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Farm Families Changed by the Farm Crisis

posted on March 25, 2014 at 10:20 AM

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Nearly 30 years have passed since the 1980s farm crisis.  Most farmers who struggled and survived those tumultuous times remember the decade as a nightmare from which they could not awaken.  After Phil Fetter took his life, his widow Norma was left to care for 10 children on her own.  And she was left to deal with overwhelming debt.  A brother-in-law stepped in to help.  But eventually the farm and house were sold back to the Federal Land Bank at a substantial loss.


Norma Fetter: Well basically we had no place to go.  Didn't know what I was going to do.  I had been able to stay at home for most of the 25 years we'd been married, we raised the kids, be a farm wife.  Went to work that winter first time I had ever worked out of the home.  I had two or three different jobs, whatever, just to keep things together.  Just you get up every day and you do what you have to do.  I think that's basically what it amounted to.

We must reach out, join hands and bring back --

Gary Lamb avoided serious financial trouble and he devoted much of his time to advocating for farmers who were suffering.  But while his farm was intact and solvent the operation just wasn't big enough to include one of his sons.

Gary Lamb: We wanted to pass our heritage and farm onto our sons or our daughters and my youngest son was the one that really had an interest in farming.  He followed me around and asked questions about crop and livestock.  And when he graduated from Iowa State in 1984, there was a feeling of pride, you know, when he was getting his diploma.  And yet there was a feeling of sadness too because I realized he isn't coming back to the farm.  And I think I'm over that.

We bought first, bought this in '63, bought that in '65.

After the foreclosure on his farm, Wendell Tuttle continued to sell insurance but never returned to farming.  His son, Max, works for a producer today.  Tuttle says the support of his wife Leota and their kids helped him get through tough decisions.  But the wounds of the 80s farm crisis remained fresh.

Wendell Tuttle: It's just like pulling their heart out because I had bought that farm and made a commitment to leave it better than I found it and I was not able to do that and that hurts.

Despite what they faced during the farm crisis, the Hagedorn's insisted on paying their debt.

Dean Hagedorn: The thing was that I did not want to walk away from all these unsecured creditors and say, too bad about you.  I owed them this money and I wanted to pay them and we did.

Kaye Hagedorn: We were able to work through those things and make what we felt were good, responsible decisions that represented who we are as human beings, that allowed us to not hurt others in our attempts to survive ourselves.

Kristin Hagedorn: Because we weathered it.  I think that, you know, my mom and dad are financially doing fine.  And they have, they're still married and they're in a committed, happy relationship and they're living a life that is bringing them great job and my sister and brother and I are married and have kids and doing well and I think that, that is a success sort of, you know.

Dean Hagedorn: Life is good.

David Peterson: I saw a slogan towards the end of my shooting experience back in '86 that stuck with me.  It was a sign, I can't remember where I saw it, it was out in some rural area.  It said, tough times don't last, tough people do!  And that is kind of what stuck with me about the people that I covered and the trauma that they went through but yet many of them came through okay and many of their children came through okay.  So I guess that's the message.

Tags: agriculture documentaries farm farm crisis farmers Iowa rural