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Author shares lessons learned from the farm crisis

From the Q&As with influential people in agriculture. series
Q-&-A--Pamela-Riney-Kehrberg

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg currently serves as distinguished professor of history at Iowa State University and teaches a wide variety of courses, from food history to rural and agricultural history to the United States in the first half of the 20th century. She is the author of a number of books, and most recently University Press of Kansas published her new book “When a Dream Dies: Agriculture, Iowa, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.”

Riney-Kehrberg was raised in a suburb of Denver, but she’s always been interested in the history of agriculture and rural communities. She attributes this to the long hours she spent at the kitchen tables of her grandparents, who delighted in telling stories about their childhoods on Kansas farms.

IFT: What led to your interest in history, and particularly ag history?

RINEY-KEHRBERG: I’ve been interested in agricultural history since I was a child. All four of my grandparents grew up on Kansas farms, and their stories of farm life were the entertainment at family Thanksgivings and Christmases. When I was eight, I also received a set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books for Christmas. Those stories increased my desire to know what it was like living on farms and in rural communities in years past. I majored in history in college, but when I went off to graduate school, I didn’t know exactly what my specialty would be.

I was still figuring out what I wanted to do when I had the good fortune of deciding to work with famed agricultural historian Allan G. Bogue. He pushed me to think about topics I might never have explored. He was one of the fathers of Midwestern agricultural history, and his influence helped to put me on the path I’ve been on ever since.

IFT: Tell us your thought process behind writing this book about the farm crisis.

RINEY-KEHRBERG: In my years in Iowa, I have become more and more interested in the history of small town life. As this interest developed, I realized that if I wanted to understand Iowa’s small towns today, I really needed to find out more about what had happened in the 1980s. That desire to know led me on a search for everything I could find out about those years, and especially the way in which the crisis affected families — men, women and children.

One of the frustrating things about discussions of the farm economy is that they often neglect the inner workings of families. But agriculture was, and in many cases still is, about families. An economic downturn as shattering as the one that occurred in the 1980s could not happen without forcing families to rethink who, and what, they were. I wanted to understand that.

IFT: As you worked on the book, what were some things you found especially interesting?

RINEY-KEHRBERG: In the course of doing my research, I found some amazing materials. On a trip to Harlan, Iowa, I looked at a high school yearbook published in 1985. That yearbook was a fascinating document that told me just how deeply the crisis was affecting the area’s teens. Practically every page told how devastating the crisis had been in that community, whether it was a discussion of the changes to the curriculum being forced by a loss of funds, or the changes coming to the community as young people headed off to college, planning to never come back.

In a collection of materials at the Iowa Women’s Archives in Iowa City, I found quite a few items describing the level of food insecurity on farms in the 1980s. I was able to verify what I’d found in that archive both in newspapers, small and large, and in the governor’s papers at the State Historical Society. And the governor’s papers in Des Moines were absolutely invaluable. Thousands of Iowans wrote to Governors Ray and Branstad during the 1980s, describing the ways in which hard times were challenging them in their work and in their homes. Some of the most touching letters came from children and teenagers who didn’t necessarily understand exactly what was happening, but who knew that something very difficult was hurting their parents and upending their lives.  

IFT: They say history often repeats itself. Are you concerned the Midwest may see something like the mid-’80s again?

RINEY-KEHRBERG: The agricultural economy is always moving up and down, and the environment is always stressing farmers. In any given year, the potential for disaster is there. I think that future crises are unlikely to look exactly like the one that happened in the 1980s, but farmers are particularly vulnerable to problems like credit crunches and fluctuations in interest rates. As in the 1980s, farmers tend to be forgotten when politicians and bureaucrats are weighing the possible effects of actions, such as raising interest rates. Farmers and their representatives need to remain vigilant when people in Washington and in the statehouse are discussing changes in policy.

IFT: What do you believe are the most important lessons we learned from the farm crisis?

RINEY-KEHRBERG: Hard times taught Iowans some difficult lessons. Many farm families had to think differently about how they organized family labor, and become more comfortable with the idea of going off the farm to diversify their income stream if they wanted to maintain the farm. That wasn’t something that they necessarily wanted to do, but having outside sources of income saved many family operations. Hard times taught people that bad things could happen to good people, and that just because something bad had happened to them, they themselves weren’t bad. This forced a number of people to think seriously about the problem of mental health. It’s reassuring that Extension now places a strong emphasis on mental health services. In many ways it is an attempt to avoid the terrible struggles with anxiety and depression that families suffered in the ’80s.

One lesson that I’m afraid we haven’t learned well enough is that caring about Iowans is more important than the political issues that might divide the state. There was a remarkable unity of purpose that leaders like Terry Branstad, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley shared in the 1980s. With farms on the line, they could look beyond their divisions and speak with one voice on many issues. I found that particularly remarkable.

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Jeff DeYoung is editor and livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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