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Farming's bad times recalled

By Pam Berenger, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

There are good and bad times in farming, according to Conrad ``Connie'' Wilson of Coal Valley.

The 1970s were the good times, according to Mr. Wilson. The 1980s were the bad.

``It was lovely in the '70s,'' Mr. Wilson said. ``People overbought and thought it would never end. Then the bottom fell out and everyone had to tighten their belts.''

Tightening his belt meant no entertainment for the family and no new equipment for the farm, he said.

The 1970s were a decade of growth. Land prices soared to more than $4,000 an acre for prime farmland and loans were easy to get.

Comparatively, the 1980s were a decade of despair. Interest rates skyrocketed and land prices plummeted. Farmers no longer had equity and lost borrowing power. Many barely scraped together enough to plant their spring crops. Some went bankrupt, others were just broke.

Mr. Wilson said none of his friends went under, most were raised during the Depression and did not overextend themselves. They had learned from the 1930s when there was no money, unlike the 1980s when there was little money.

In a news article in 1986, a farmer, using the name Bob as an alias, told The Dispatch of his nightmares with lenders during that period. His problems started in 1981 with an outbreak of pseudorabies that ended up taking about 74 percent of his hogs.

Although he lost about $150,000 that year, he was unable to qualify for a low-interest loan through the Farmer's Home Administration (FmHA) because the government program used previously filed income tax returns.

The drought of 1983 hurt even more and he was back at FmHA. This time Bob qualified for a loan. The next few years were a roller coaster ride for Bob as he paid off one loan, just in time to apply for another. Loan delays cost him discounts for early payment of his seed.

Less and less money was coming in. Thoughts of buying new equipment became alien. Bob said buying a pair of pliers was major decision. He applied for food stamps and was turned down because of the equity he had in his land.

The entire process was humiliating and he refused to apply again.

Embarrassment and humiliation were rampant among farmers. Crisis hotlines were busy 24 hours a day from farmers wanting to talk about their pain.

On Dec. 8, 1985 a Johnson County Iowa farmer shot and killed John Hughes, a Hills, Iowa, bank president.

To generalize the feeling of that era is nearly impossible, Dave Lins, a University of Illinois professor of financial management, said.

Some were telling their neighbors, ``I told you so, you took a risk you shouldn't have,'' Mr. Lins said. There were some farm operations that actually grew in the 1980s. Those farmers had not purchased land in the 1970s as prices were rising, Mr. Lins said.

For those who did take the risk, losing farms that had been in the family for up to 100 years was unforgivable. They tried year after year to overcome the financial burden with the belief it would get better, he said.

``A lot of their depression was financial,'' he said. ``However, much was a sense of failure to think that land that had been in their family for 60, 80 or 100 years was gone and that they were the one who lost it.''

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.