Farm Financial Crisis – Challenges for Ministry among Small Town and Rural Communities, Congregations, and Individuals

[1] The challenges for small town and rural America continue to be significant, as they have been for some time. In particular, small town and rural America faces financial stress in many sectors, especially in those communities financially dependent on the agricultural industry. The presence of financial stress has affected these communities, and these effects present some significant challenges for congregations and pastors in their ministries.

[2] The 1970s were a time of optimism for the U.S. agricultural sector. Exports of U.S. agricultural products were high, resulting in an increase in market prices for products and a general increase in farm income. At the same time, land was increasing in value and interest rates were low. The combination of low interest rates, increasing land values, and high farm prices led many lending agencies and agricultural experts to encourage farmers to expand their operations. Many farmers took this advice, expanding their farm operations by borrowing against the collateral represented in high commodity prices and increasing land values. During the 1970s farm debt tripled.1

[3] In the 1980s the farming financial landscape changed dramatically. A rise in the value of the U.S. dollar made U.S. farm commodities more expensive on the world market, resulting in a decrease in exports. This, in turn, led to lower market prices for agricultural products and lower income for producers. Simultaneously, land values generally decreased nationwide, while there was an increase in interest rates. Farmers who had expanded their operations by absorbing more debt were particularly affected, as they tried to pay off debt with commodities which were lower in price and land collateral which had decreased in value.

[4] Some described this farm financial crisis as the most severe economic period since the Great Depression. Many studying small towns and rural communities note that the effects of financial stress in the agricultural sector continue to the present, with commodity prices continuing to be low, and costs of inputs and equipment continuing to rise. This crisis has had ripple effects in agriculturally-dependent communities across the nation. One word – loss – perhaps best exemplifies what many communities have experienced. A significant number of producers who borrowed money to begin farming or to expand their operations have had to quit farming, due to the stress of their debt loads. Many of these have had to leave their communities to find employment in other occupations. This has resulted in a loss of population for many communities.

[5] Likewise, these communities have experienced a loss of businesses, a loss of services (such as hospitals, banks, and social services), and consolidation of the local schools with those of neighboring communities due to a decrease in the number of youth. Many communities experience a loss of self-determination; banks or hospitals that do remain may be bought out or consolidated with larger corporations, with the result that decisions affecting the local branch are made at distant corporate headquarters by persons who have no stake in the community. A decreasing population will likely lead to a loss of political power as well. It is often noted that, in severely affected communities, the church may be the last service organization left in the community.

[6] Individuals and families experiencing farm financial stress experience loss as well. People report a host of financial and psychological consequences as a result of farm financial stress including reduced income, job loss, loss of major possessions, depression, family and marital problems, withdrawal from family and friends, increased anger, sleeping and eating disorders, increased substance abuse, self-depreciation, feelings of worthlessness, a sense of loss, and suicide proneness. A sense of guilt within family generations may also be present. Some who have left farming report feeling guilt that they were not able to keep land that may have been in the family for years. They feel that neighbors and family members view them as failures, and within a community where everyone seems to know everyone else, they report a sense of being the subject of conversations in the coffee shops and around family tables. This sense of failure is reinforced as farmers wonder why their grandparents could survive the Great Depression, but they could not survive the current farm crisis. It is clear that persons experiencing the farm crisis present a need for pastoral care within congregations and communities. Yet many farmers and their families find it difficult to share their condition and struggles with their neighbors or pastor.

[7] Farm crisis presents some significant challenges for pastors and congregations in small towns and rural communities. While the congregation is facing challenges of membership loss and financial stress, the needs for pastoral care actually increase. When community social service resources are curtailed, congregations are often called upon to fill the gap. The community asks congregations to provide food, clothing, emergency funds, counseling, and shelter.

[8] Maintaining a sense of Christian community within congregations and between neighbors is also a challenge for congregations and pastors. Research has shown that while most persons who leave farming report that they exited farming due to factors beyond their control, a significant proportion of those who continue to farm say that people leave farming due to poor management. Some who left farming report that their neighbors were interested in obtaining their land in order to expand farm operations. People who continue to farm, those who have left farming due to financial stress, bankers who may have had to foreclose on a farm operation, and merchants who extended credit to farm operators are likely to be sitting in the same congregation. Dealing with the feelings of loss, hurt, and anger that accompany farm crisis, while still maintaining a sense of grace, forgiveness, and community in Christ, is a challenge for congregations in these contexts.

[9] Pastors and congregations serving in agriculturally-dependent communities need to be aware of what is happening with community members. While many suffering economic hardship may be unable to share their predicament with others, pastors and members of the community should be aware of changes in attitudes and behaviors of their neighbors, and be willing to address these concerns with them. Likewise, the congregations and members of the community should anticipate struggles, and provide forums and activities that may help alleviate the effects of financial crisis, or at least provide possible avenues of action for those experiencing financial stress.

[10] Communities of faith must address the fear of an uncertain future as well. These fears will likely be found not just in families, but in communities and congregations as well. ‘How will we be able to survive?’, ‘Will anyone want to live here, or serve here?’, ‘What is the mission God has for us here and now?’ could well be very real questions for individuals, communities, and congregations in the midst of farm crisis.

[11] Yet the Lord Jesus bids us to have no fear (Matthew 10:31), as individuals, as congregations, and as communities. The Lord Jesus also reminds us that we are not alone (Matthew 28:20). And here may be the greatest hope for small town and rural America and those called to serve in that context. God has called into being a group of people in faith, the Church of Jesus Christ. Persons and congregations serving in small town and rural America need the prayers and support of people of faith. But they also need their Christian sisters and brothers to understand the challenges of life and ministry in communities experiencing financial stress, and they need partners in advocating for justice in the global agricultural system, so that producers receive a fair price for commodities and the ability to make an adequate living from their labor.

End Notes

1 Steve H. Murdock and F. Larry Leistritz, The Farm Financial Crisis: Socioeconomic Dimensions for Producers and Rural Areas (Boulder, Colorado: Westiview Press, 1988), p. 14.