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Farm Crisis Results in Suicide and Murder

posted on March 25, 2014 at 10:21 AM

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For some, the stresses of the farm crisis became too much to bear.

Mike Rossman: The incidence of suicide increased during the farm crisis of the 80s to about four times the average rate for farm people at that time.

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Gary Lamb: I helped bury three neighbors that committed suicide after the banks foreclosed on them.

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After a virus destroyed their hog operation, Phil and Norma Fetter had to borrow more money from the Federal Land Bank to keep the farm afloat.  When the markets fell and interest rates skyrocketed, they were unable to keep up with loan payments.  Worry and stress dominated their lives.  It became too much for Phil.

Norma Fetter: We decided we would go for help so I had called Sedlacek Center in Cedar Rapids, St. Luke's Hospital and was going to take him down on Sunday morning.  Got up Sunday morning and it was very hot, July 25th, I think it was 100 degrees, 7:00 in the morning it was very hot.  And I had kind of packed a bag for him to take, his shaving gear and whatever so he couldn't find his shaving gear when we got ready for church and with small ones at home we took turns some going to one mass and some going to the other mass.  Anyway, so we got ready and went to church.  And when we came home the little one, Joe, was five years old, he said that daddy was out in the barn and he was out in the machine shed with a rifle.  That's how we found him when we came home from church.  So a couple of the neighbors came in and tried to talk to him, I tried to talk to him, told him that his brother was on his way down.  And he kept saying things like, mom would be so disappointed in me and all of this.  And I said, why don't we go out and sit under a shade tree until your brother comes or go to the cemetery and go up and talk to your mom, whatever.  He couldn't hear anything.  He was just, his mind was just too far gone.  He just couldn't grasp anything anymore.  And finally, I did stand back, otherwise, I could have been gone too.

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Like Norma Fetter, Karen Heidman and her children faced the devastation that suicide brings to a family.  Her first husband, Daniel Cutler, couldn't take the stress of the deteriorating economic conditions.

Karen Heidman: The children and I returned home from school on April 2nd and Dan was not home but we weren't alarmed because he had said that he was going to go to Monona County to visit family.  But when he didn't return for dinner or all that night then we were really scared and I notified his family, they spent all night looking for him.  I was on the phone with his psychiatrist several times that night.  I told his friends the next morning and they notified authorities and by that afternoon the BCI had found his body in an abandoned farmstead north of Sioux City.  I personally think maybe that was symbolic, also an abandoned farmstead and abandoned dreams.  He had a note in his shirt pocket that indicated where a suicide note could be found and the first, the opening statement of the suicide note was, the farm killed me.  I think it was a perfect storm of circumstances.  This was the first serious impediment to a goal that he had ever experienced.  It was shame that intelligence and determination and a magnetic personality were not going to be equal to overpowering market forces.  It was continuous bad news on the TV and radio about the farm economy, shame for the financial circumstances of the family that he thought were his fault, shame of the stigma of mental illness and the loss of a dream.

Some reacted to the tumultuous times by turning their rage on others.  Dale Burr, a 63 year old farmer from Lone Tree, Iowa, found himself more than a half million dollars in debt.  On December 9, 1985, he went on a violent rampage first killing his wife Emily, next Bank President John Hughes at the Hills Bank and Trust Company and then nearby farmer Richard Goody.  After the horrific murders, he shot himself.  At Burr's farm house, police found a note alongside Emily's body.  It said, he couldn't manage his problems anymore.

Alan Tubbs: Emotions were high at that time certainly and the peak of that was manifested at Hills Bank when John Hughes was shot by a disgruntled producer.  And that put everybody on edge.  And that I think just demonstrates the high level of emotions that were involved.  It was such that, I have two sons, they were in their high school years during that time and I did not encourage them to come back to the bank.

Reverend Ed Kail: It was a time of spiritual crisis, really, as much as anything and for me personally as a pastor it was.  The whole community was in depression and so that loss and moving into depression, about 1985, gosh, the mood was just dark.

Tags: agriculture documentaries farm farm crisis farmers Iowa murder rural suicide