Interdenominational groups and local congregations are taking the initiative in helping farmers.

In the 1970s, the future looked bright for America’s farmers. Land values were climbing; interest rates were low; and crops were selling to worldwide markets for good prices. Even conservative farmers were buying more land, and lending institutions were eager to approve mortgages.

Ken Kremer, a farmer from Aurora, Nebraska, and president of the Nebraska chapter of the National Association of Evangelicals, says most farmers were not motivated by greed. Instead, he says, they were making what seemed to be prudent business decisions. “Both of my teenage sons wanted to farm,” he says, “so I expanded to make [room] for them.”

But neither Kremer nor thousands of other farmers foresaw the coming reversals. Production costs increased while commodity prices dropped drastically and land values plummeted. “One man in my church lost $1.2 million over three years—just in land devaluation,” says Jim Anderson, pastor of Monroe Evangelical Free Church in Phillips, Nebraska.

Many farmers are unable to make payments on bank contracts, and lenders are forcing sales and foreclosures. One out of five farm families lives below the poverty level. Nearly 400,000 people left farms last year. And an estimated 30 percent of America’s farmers will abandon agriculture in the next two to three years.

Reaching Out

Amid such dire predictions, the nation’s churches are searching for ways to help. Typically, farmers are independent and private people who have a hard time asking for help. Breaking through this barrier of silence has been the church’s first challenge. A telephone call reporting a suicide can be a pastor’s first inkling that a farmer in his congregation was in financial trouble.

For the past year, John and Nancy Halder have operated the Mennonite Central Committee Hotline from their farmhouse near Parnell, Iowa. Their first calls came from isolated farmers who found it easier to talk to strangers. “We always encourage farmers to talk with their pastor or to friends,” says John Halder. The couple tells pastors to initiate therapeutic conversations. “Even if a pastor is rebuffed,” Haider says, “he should go back again and again, and say, ‘I came by just to talk.’ ”

Last summer the Halders received a number of calls from wives of farmers who would not admit they were in serious financial trouble. Now, many churches are calling the toll-free hotline number (1-800-553-8371) for suggestions on how they can best help farmers in their areas.

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One of those calls came from Paul and Peggy Hilte of Huber Heights Mennonite Congregation near Dayton, Ohio. Over the past ten years the congregation sponsored the relocation of six Laotian families. Now it is ready to assist a farm family by finding housing, helping family members find work, and financially supporting them during a period of transition.

The Church’S Role

Opinions vary as to what the church’s role should be. While some feel the Christian community should provide a shoulder for farmers to cry on, others say a strong arm is also needed—to put pressure on government officials and lending institutions. Prairiefire, an interdenominational organization based in Des Moines, offers one-day seminars for rural church leaders. The organization sees its mission as both pastoral and activist. Its seminars offer suggestions on how pastors and lay leaders can help farmers emotionally, physically, and politically.

“The church has to fulfill a dual responsibility. It’s not enough to comfort,” says David Ostendorf, Prairiefire’s director. “We must bring wholeness to people and to communities.”

Others view their role primarily in pastoral terms. Annette Schroeder, of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) Social Ministries Services, says her denomination is not involved in political advocacy. Last year the LCMS set up the Agri Community Crisis Task Force to help pastors minister to farmers, and lay people to minister to each other. An LCMS congregation in Verdigre, Nebraska, cooperated with the local United Methodist and Catholic churches to collect and distribute more than $100,000 worth of aid to 100 families after two local banks failed.

City churches are responding as well. Omaha’s Sunset Hills Baptist Church sent $2,300 worth of food to the First Baptist Church of Arnold, Nebraska, which distributed it within two weeks. Victor Karg, the Arnold pastor, is a displaced farmer who ministers to physical and legal needs in his community. But he says spiritual needs are the most vital. “The church finds it easy to give money, but what these people need is someone to give them hope to live.”


Several resources are available to help churches assist hard-hit farm families. The Media Services Center of the American Lutheran Church has produced a video entitled “Another Family Farm.” The video tells the story of a Christian family that is losing its farm. A pastor, a social worker, and others discuss the issues that are raised. Copies of the video can be rented from the American Lutheran Church, Media Services Center, 1568 Eustis Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108.

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Other study aids include a six-lesson Bible study course entitled Hope for a Time of Crisis: Facing Challenges in the Agricultural Community. The Bible study can be ordered from Concordia Publishing House, 3558 South Jefferson Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri 63118. Also available is The Family Farm, Can It Be Saved?, a book published by The Brethren Press, 1451 Dundee Avenue, Elgin, Illinois 60120.

Ways To Help

Kremer, of Aurora, Nebraska, encourages pastors to help farmers set goals and look at various options in front of them. He suggests asking questions such as: “If you survive this and keep your farm, what benefits will have come from these hard times?” and “If you lose the farm, [how] can you benefit from starting in a new direction?” Such questions, he says, can prompt spiritual growth and help parishioners see beyond their problems.

Several Christian colleges are helping displaced farmers train for new vocations. Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, offers one year of free tuition to applicants who have quit farming within the last two years due to economic reasons. Sterling (Kan.) College offers a four-year, tuition-free program for farmers and children of farmers who have gone through bankruptcy in the Rice County area.

Jim Anderson, the Phillips, Nebraska, pastor, says the church should provide farm families with networks that offer personal support and help in problem-solving. “But if the church can’t give a biblical perspective on life and livelihood,” he says, “we have failed God’s people.… The message that will deliver us is that families are more important than land, and a person’s relationship with God can never be taken away from him.”


Church, State, and the Farm Crisis

Many churches are addressing the farm crisis by trying to influence government policies. Others act as surrogate “agencies,” providing services in cooperation with the government.

The federal government asked churches in Iowa to sponsor a volunteer program that “tries to help people help themselves.” In response, the United Methodist Church is sponsoring a government VISTA program to implement a farm crisis service. The program is run by a Roman Catholic nun.

Two U.S. senators from farm states have commended the work being done by churches. In February, U.S. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) answered telephone calls at the Oklahoma Conference of

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Churches’ hotline. Afterwards, the senator described the farmers’ hardships as overwhelming, often demanding a “spiritual perspective to ease the difficult times.” Nickles says church leaders play an important role in helping farmers endure hardships.

In Iowa, a farmer was unable to sell hundreds of bushels of soybeans due to a provision in a bankruptcy law. When the distraught farmer tried to remove his soybeans from storage to sell them, he was temporarily jailed. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) befriended the man, working at his farm one weekend to draw attention to the farmer’s plight and to help his family.

Grassley and Nickles agree the federal government has a responsibility to help hard-hit farmers. “The government has had good intentions,” Nickles says, “but in many cases has caused the problem with embargoes and policies that encouraged overproduction.” Grassley says Congress’s responsibility is “within the concept of a safety net. People must be protected from things that are beyond their control.” The two senators have sought a legislative solution to the squeeze placed on farmers by high interest rates, falling land values, and low commodity prices. Along with U.S. Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.), they cosponsored the Landowner Protection Act, offering restructured debt payments to farmers threatened with foreclosure. Nickles also introduced the Barter Promotion Act of 1985 to promote trade of surplus farm commodities in exchange for strategic minerals from other countries.

Grassley and Nickles agree the farm crisis has not yet bottomed out. “The next two years will be as bad as right now,” Grassley predicts. Nickles adds, “I’m hopeful that we’re nearing the bottom. We’re still a very, very productive country. Never before have so few produced so much.”

Meanwhile, the senators agree that church initiatives can help meet the needs of farmers until they regain economic stability.


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