. We just want to survive. You invest in the land not just for yourself, but for your kids. The last few years we have said that the last thing we would like is for any of our kids to go into farming.”

A few weeks ago Schroeder’s brother Ed, a minister in St. Louis, hit on an idea. He ran an ad in a city paper that read: “Philanthropist sought. Young, productive, faithful Illinois farm family looking for $400,000 at low interest to consolidate deadly high interest loans.” The Schroeders pray that somebody may yet be willing to bet on the family farm.

Gary Matulevich’s father tried to discourage his six children from following him into farming. “He told all of us it was too hard, and he wanted us to do better,” says Matulevich, 32. “But you do what you want to do and find out the hard way, I guess.”

He was 19 on May 4, 1972, when he bought his dairy farm in Nicholson, Pa.—$65,000 for 32 cows, machinery, a barn and an eight-room farmhouse on 140 acres. He worked the farm alone until 1978, when he married Cheryl Darko, now 26. Matulevich’s finances were already tightening, and part of their wedding money went to pay a grain debt. By 1981 his monthly interest payments had jumped from $669 to $879. “You don’t think of yourselves as poor because we were working toward something,” says Cheryl. “We kept thinking someday this is going to be paid off.”

But in 1983 a bad winter and high feed bills brought the FHA to their door with advice to sell out. When the Matulevichs resisted, the FHA kept up the pressure. Feeling defeated, Matulevich auctioned off his cows and machinery for $60,000. Just before Christmas in the following year they sold their wedding rings to meet the mortgage. The bank set foreclosure for Feb. 21, 1985. Two days earlier, on their seventh wedding anniversary, the couple fought bitterly, and the next day Cheryl swallowed 34 tranquilizers and slit her wrists.

Cheryl survived the suicide attempt, and after a separation from Gary, during which she was admitted to Penn State’s Worthington/Scranton campus to study journalism, they moved to subsidized housing in Scranton for $126 a month. Matulevich started commuting 32 miles six days a week to earn $300 a month in a New Milford quarry. “Welfare is terrible,” he says. “They give you enough money to survive, but I’m not satisfied with just survival. I’ve had too many dreams to be satisfied with just that.” Adds Cheryl: “Now I feel poor. We miss our self-respect and our self-sufficiency.” For months after the foreclosure the Matulevichs drove to their farm every weekend; once Cheryl even sneaked past the Keep Off sign to pick some lilacs from a bush she had planted.

The Matulevich’s two younger children, Raven, 20 months, and Meadow, 3, have not been much affected, but Joshua, 5, has. On his birthday he told his grandmother he was going to have a big party where everybody had to bring a cow. “My daddy ain’t got no cows anymore and he’s real sad,” said Joshua. “I’m going to give him all the cows.”

Joshua’s wish may yet come true. After reading about their plight in the Scranton Times, a 55-year-old farmer in Meshoppen, Pa. contacted the Matulevichs to say he was looking for a young farmer to manage his 60-cow dairy farm. If all goes well in the first year, the Matulevichs will have the option to pick up the mortgage, buy out the farm and take another run at their dreams.

Last year they repossessed Oscar Lorick’s farm equipment—his cultivator, his combine, his plows. In the past year they foreclosed on the 180 acres of land he has tended for 50 years and on the brick ranch house where he and his wife, Virginia, live. About all he has left is his pride. “I’ve done more farming than any black man in this county,” he says, and speaks of the hogs he raised and the near-record yields of cotton he coaxed out of his little piece of Georgia. “I had some dry years,” Lorick admits, “but that would not have stopped me.”

It took something worse than a drought to stop Oscar Lorick, 65, and to this day he doesn’t know just how he slid deep into the red. Unable to read or write, he can’t explain the vagaries of farm prices or the rise of interest rates or how he accrued a debt of more than $100,000. “I never got to school none,” he says. “I feel the bank told me a whole lot of twisty stuff.”

Right now only a legal stalling maneuver stands between Lorick and eviction from his home and his farm. “I been here 60 years,” he says. “I ain’t got nowhere to stay or nothing. It worries me. My wife applied for food stamps, and I get $395 a month Social Security. I’ll just have to wait and see how this turns out.” While waiting, Lorick has not been idle. Using equipment borrowed from a neighbor, he cultivated 15 acres of soybeans. “They want to stop me farming,” he says, shaking his head. “I been farming for 50 years, ever since I was big enough. It’s the onliest thing I know how to do.”

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