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Helping farmers

THE recent tragedy in Lone Tree, Iowa, in which a distraught farmer killed his banker, a neighbor, his wife, and then himself, has brought the farm crisis back at least briefly to the nation's attention. Last winter the farm problems in the Midwest received massive coverage in the news media. But despite this coverage, this tragic event seemed to come as a surprise to many. People seem to be unaware that the rate of suicides among farm operators is twice the rate among the total population in Missouri, Iowa, and other Midwestern states. And it continues to increase.

Each and every such event is a tragedy to that individual, family, and community -- but not one that receives national media coverage. These events must be kept in perspective. Only about one-fourth of the 2.1 million farms in the United States are of commercial size. Most are small. Of these, about one-third are in immediate financial trouble. Some of these, but not all, will fail.

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Farming is as much a way of life as a form of business. For many if not most farmers, the way of life is more important than the business aspects of farming. Farmers view their occupation as an almost sacred trust. It is their job to raise food for themselves and others just as efficiently as possible. And this is to be done on land that in many cases has been in their families for generations. A considerable number of farms that have been in families for 100 years or more are being forced out of busine ss. Most farm families look forward to passing on the family farm to the next generation in as good condition as when they received it, or even better condition, but today the majority of farmers do not believe it will be possible to pass on their farms to their children.

Family roots in farming communities are deep. And the emotions created when these roots are destroyed are equally deep. Some social scientists, including me, who study such changes have been surprised not by the Lone Tree type of incidents, but by the relatively small number of such tragedies.

This small number can probably be explained by another characteristic of Midwestern operators. Most of them are male. Their training emphasizes that they are supposed to be independent, self-made men and that their destiny is in their own hands. If they fail, it is their own fault. This leads to their blaming themselves.

One of the main factors contributing to mental stress of farm operators facing financial problems is the lack of moral support from friends and neighbors. In a poll this fall of more than 2,100 Missouri farm operators, we asked if the operators agreed or disagreed with this statement: ``Most of the farmers who recently lost their farms have no one to blame but themselves.'' More that one-third (39 percent) of the respondents expressed agreement with it. Almost one-half (45 percent) of the small-farm op erators agreed, but only 1 out of 5 large-scale operators agreed.

Most farmers do not readily seek mental-health counseling, and this compounds the stress. And even if farmers desired counseling, such services are often not available in many rural communities.

Rural communities -- especially those heavily dependent on agriculture -- are beginning to recognize the need for providing moral support for families experiencing severe financial stress. These support programs, which are often organized through churches, may have two effects: They may create more sympathy among those who are not directly involved in such programs for families caught in the painful transition out of farming. Also, they may help farm operators and families directly by providing moral sup port and love.

Some other organizations are beginning to take actions that may provide additional support. For example, a college in Kansas is offering free tuition for farm operators who have lost their farms. A hospital in Missouri is offering free physical examinations to any farmer. The Missouri Department of Agriculture and the University of Missouri have formed a not-for-profit corporation called MO FARMS to confront the management needs of financially stressed farm families.

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Such programs might help offset severe emotional pressures on farmers facing financial difficulties.

Rex R. Campbell is a professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

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