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Hard times, tough choices

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 9, 2000


VILLISCA, Iowa -- Steve Williams is tall, muscular and intensely proud to be a fifth generation Iowa farmer. When he comes into town, however, some of that energy seems to drain from him.

"This being a small town, whenever I walk down the street, I can't help thinking of the people I owe money to," Williams confides. "We've had people issue us payment notices. . . . Our future is uncertain."

In the five years since Williams and his wife, Wendi, both 33, established themselves on a 500-acre farm near Williams' family homestead on the outskirts of this southwestern Iowa town, they have accrued debts in excess of $650,000 -- most of it from land and livestock purchases. A drop in farm prices has made it difficult for them to make their payments.

As bills pile up and the Williamses anticipate the birth of their third child in March, they know they must decide if they will sell their farm and move to the city for jobs that pay a steady salary.

At a time of unprecedented national prosperity, the Williamses' story is particularly moving because it is entirely out of sync with the pace of life and commerce outside the Farm Belt. Unlike other sectors of the economy, agriculture in the United States is suffering from a severe downturn.

For many years now, Iowans have taken upon themselves the task of winnowing the field of presidential candidates at the outset of the primary election season. Floridians do not cast their primary ballots until March 14.

But critics complain that sentiment in the early primary states does not always reflect the views of the country at large. This year, it seems unlikely that struggling farmers such as Steve and Wendi Williams can speak for those of us in other parts of the country who have never had it so good.

Judging from the rhetoric heard so far in the Iowa campaign, farm issues are central to everyone in the state -- even non-farmers. "Rural people set a psychological tone for the entire state," observes David Yepsen, well-known political writer for the Des Moines Register. Experts say farmers vote in the caucuses in higher numbers than other Iowans and thereby dominate the balloting.

For that reason, candidates make farm policy the centerpiece of their campaign here. As they travel through the state, Vice President Al Gore, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes and the other presidential candidates are frequently photographed against rural landscapes as they decry what has been a slow, steady decline in the family farm.

Forbes routinely notes that since mid-1996, corn prices fell 54 percent, wheat prices 52 percent, pork prices 40 percent and soybean prices 40 percent -- mostly because of abundant worldwide crops.

Gore and Bush both fault the 1996 law known as the Freedom to Farm Act for moving too quickly from government subsidies to an open market and failing to provide assistance to U.S. farmers when prices decline.

Yet even though farm issues dominate the debate here, interviews with farmers and pollsters indicate that Iowa voters do not make their political decisions based solely on the strength of a candidate's stand on agriculture issues.

Williams, for one, is a Forbes supporter, even though he acknowledges that the liberal proposals put forth by Gore might do more in the short run to ease his own financial problems. He favors Forbes primarily because the Republican is a staunch conservative with valuable experience in business. Forbes says his flat tax would be especially good for farmers.

"Morally, socially and economically, he is a conservative," says Williams, who recently shook Forbes' hand at a farm meeting in Des Moines. "He's a Washington outsider. I'm also glad he's not sticking his finger up to test which way the wind is blowing."

In many ways, Williams' political views run counter to his personal financial interets. He is, in fact, a strong opponent of the very government farm subsidies that helped to keep food on his family's table through the last year.

"As a conservative Republican, I don't want to take government money," Williams says. "I'm convinced we'd all be better off if government got off the farm."

Iowa pollster Ann Selzer says the state's farmers are intensely interested in politics, but they do not respond to candidates who "pander" to them on agriculture issues. "If a candidate says "price supports,' Iowa farmers don't just line up behind them," she says. "They will give on things closer to home, if they see a candidate they think would be good for the country."

Still, Iowa farmers enjoy being the center of attention at this moment in the presidential selection process, and they expect U.S. farm policy will likely be revised for their benefit as a result of the promises made to farmers in advance of the crucial Iowa caucuses.

End of a dynasty

Like Williams, Rex Grote, 52, is a fifth generation farmer. His great-great-great-grandmother, Sophia Grote, settled in this area after emigrating from Germany in the 1870s.

But Grote, a short, compact man with an appealing smile, knows for certain the family tradition will end with him because none of his children or siblings have chosen farming as an occupation. His oldest son, Seth, studied agronomy in college, but hated it. So in about 10 years, Grote expects to stop farming and lease the farm to fund his retirement. When he dies, the land will be sold.

Grote is what some people call a part-time or gentleman farmer, even though he devotes a minimum of eight hours a day to farming. His wife helps support the family by teaching music in the local school, and he supplements his income by driving a school bus and tending to the local cemetery.

"There's no way we could survive just on the farm," Grote says.

While the number of family-owned farms in Iowa has dwindled, a large percentage of the remaining farmers operate as Grote does, seeking other income.

"At any time I could say "okay,' and I could go get a jobs in the city," he said. "But the old farmer in me says "It's going to get better.' There's always next year."

What keeps him here is his love of the rural lifestyle.

"Oh, my gosh," he says, rolling his eyes. "I am my own boss. I set my own schedule. And being out in nature is what I like best about it."

Unlike most of the farmers in this area, Grote is a Democrat. "I am as liberal as they come," he says. For him, the biggest issue in any election is abortion; he is pro-choice.

Just recently, Grote went to a political rally at Iowa Western Community College, where he heard Gore speak. Grote supports Gore because he thinks the vice president "really, truly wants to help people."

Although Grote did not get to ask a question at the Gore rally, he says his question would have been this: "How can we open foreign markets for our commodities to increase farm profitability?"

On this question, Grote speaks for many Iowa farmers. A recent Iowa State University poll showed only 30 percent satisfied with farm profitability -- down from 58 percent in 1991.

Gore, who has adopted a nuts and bolts farm platform, would have enjoyed answering that question. Like all of the candidates in the race, he has promised to open up new foreign markets to more U.S. crops.

No matter who wins the presidency, Grote predicts that Congress is on the verge of discarding the Freedom to Farm law, which ended the tradition of "set-asides," or U.S. payments to farmers who agreed they would not grow any crops on certain portion of their farms.

Although the Freedom to Farm law allowed farmers to grow as much crop as they wanted, it did not provide an income for farmers in times such as these when prices fall sharply because of an overabundant world supply. Congress recently approved $8.7-billion in emergency payments to farmers to help them through this year's crisis.

The supplemental payment was important to Grote, as it was to many farmers. Although his 500-acre farm produced a record volume of corn and soybeans this year, he was faced with selling it at a loss. The aid allowed him to make a small profit.

While all the candidates have found some fault with Freedom to Farm, none have been as anxious to repeal it as Gore. The vice president has urged enactment of a new law before the current one expires in 2002.

A business approach

At age 47, Pete Wenstrand oversees his 1,500-acre farm from a sleek, modern office on the first floor of his remodeled old white clapboard farm house. On a shelf nearby sits a beautiful book written by his late father that tells the story of his family since his ancestors moved here from Sweden in 1869.

He took charge of the family farm in 1976, after earning a master's degree in business from Purdue University. And despite the recent downturn, Wenstrand has continued to make a profit growing corn and soybeans. His farm is profitable because he takes a hard-headed business approach, he says, and because he has no mortgage to pay.

Faced with a market glut and low prices, Wenstrand, who served one year as national president of the Corn Growers Association, is convinced that Iowa farmers have to become more involved in marketing their own products.

To that end, he is helping to organize an alliance with about 50 producers who intend to build a plant to process specialty white corn for use in tortilla chips. "We even thought of making our own chips," he says, "but there is too much competition."

Wenstrand also has bought a share in an ethanol plant, which makes fuel from corn.

He is making these investments because he has seen farmers get higher prices for their crops by doing the processing and marketing themselves. In Eastern Iowa, for example, farmers have banded together to build a soy flour and a turkey processing plant.

"I think there is a lot of opportunity out there; we have to learn from the ones that are successful," Wenstrand says.

His biggest dilemma this winter is what kind of seed to buy for spring planting. He fears the developing European hostility to genetically modified crops will make it difficult for him to sell some of the varieties he normally grows. But he -- like other farmers -- has no way of knowing what varieties will be deemed unacceptable in this volatile world market.

"What are the standards?" he asks.

Wenstrand describes himself as a moderate Republican, and he and his wife, Dana, 35, will vote for Bush in the Iowa caucuses. He sees Bush as a free trader and an internationalist who "will be willing to spend the political capital to do things differently."

Yet like the other farmers interviewed, he acknowledges he does not have a firm grasp of the farm platforms of any of the presidential candidates.

Bush's farm platform calls for giving the president a free hand in trade negotiations with other countries, persuading all the world's countries to eliminate subsidies for agricultural exports and forcing Europeans to buy genetically modified crops that have been proven scientifically to be okay for human consumption.

Bucking the odds

The plight of farmers such as Steve Williams, the one with heavy debts, is getting the most attention from the presidential candidates. Yet even though all the candidates speak in favor of saving family farmers who can't pay their bills, Williams knows their sympathetic speeches mean nothing to his creditors.

Although Williams raises cattle and some crops, he is primarily a pig farmer. Just a year ago, the price of pigs fell to Depression levels and it remains low at about $30 per hundredweight today.

Last January, Gore announced the administration would make $15-million in emergency grants to pig farmers. It was seen as a blatantly political move by Gore, whose efforts to protect the environment from farm waste have angered pig farmers.

Perhaps the best news pig farmers have received lately came in a recent edition of the Iowa Farm Bureau newspaper. It quoted a livestock specialist saying that McDonald's, the fast-food chain, is thinking of adding bacon to their burgers.

Williams has managed to get an above-market price for his pigs by selling them to a California company that specializes in wholesaling naturally raised pork for fashionable gourmet restaurants. But even these sales do not cover his living expenses and loan payments.

"This is a time when there's not much margin for error," Williams says.

Although emergency government payments have helped Williams squeak by, he says he still supports the goals of the Freedom to Farm law that tried to shrink farm subsidies. "It's freedom to fail; we don't have a program to keep every farmer in business," he says.

Rural Iowa has been steadily losing population because of problems like those faced by the Williamses. Furthermore, an Iowa State University poll found 41 percent of current Iowa farmers are considering leaving their farms for more lucrative jobs in cities.

But that is the last thing the Williamses want to do. Before returning to the farm after college, Williams lived and worked for a year in Chicago. There, he says, he felt like an "uprooted plant." And even though his wife was born in Flint, Mich., she has no desire to return to city life.

As conservative, born-again Christians, the Williamses have a mental picture of an ideal farm life in which Steve can support the family through farming and Wendi can home school the children, Rachael, 5, Jackson, 2, and the baby due in March.

Their goal is to have an entirely organic farm that will allow them to sell their products at top prices to specialty marketers, as they do now with their pigs. It is ironic, they say with a laugh, that their preference for alternative farming has made them members of an organization known as Practical Farmers of Iowa, made up primarily of liberals.

But their plans for an alternative farm will have to be discarded if the bank that holds their loans insists on being repaid under the original terms. Williams says he can survive only "if the bank will work with us."

Disappointment fills Williams' eyes when he acknowledges his farming days may be numbered. He admits to feeling "a little bitterness" toward other farmers such as Grote and Wenstrand who are succeeding because they have a working spouse or because they have no land debt.

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