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AMERICA’S FARMERS: Hard Times Turning Farmers Into Activists

March 8, 1985 GMT

BREWSTER, Minn. (AP) _ They came by bus and by pickup truck to stop the sale of Jim Langman’s farm. It was a simple issue for the farmers who crowded into the Polk County courthouse. No more foreclosures; no more families forced from their land.

″What the people are quietly saying is ’enough,‴ said Bobbi Polzine, a Brewster farmer who helped organize the courthouse protest last month. ″It’s the most patriotic, most God-fearing thing I have witnessed.″

A growing rumble is coming from the nation’s heartland. Farmers, facing a season of financial famine, sheriff’s sales and foreclosure, are breaking their silence, organizing, demonstrating and lobbying to save their way of life.

They are loosely organized under such names as ″Groundswell″ and ″Prairiefire,″ but even the leaders say the growing activism has a life of its own.

″The people have taken things into their own hands,″ said Mrs. Polzine, who saw her group, Groundswell, grow in three months from a meeting of 40 community leaders into a Statehouse rally in St. Paul that attracted 12,000 people.

Groundswell is one of the more successful of the farmbelt’s new movements; its demand for a moratorium on farm foreclosures is being considered by the Minnesota Legislature. But in recent weeks, other states have seen growing protests and support for the plight of farmers:

- Morre than 15,000 farmers from throughout the Midwest filled a basketball arena in Ames, Iowa, last week for a ″National Crisis Action Rally.″ Speaker after speaker called for federal help and warned the crowd that the Reagan administration has declared war on the family farm.

- Some 6,000 South Dakota ranchers and farmers marched through snow to the state capital at Pierre to present $17,000, raised in $1 donations, to Gov. Bill Janklow. The money was used to send the state Legislature to Washington last week to seek federal help for family farms.

- Merchants in northwestern Iowa have have put green ribbons and signs reading ″Support Your Local Farmer,″ in their shops. A radio station in Aurelia plays ″Keep Iowa Green,″ a locally recorded song sung to the tune of ″Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.″

- About 700 Midwestern grain farmers, organized by the American Agriculture Movement Inc., marched on the Agriculture Department and the White House on Monday, demanding higher guaranteed prices and strict controls on production. AAM was born in the late 1970s, when grain farmers organized to protest low farm prices.

Not all the protests are peaceful. Sheriff Dean Baum was chased from a courthouse in Gove, Kan., last month when he tried to auction a farm in a foreclosure sale. An angry crowd of 100 shoved a bidder to the ground and Baum fled through a rear door of the courthouse. ″I don’t think a lot of the people in the country understand the volatility in the countryside,″ said David Ostendorf, a United Church of Christ minister who heads the Des Moines- based Prairiefire, a non-profit coalition of farmers and church groups throughout Iowa.

Ostendorf said many farmers feel betrayed by government officials, who encouraged farmers to go into debt in the late 1970s and expand their operations. Now, squeezed by high interest rates and low crop prices, many farmers can’t repay their debts and are facing bankruptcy and foreclosure.

″You have people who are losing land and farms that have been in their family for over a century,″ said Ostendorf. ″These are people who abided by everything government officials told them to do; they played the game right and now the rug is being pulled out from under them. If you don’t think they’re a little angry, you’re mistaken.″

Organizers like Ostendorf try to channel the anger into non-violent action. Prairiefire sends members to the state Legislature to lobby for a foreclosure moratorium and legislation providing spring planting funds for farmers in trouble. Groundswell is organizing ″defense councils″ in each Minnesota township to provide hay for cattle and shoes for farm children.

Peter Brent, a Menlow, Iowa, farmer who went broke in 1983, now handles the Prairiefire telephone hotline, advising as many as 30 callers a day on ways to keep their farms.

″You’ve got to understand that I’m a conservative Republican who is in with a bunch of radicals,″ he joked. ″You’re going to gravitate to the direction where things are being done.″

The farmers also are forming alliances with other groups more practiced at picket lines and protest. Members of the United Auto Workers, which have lost 9,000 jobs in Iowa’s farm machinery industry, have joined with farmers to disrupt auctions of farm machinery. Teamsters Union members also have lent their support to the farm movement.

″The farmer’s problem is everybody’s problem,″ said Rick Avery, vice president of UAW Local 997 in Newton, Iowa. ″If their economy goes sour so does ours.″

The Rev. John Cain, the Roman Catholic Rural Life director for the diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, said thousands of farm families are coming to emergency meetings that once only attracted a few score.

Farmers are being joined by townspeople whose livelihood is tied to the land. Main Street merchants in Minnesota are signing petitions that protest the ″disinvestment″ of farms, homes and businesses and are supporting a moratorium on farm and business foreclosures.

″The key is that we recognize this has ceased to be a farm crisis a long time ago and has become a rural community crisis,″ said Mrs. Polzine. ″When we let it be known that there is something you can do with the power of numbers, that’s when it all started.″

Mrs. Polzine, a 49-year-old mother of two, got involved in November when she learned state officials estimated 600 to 800 families in southern Minnesota might lose their farms this year.

She heard community leaders discuss plans for stress management, psychological counseling and training programs to help farmers learn new job skills. ″I said, ’Who is going to help the farmer fight back?‴ she recalled.

After that, she said, Groundswell grew by itself. Attendance at each meeting doubled, leading to the successful rally in St. Paul on Jan. 21. The group has since declared a ″people’s moratorium″ on farm foreclosures, rallying 1,000 people last month in an attempt to stop three separate farm sales.

Although the group met only limited success - Langman’s sale was postponed, the other two went ahead - Mrs. Polzine said farmers will continue to organize and gain political strength.

″Groundswell has done more to help defuse a bad situation than anything a psychologist could dream up,″ she said. ″Whether it’s making up a protest sign or going to your neighbor’s with a petition, the farmer is taking action now. He knows he’s helping himself.″