All Articles

ISU Professor’s New Book Unlocks the Secret History of the Farm Crisis

Posted Oct 6, 2022

A new book – When a Dream Dies: Agriculture, Iowa, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s – authored by Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of History Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, was recently published by the University Press of Kansas. The research for this innovative work of social history draws extensively on sources in the Iowa Women’s Archives, the Drake University Political Papers Collection, records in the State Historical Society of Iowa, the Parks Library Special Collections here at ISU, Iowa Cooperative Extension Documents and archives in Indiana and Kansas. Five years of research followed by two years of writing yielded an outstanding example of how understanding the past illuminates the present: farm crises are never far away in contemporary Iowa.

Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of History Pamela Riney-Kehrberg.

This project began when Riney-Kehrberg found, tucked into the files of Iowa State’s Cooperative Extension Service, a small, innocuous looking pamphlet with the title Lenders: Working through the Farmer-Lender Crisis. The Cooperative Extension Service intended this publication to improve bankers’ empathy and communication skills, especially when facing farmers showing “Suicide Warning Signs.” After all, they were working with individuals experiencing extreme economic distress, and each banker needed to learn to “be a good listener.”

Just as important as the words on the page were the silences. Iowa State published this pamphlet in April 1986, just four months after farmer Dale Burr of Lone Tree, Iowa, killed his wife, his banker, a neighbor, and finally himself. An entrepreneurial farmer from generations of farming families, Burr found himself in debt to the tune of $500,000 and saw no way out. The unwritten subtext of the little pamphlet was “beware.” If bankers failed to adapt to changing circumstances, further murders could result.

This was Iowa in the 1980s. The state was at the epicenter of a nationwide agricultural collapse unmatched since the Great Depression. In When a Dream Dies, Riney-Kehrberg examines the lives of ordinary Iowa farmers as the Midwest experienced the worst of the crisis. While farms failed and banks foreclosed, rural and small-town Iowans watched and suffered, struggling to find effective ways to cope with the crisis. If families and communities were to endure, they would have to think about themselves, their farms, and their futures in new ways. For many Iowa families, this meant restructuring their lives or moving away from agriculture completely. This book helps to explain how this disaster changed children, families, communities, and the development of the nation’s heartland in the late twentieth century.

In the Q&A that follows, Riney-Kehrberg shares a sampling of the key learnings and perspectives she gained in researching and writing When a Dream Dies: Agriculture, Iowa, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

Q) How did you arrive at the title, and what is its significance?

The cover of When a Dream Dies: Agriculture, Iowa, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

A) The 1980s challenged so many hopes and dreams that farm families cherished. Traditionally, families had hoped to support themselves fully on their farms, to be able to safeguard the lands they inherited or purchased, and to be able to pass the farm onto the next generation. Many families saw the end of these dreams in the 1980s, because the economy forced them to work off the farm, or they saw their land foreclosed, or their children became unwilling or unable to continue in agriculture. If the dream was to keep a family farm healthy and operating, that dream died for many in the 1980s.

Q) What were the key factors that drove you to explore this part of Iowa’s history – the Farm Crisis of the 1980s?

A) One of my primary historical interests has always been how families respond to stress – and what could be more stressful than a massive financial crisis? It took me a number of years, however, to get around to examining the 1980s. It takes a while for an event to recede far enough into our past to be examined historically. It takes time to achieve perspective on an event. When I began working at ISU in 2000, my graduate students started asking me why no one had really tackled this topic. As I became interested in Iowa’s small towns and the ways in which they had changed over time, I realized that the topic could not be understood without examining the 1980s, and that it was time for me to be that person who wrote this book.

Q) In researching and writing your book, what did you find to be the most profound changes the Farm Crisis of the 1980s had on agriculture in Iowa, farm families and rural communities?

A) The Farm Crisis pushed 24% of Iowa’s farmers out of agriculture, which was a massive change all by itself. The crisis also changed how the remaining farms looked and operated. Farmers became dramatically older, as middle aged and young farmers lost their operations. Many young people decided to quit before they started. Farms got much larger (the largest survived the storm the most successfully), and those running smaller operations often took jobs outside agriculture to support their farms. Farmers also gave up a good bit of agricultural diversity. Prior to the crisis, most raised some animals in addition to corn and soybeans. Most got out of animal agriculture as a result of the crisis. Farms looked far different in 1990 than in 1980.

Small towns became even smaller as the number of farms shrank. Rural schools and rural hospitals closed, and many towns experienced catastrophic losses to their economic and social bases. The departure of young people accelerated.

Q) What do you believe are the key learnings we should keep in mind that could help mitigate the impact of a future farm crisis?

A) Farmers clearly remain vulnerable to many forces outside of their control: adverse weather conditions; changes in interest rates; and foreign policy decisions all have dramatic effects on the ability of farmers to make a living. Farmers have to carefully balance financial caution against any innovations they might want to make in their operations. What looks like a good idea one year can become a very bad one in the blink of an eye – or the stroke of a president’s pen. One of the most troublesome aspects of the 1980s was that it was often the young, innovative, college-educated farmers who lost their farms. They’d gone into debt in the 1970s to make improvements to their operations, and the interest rates of the 1980s, in turn, wiped them out.

Q) If there is a primary source that you discovered in researching and writing the book that you found particularly striking or surprising, can you share a little insight into that experience?

A) There are two sources I want to mention as especially useful. The first is actually a set of sources – constituent letters to Governor Terry Branstad. Those letters provided very clear and immediate insights into how the economic change of the decade was decimating farm operations. These letters came from a broad swath of the farm population – men, women, and children, from the very young to the very old. They helped me understand what it felt like to live in that moment. A very different kind of source that gave me some of the same perspectives was the 1985 yearbook published at the high school in Harlan. That yearbook provided invaluable information about the deep impression the crisis was having on young people. Never doubt that teenagers are deeply and painfully aware of what’s going on in their homes and communities.

Q) How did resources from CEAH support you in this project?

A) In 2017, I received a CEAH planning grant. The purpose of planning grants is to give a scholar the time necessary to

develop a strong application for a prestigious grant, such as a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellowship. Unfortunately, my planning grant coincided with significant cuts in resources for the humanities nationwide, which resulted in a dramatic upswing in the number of applications. That year, roughly 2% of NEH grant applications found funding. Even so, the CEAH grant provided me the time and space to push ahead with research and writing, and to secure two smaller grants that provided necessary resources for my work.