Fiscally hurting group clings to unity

MUG: Gary Lamb

DES MOINES -- An economic crisis loomed in agriculture as 10 Iowa farm leaders met in a bank basement in Atlantic on Jan. 20, 1982.

Out of that meeting the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition was born. Representatives from the Iowa Farmers Union, the U.S. Farmers Association, the Iowa National Farmers Organization, the American Agriculture Movement and Rural Iowa (Prairiefire) pledged coordinated action to stop forced farm sales and to establish a national food and fiber policy based on a parity farm program with supply management.

In the years that followed, the organization's efforts attracted international attention as members organized rallies and farm protests, created the first farm crisis hot line, helped organize farm unity survival committees in almost half the counties in the state and successfully lobbied for legislation to ease the severe economic pain the crisis heaped on Iowa farm families.

Throughout its 10-year history the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition has been a powerful voice for family farmers, says David Ostendorf, executive director of Prairiefire and one of those attending the founding meeting in Atlantic.


``The coalition really provided the vehicle for farmers in the state to organize and press their concerns in a powerful way at the state and national level,'' Ostendorf said.

The Iowa Farm Unity Coalition forced presidential candidates to focus on agriculture during forums in 1984 and 1988, and it launched massive voter education programs to get rural people involved in the political process.

In 1985 the coalition was organizing at least several protests every week. In Chariton, 200 protesters shut down a major Production Credit Association farm machinery sale and generated international media coverage. On Feb. 10, 1985, the National Crisis Action Rally at Hilton Coliseum in Ames drew more than 17,000 people from 10 states.

Crosses were planted on courthouse lawns to symbolize foreclosed farms. It was coalition vigilance that year that brought Gov. Terry Branstad to declare an economic emergency. The emergency declaration triggered a farm foreclosure moratorium.

Coalition lobbying is credited with passage of legislation that ensured mandatory mediation in farm forclosures; homestead redemption at fair market value for two years and right of first refusal; stronger Iowa corporate farming laws; and a prohibition on contracting by pork processors. The coalition was also active in lobbying for the Farm Credit Act of 1987, Chapter 12 of the U.S. bankruptcy laws, and new Farmers Home Administration policies.

Saturday, the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, which now includes farm, labor and religious organizations, will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with panel discussions, a slide show, a fundraising auction and a keynote address by U.S. Rep. Dave Nagle. ``A Celebration of Rural America'' begins at 12:30 p.m. at the Best Western International Hotel in Des Moines.

The coalition created a safety net for thousands of farmers who felt abandoned, said Gary Lamb, Iowa Farmers Union president and a leader in the coalition throughout its first 10 years.

``The Iowa Farm Unity Coalition was the first group of people who recognized that we had some serious problems, and we had to create some contact where people could call in if they had problems,'' Lamb said. ``They were the first to establish a sort of rural concern hot line that people in trouble could call and get various kinds of legal and moral support.''


Mark Kuhn, a Charles City farmer, helped found the Floyd County Farm Unity Coalition in 1985. He said the county group received invaluable support from state coalition leaders.

``During the depths of the farm crisis we did a lot of things in Floyd County,'' Kuhn said. ``It was a kind of support group in many ways. We'd have speakers on things like mediation, foreclosure or dealing with the FmHA, but it was after the meetings were over and people started talking one-onone that they realized there were other farmers with the same problems.''

Ostendorf and Lamb agree that the most discouraging part of the past 10 years is that despite all the work by coalition members, so many family farmers still lost their farms.

``At the bottom of all our hearts is a profound sense of loss at what happened in the 1980s and what still happens today -- the loss of family farms in this state and country,'' Ostendorf said.

``All of us at times felt about like doctors working with the terminally ill,'' Lamb said. ``About all we could do in some instances was relieve the pain and suffering. We knew full well we would not be able to save all the people. That was the most frustrating part of this. We recognized that public policy did not understand the social and economic need to preserve family farms.''

Over time, Ostendorf said, the focus of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition has changed.

``Up until the late 1980s, we were very much oriented to the debt crisis in agriculture and keeping family farmers on the land,'' Ostendorf said. ``After the late 1980s, we began to shift our focus to some of the broader economic issues that really were at the heart of the farm crisis like concentration of control by grain companies and livestock corporations. Since the late 1980s the coalition has hunkered down to take on these very, very serious systemic issues.''

Ostendorf said the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition plans to continue to battle corporate concentration in agriculture as it looks to the future. Right now, coalition leaders are focusing on livestock with a study committee making recommendations this winter.


And despite what the politicians and the news media think, Ostendorf said, the farm crisis has not gone away.

``I have never seen such a profound sense of despair in this country as I have in the past several years,'' Ostendorf said. ``People in rural and urban areas have felt there's nothing they could do to make anything better.''

But with a record number of voters turning out on election day and a Democratic president in the White House, Ostendorf is hopeful that there may be change.

In a 1985 issue of the Iowa Farm Unity News, the late Dixon Terry, a farmer, activist and coalition founder and leader, wrote that the organization was giving rural Iowans hope: ``Rural folks are starting to have hope once again -- and hope has been one critical ingredient that has been missing in the building of a successful family farm movement.

``The Iowa Farm Unity Coalition has become a strong voice in Iowa for the interest of family farmers -- a welcome alternative to farm organizations that claim to represent farmers but defend the interests of corporate agribusiness. The coalition serves as a model for similar efforts in other states as well as for a growing national collective effort. Although its resources are now being heavily tested, the Coalition looks to the future with confidence and excitement as to what can be achieved.''

What To Read Next
Get Local