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Forever Changed: The Effects Of '80s Farm Crisis Linger

Think on this: you’ve lived somewhere your entire life, your family has been there for generations. What if something happens and home no longer feels like home?

Many Iowans experienced that feeling during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, an event that radically changed our state forever. By the end of the decade, 300,000 farmers had defaulted on their loans. A large number lost their homes and farms.

In 1983, Iowa averaged 500 public farm auctions per month, each one of those farms representing a family that has lost their way of life. Farmers who lost their farms were devastated, ashamed, and many were dealing with depression and even thoughts of suicide. 

Many farm families felt the state and federal government had betrayed them. Not knowing where else to turn, they wrote letters to the then Iowa Governor, Terry Branstad. 

Pam Riney-Kehrberg, Professor of History at Iowa State University, has been reading through hundreds of letters sent by farmers to Governor Branstad as part of a book she is currently writing that is tentatively titled, When a Dream Dies: Agriculture, Identity, and The Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

“There’s one letter in particular where I can just see the woman sitting there at four in the morning. She doesn’t say it's four in the morning, but I can tell it is four in the morning,” says Riney-Kehrberg. “And she’s writing this letter to the government, and she starts fairly coherent and between the lines. And by the time she gets to the last page she’s writing in three-inch high letters ‘HELP, HELP, HELP;’ it’s quite a moving experience to read how deep this crisis was." 

On this edition of Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe takes listeners back to the 1980s Iowa Farm Crisis to explore how it changed farming and our state forever aspart two of our "Iowa Week: Is This Home?" series.

Guests Include:

  • George Naylor, Board Member of Family Farm Defenders.
  • Pam Riney-Kehrberg,  Professor of History at Iowa State University.
  • Paul Lasley, Extension Sociologist at Iowa State University. 

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River