Throughout the history of the central
Great Plains region, there have been cycles and factors that affect
the lives of those who live here. These factors have always produced
results that we can see later.
Some factors are natural — like the cycle of wet
years and dry years. This "drought cycle" results in a pattern of
good times followed by bad times for the plants, animals and humans living
on the Plains. We can see that in the archeological record where
the indications of plains Indian settlements disappears between
roughly A.D. 1400 and 1600.
Other factors affecting life on the Plains are man-made
— like the cycles of economic activity and the progress of technology.
In the 1970s and 80s, a combination of factors resulted in a period
when farmers across the Midwest could no longer stay in business,
and that produced profound changes in the social landscape of the
This period is known as the farm crisis. There were
several factors that came together to create the crisis.
- Technology. One major factor was advancements in
the technological of farming. New machines, crops, pesticides
and irrigation resulted in greater efficiency — it took fewer
farmers to produce the same amount of food in the 1970s. In 1940,
one American farmer produced enough food to feed 15 people; by
1960 one farmer could feed 65 people.
- Expansion through borrowing. To take advantage
of the new technology, farmers felt the pressure to grow larger,
to farm more ground with more expensive machines and techniques.
They bought more land. They bought new machines. They paid more
for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and services. Many paid for
this new technology by borrowing money from banks. In the early
70s, they were able to grow more, and the prices for their crops
were high enough to support the expansion.
- A good economy. During the mid 1970s, economic
factors were good — interest rates were relatively low, so farmers
could borrow cheaply. People in foreign countries wanted American
food and had the money to pay for it, so foreign markets became
important to the farmers. And prices for their land seemed reasonable.
- Governmental policies. Some critics argue that
tax laws and price support programs have favored large factory
farms (owned by corporations) over family farms. They say that
increasing corporate concentration has squeezed family farmers
out of the market.
What changed in
the late 1970s & 80s.
- The economy went bad. The economy moves in cycles.
In this time period, economic factors starting going down, which
forced interest rates up -- farmers had to pay more for the loans
they needed to operate each year. In addition, people tend to
buy less during bad economic times, so the prices paid for farm
commodities went down.
- Foreign markets dried up, driving prices down further.
In 1980, Russia invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. protested, and Pres.
Jimmy Carter stopped the shipment of farm products to Russia in
response to the invasion. That embargo on farm products hurt the
farm export market. And then, other countries ran into hard economic
times as well. U.S. farmers could not sell as many goods overseas
as they had been.
- Debts piled up. With less demand and lower prices
for their products, many American farmers had no way to pay back
the banks for the loans they had taken out. Many borrowed even
more money, hoping that better crops and prices would rescue them
in a year or two. It didn't happen.
This sign in a manure
spreader expressed the frustration
many farmers felt in the
late 1970s over farm prices.
Source - Bill Ganzel.
The 1980s was a period when thousands of farm families lost their
farms because of low farm prices and overwhelming debt. Farming
was in a crisis. For a period of time it was almost impossible to
open a newspaper or turn on the television without facing images
of farm auctions and foreclosure sales. Many of the farmers who
were able to survive the 1980s have had to find work off the farm
to supplement their meager farm incomes. There were specific results.
- Rural populations declined. Actually, the farm
crisis of the 70s and 80s accelerated a process that had been
going on for some time. In 1935 the number of farms in the United
States reached an all-time high of 6.8 million farms. By the mid-1980s,
there were only 2.2 million farms. By 1989, farm residents made
up only 1.9 percent of the total U.S. population.
- Rural communities grew older. Young farmers often
need to borrow large sums to get started. They are the first to
go out of business when times are tough. Also, as more and more
people leave rural areas, there are fewer jobs in towns available
to the young. So young people move away to cities where the jobs
are. The result is a "graying" of communities in the
central Plains. If these trends continue — declining rural populations, migration of young adults to urban areass, and an increasing concentration of the elderly in rural areas — many counties
in Nebraska will be hard-pressed to sustain their economy, schools
and government services in the future.
In this section, we'll tell the story of the farm
crisis and the beginnings of possible new economic opportunities.
The same technology that threatens farming on the Plains may offer
new ways to make money and revitalize the area.