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Pulling together when financial troubles pull them apart. Farm communities face threat of growing violence

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There are fears that violence may spread in economically troubled rural America. Here in north-central Missouri -- one of the nation's most agriculturally depressed areas -- two things are clear. The potential for more violence exists. And farmers, nonfarmers, and sometimes whole communities, are trying to prevent it. At times they succeed. And sometimes they don't.

Last week an Iowa farmer killed his wife, a neighbor, and a banker, before committing suicide. In the aftermath of that tragedy, questions remain: Is violence inevitable in hard times? Are there ways to stop it? And how are individual families coping?

``I used to worry,'' says Jeanne Parks, a Bucklin, Mo., farm wife whose husband declared bankruptcy last March. ``And anymore, I don't. I have a lot of faith in God. And somehow it will work out.''

``We talk. We've sat down and cried about this,'' says Marsha Hughes, a farm wife from Dawn, Mo., who says the family is coping better now. Her husband, who stands to lose his machinery next spring, playfully taps her on the head with a rolled-up piece of paper.

In small ways, rural communities are trying to pull together too. ``It had almost become myth that rural people worked together,'' says Jack McCall, chairman of a nine-county rural task force here. Now, ``I think the stage is set for community cooperation.''

He ticks off examples: The town of Jamesport (pop. 650) wants to attract tourists to its old-style community; five farmers' markets have been set up recently to let farm families earn extra cash; ministers, mental health professionals, and community leaders gather to learn how they can train farmers in their localities to lead support groups.

Last week, 50 of them showed up at a lodge near Marceline. ``A year ago, we wouldn't have gotten 10 people,'' says Mr. McCall, who is also an official with the US agriculture department's extension service. ``I have bigger, stronger, more self-reliant [support] groups than ever before.''

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