Listen: After the Flood, Part 2

Mainstreet Radio presents broadcast from the Meadowland Farmer's Co Op in Lamberton, Minnesota. The program focuses on how local area is dealing with the effects of flooding from the previous spring and summer, and the impact it is having on farms and the economy.

Program contains reports on the businesses in Lamberton, and interviews with local residents on their struggles in flood’s aftermath. This is followed by an audience Q&A.

This is second in a two-part program.

Click links below for other part of program:


1994 Associated Press Achievment Award, first place


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CATHERINE WINTER: And you're listening to a special Mainstreet Radio broadcast live from Lamberton. The noises you hear are some trucks passing by on their way to and from the grain elevator just next to us. And you also hear the sound of a conveyor belt that's bringing grain up into the grain elevator. We'll return in just a moment to questions from our listeners and from members of our audience here in Lamberton, where it is a gorgeous sunny day, but we are talking about wet weather today.

The most obvious victims of Minnesota's rain-drenched summer are the farmers who watched their crops and their annual income wash away in the repeated rains of May and June. But it's not just the farmers who are feeling the financial pinch. People who live in rural towns whose survival is based on a strong economy are worried, too. Rachel Reabe visited Lamberton recently and she has this story.


RACHEL REABE: The huge grain elevator on the north end of Main Street dwarfs Lamberton's business district. The hum from giant conveyor belts in the 10-story structure can be heard all over town, a constant reminder that agriculture is the economy in this small southwestern Minnesota community. Lamberton's fortunes have always been tied to the corn and soybean farms that stretch in all directions. Newspaper editor Joe Dietl says when it's a good crop, people celebrate. When it's a bad year, everyone suffers.

JOE DIETL: When the farmers have problems with crops and so on, such as flood too short a crop, late springs, early falls, it all affects Main Street. To a degree, it all does because it all ties into the ag economy, which small towns are-- has a livelihood.

RACHEL REABE: Predictions of a poor harvest have caused farmers and businesspeople to tighten their belts this fall. The weekly Lamberton News is a slim 10 pages. Dietl says it's hard to persuade businesses to advertise when everyone knows there will be less money to spend this year.

JOE DIETL: I don't know if that's all flood related or just our general economy from the national scale all down, but the advertising right now is the lowest I've seen it in 25 years. We've lost a number of businesses. It seems to be a general dwindling of the population in our rural areas in town. And of course, that affects the business bases in town.

RACHEL REABE: The two-block stretch of Main Street that comprises Lamberton's business district is sprinkled with empty storefronts, a testimonial to increased competition from regional shopping centers and the area's declining population. Lamberton has lost almost a third of its residents in the past 40 years when the crops aren't good. On top of all that, it makes a tough situation worse.

Inside Clutcher's furniture store, owner Merlin Clutcher sits alone in a rocking chair on his showroom floor. When rain washed out the crops this summer, it also flooded the basement of Clutcher's store, destroying $37,000 of inventory. That loss, coupled with a bleak harvest forecast, could be too much for Clutcher's business to bear.

MERLIN CLUTCHER: We had two other people full time. And one by one, we laid them off and picked up the slack ourself. So we've cut our expenses down to the bone. I don't know how much more we can cut unless we turn off the lights.

RACHEL REABE: Clutcher says farmers in the area have been struggling with a string of bad luck for the last 15 years, and they've suffered right along with them.

MERLIN CLUTCHER: We've gone through the drought. We've gone through high farm prices and lowered farm values and farmers gone bankrupt. We've gone through Groundswell. We've gone through grasshoppers, aphids in the soybeans, every kind of pestilence that you can almost think of. It's a good load to bury up. But somehow or other, we have to try to keep moving forward.

RACHEL REABE: It's not just retail businesses that are affected by the slow farm economy. At the Valley View Manor Nursing Home on the south edge of Lamberton, residents in wheelchairs and recliners watch a large screen television. Administrator Jim Broick says his business is not immune to the problems on the farm.

JIM BROICK: Eventually, it all filters down through everything and even affects the nursing home for those that are still private-pay individuals that if they own farmland and aren't able to get the cash rent or the crops in, it could affect their ability to make payments here.

RACHEL REABE: Across the street at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, Pastor Lee Harder says he and everyone else in town feel the pinch.

LEE HARDER: I've already told my council president that I'm not going to ask for a raise this year. If the community is hurting and my parishioners are hurting, then I should hurt with them. How can you ask them to give more when they have no more to give?

RACHEL REABE: Up in the choir loft, a couple of dozen people have gathered for the first choir rehearsal of the season. They sing with enthusiasm and conviction.

CHOIR: (SINGING) Let us have a little talk with Jesus

Let us tell Him all about our troubles

He will hear our faintest cry

And He will answer by and by

And when you feel

RACHEL REABE: Retired Pastor Earl Amundson says the people of this community are able to keep going because they live with hope.

EARL AMUNDSON: Where else would they look? Can they look just to government for hope? That will only bring in dollars. And they need more than dollars. They need that inbred hope that in spite of this calamity, in spite of this setback, God has not deserted us.

RACHEL REABE: Nobody knows just how much the community of Lamberton will be hurt by this summer's rain. Choir director Maxine Amundson, who is also a Lamberton city councilman, says it could be months before the full extent of the damage is realized.

MAXINE AMUNDSON: I think we just hit the tip of the iceberg with people beginning to think and to realize just exactly what this is going to do to our community. Because after all, it just happened so recently, we're just still looking at now what's going to happen as it gets into the fall with a limited harvest.

RACHEL REABE: Until then, the people of Lamberton will wait, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. I'm Rachel Reabe, Mainstreet Radio in Lamberton.

CHOIR: (SINGING) And He will answer by and by

And when you feel

MARK STEIL: We're at the Meadowland's Farmers Coop in Lamberton on a nice autumn day. Temperature's in the 60s here and a lot of activity going on around here, trucks pulling in and out. And joining us now is John Valentine, the general manager of the grain elevator behind us. John, I'm curious if the elevator is feeling the effects of the bad weather earlier on this summer, the heavy rains and the farmer problems.

JOHN VALENTINE: Oh, yeah, very much so. We started out this spring. We started with some heavy rains, 5-inch, 7-inch rains. And things got delayed. We were just ready to go on the field, and things got delayed by two weeks. And then we'd get a day or two in the field, and they'd get delayed another two weeks.

And we just thought we'd get at it. And then we were up to May 1 and to May 15. And we just thought it would break sometime. And it always gave us two or three days in between. And pretty soon it was June 1, and we were still wondering if we were going to get the corn planted, all of it or not. And people were planting corn all the way up into-- almost to July.

MARK STEIL: For you then, it meant less work for the coop?

JOHN VALENTINE: Yeah, it was hard on the employees. I mean, there was less overtime, of course. There was less product that went out, delayed about a full month, I think. And at the end of our year, we felt that our volumes were down and the agronomy out of it.

MARK STEIL: Did you have to lay any employees off?

JOHN VALENTINE: No, we haven't. And I'm trying to figure out ways that we can avoid that. Certainly, this coming year, I don't know. We want to be positive about things. I know to hear the negative things every day and to listen to the farmers. And it is tough for the producers. It's terribly hard for the agribusinesses in Lamberton and every community. And we want to try to capitalize on some opportunities, some way that we can avoid laying people off. But it certainly is a possibility.

CATHERINE WINTER: Do people normally count on getting some overtime at this time of year?

JOHN VALENTINE: Yes, they do. It's certainly going to be felt in-- no, I think all of these financial things will be felt more six months, eight months from now than they will today. And the short crop now, the crop that's been plowed under, those bushels won't be there to be sold next April or May for some crop input money. Or June and July next year, the bands will be empty. And so they'll certainly feel a lot more of them than now, and we will, too, as agribusiness people.

CATHERINE WINTER: Can I put you on the spot and ask you a question nobody really knows the answer to? Do you think Lamberton is a healthy town? Is it going to survive this blow?

JOHN VALENTINE: Yes, I do. I'm very positive about that. I guess I'm very proud of Lamberton and very proud of Meadowland Farmers Coop. And we have locations in nine communities. And it's these area towns-- I think one alone won't survive, no. But by working together and things are going to get good again. And we're going to see a couple of years here of tough going to survive from this past year. But it'll get good again, and we'll do fine.

CATHERINE WINTER: OK, thank you, John Valentine. John Valentine is manager of the Meadowland's Farmers Coop, which is the grain elevator where we're sitting today. They've been kind enough to let us set up our broadcast equipment in front of their building. You can hear some trucks going by. You can hear the grain elevator humming. And we are talking today about the effect of the wet weather on farming in Minnesota. And I know we have one caller who's been very patiently waiting to put a question to us, so go ahead, please. What's your question?

SPEAKER 1: Well, I'm calling from Sioux Falls. It's not exactly a question. It's more of a comment. I've been interested in the climate for the past 10 years. And I belong to the school that believes we're going into a new glaciated period. And I know the glacier. You have to have the material. And you get it out of the ocean, out of the water.

And then it falls to the snow. And it's compacted over the eons and becomes ice sheets. And we think that this is what's happening now. The water is being evaporated out of the oceans. And of course, it's too early in the cycle for it to come to snow. It's coming as rain. And until we can reverse the cycle, we will be faced with this whole thing at least doing--

CATHERINE WINTER: I know we don't have a climatologist on our panel today. And I know that Wally Nelson with the experiment station here is fond of saying that an abnormal year is normal. But perhaps I could ask you, Steven Taff. As an ag economist, do you watch the climate? And what's going on?

STEVEN TAFF: Well, we economists have been accused of claiming knowledge about all subjects, but I must confess that our literature isn't very large on new glaciation periods. The caller raised a couple of things that I do recall. Things like this have happened before. In the late 1500s, we had something we called the Little Ice Age where an extended period of time, almost 100 years, the climate in the northern hemisphere did turn colder.

And stranger things have happened. I don't really claim any special knowledge about that. If that were happened, sure, we can speculate on that. That would be very interesting because we've geared up an enormous scientific apparatus right now to discuss global warming. And the caller is suggesting, boy, are we missing the boat? We're going the wrong direction, that we're spending billions of dollars of scientific effort looking at the wrong question.

MARK STEIL: Rachel Reabe of our Mainstreet team has been talking to some of the audience sitting in front of the Meadowland Farmers Coop here in Lamberton and has a guest now. Rachel?

RACHEL REABE: Mark, Marcie McLaughlin is here. She is a county commissioner in Renville County that is the county just to the north of us here. And as we talk about farmers suffering and the ag economy being in real trouble, I think a natural question for a public official is, how is that going to affect the tax base? And once the tax base is affected, how is that going to affect everything else? Marcie, what are your comments about that?

MARCIE MCLAUGHLIN: Well, right currently, we are looking at our 1994 budget indeed with the idea of diminished local revenues and revenues that simply will not be paid. And my question to the panelists and to anyone who would like to respond to this is, since local units of government rely on property taxes, and those who pay the taxes in our rural counties are landowners, what proposals might be considered to continue funding the local tax funding for human services, roads, public health, transportation issues, extension soil, and water? And these are-- I would suspect that these might be increasing needs out here in rural America.

CATHERINE WINTER: Does anyone want to volunteer to take that question? Wally Sparby?

WALLY SPARBY: Catherine, just yesterday, we had a hearing in Saint Paul that Lou Anne and I attended with the members of the House and the Senate in the state of Minnesota. And they did address those kinds of issues and talked about what they might be able to do.

And so I think it behooves you and your folks that are in the counties as commissioners or whatever to talk to your legislators about that and let them know what your needs are because they are going to be addressing those issues very shortly. And this session, I believe, starts in January, so I expect that they'll be attempting to come forward with something at that time.

RACHEL REABE: Marcie, when all those programs or when so many of them are state mandated, and you don't have a lot of leeway in terms of cutting services or reducing services because they are state mandated, what do you do then?

MARCIE MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that's a good question, Rachel. I don't know what we do. I mean, right now in our county, we're looking at a 4% decrease, but per acre, that might be $2 decrease in taxation per acre. It is serious, and it's very sobering on how you're going to continue to fund government in the midst of maybe localized but indeed disaster.

CATHERINE WINTER: We have some more callers on the line with questions, too. Let's go to the next call. Go ahead, please.

SPEAKER 2: Yes, am I on?

CATHERINE WINTER: You sure are. Go ahead.

SPEAKER 2: I had heard earlier in the morning a program about organic farming. And I'm wondering if this would be a possible answer for some of the farmers who are in trouble. Or are some of the farmers already involved in organic farming? I'm thinking in terms of reducing expenses, this kind of thing. I'll hang up and listen.

CATHERINE WINTER: Thanks. Sandy Ludeman, is that an area you know much about?

SANDY LUDEMAN: Well, I don't know. I don't profess to be an expert in that. But certainly, organic farming might be an option for a farmer to consider in the future because it does have lower inputs and so on. But I think in terms of addressing the situation where we are today, we're talking pretty much commercial agriculture out in this area, corn, soybeans, some small grain corn, cattle hogs, and so on.

And so the disaster we're dealing with today is the one that we need to address and so on and understand that for a farmers to switch from a system that they are now does bear some costs. Certainly, even this last year, a lot of farmers did make attempts to move toward no-till farming and reduce chemicals. And as a day-to-day manager, we all try to lower those input costs. And organic farming is probably a step beyond that. It might be a possible solution for some individuals. But on a very widespread use in this area, I just don't see it happening.

MARK STEIL: Hasn't the use of less chemicals and that sort of thing really become commonplace now where 10, 15 years ago that was the farmer who was doing something nobody else was doing?

SANDY LUDEMAN: Yeah, farmers today have to watch the bottom line whenever they can. And certainly, a difficult year like this-- farmers tried to minimize trips across the field, reduce those-- I know in our particular operation, there were a number of things we didn't do just because of the weather. It forced us to do that. But you examine every one of those things and try and minimize those costs.

MARK STEIL: Lou Anne Kling, you had a comment?

LOU ANNE KLING: Yes. And farmers dealing with shortage in cash flows do need to look at all those cost-cutting, different ideas. We've been practicing a lot of those ideas on our farm in the last 10 years. And it certainly has cut our costs. There are many organizations out here that are willing to help people go through the transition period.

There's land stewardship. There's sustainable ag groups. The Minnesota department and the university both have sustainable ag groups going. So there is getting to be more and more information. And I would certainly recommend farmers look and see anywhere that they can try to help cut their costs.

CATHERINE WINTER: We have some more callers waiting, so let's go to the next person. Hello, what's your question?

SPEAKER 3: I don't really have a question. Well, I'll end up with a question. What I want to do is take my hat off to the farmers. I'm 72, and I have worked and lived in the city all of my life. And the person who called in and said that you were beneficiaries of welfare just made my blood boil. I think it's stupid and insulting. And she must be from the city. And I want you to know that some of we, city people, take a different look at it.

I believe that the farmer has the most important job in the world. We can get along with a lot of things, but we can't get along without food. You probably work harder and get less for it than any other profession. You have to gamble with the weather, which makes you the biggest gamblers of all.

The small farmer has kept my prices low, and I appreciate it to the hilt. The corporate farm will no doubt cause the prices to escalate, and the escalation will hurt all of we who live in the city. My everlasting thanks to the farmer. And my question is, after these terrible years with awful weather, where do you get the courage to continue? I'll hang up and listen, and thank you very much.

CATHERINE WINTER: Well, let's ask one of our farmers. Sandy Ludeman, can you respond to that?

SANDY LUDEMAN: Well, it's difficult. This year has certainly been an emotional roller coaster for a lot of farmers. As Mr. Valentine indicated, the spring started out somewhat difficult. For some individuals, it even went back to last fall where they unable to get last year's crop out and actually had to get that crop out before they could even work on this year. And it seemed like as each week rolled around, you kept waiting for things to dry up and return to normal, and it just didn't seem to.

Farmers, unfortunately, aren't superhuman beings. We do have emotions and feelings just like everyone else does. Unfortunately, with a difficult year like this, I'm afraid there's going to perhaps be a need for more counseling. There may be instances of more abuse and violence and families because of the stress and so on. But for the most part, this is-- people have very strong family backgrounds or religious backgrounds in this area. And you try and go ahead, but some individuals do reach a point where you just can't anymore.

MARK STEIL: Lou Anne Kling, you're head of the Farmers Home Administration now in Minnesota, but about 10 years ago, you started the farm advocate program during the farm crisis of the '80s that provides a lot of counseling and that sort of thing. Is that still going now? Is that a resource farmers can use now?

LOU ANNE KLING: Yes, the farm advocate program is still going. It's administered through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. It's a program of well-trained people that will sit down with farmers and help them work through their financial paperwork, get them to counselors, help them through mediation.

I have told my agency, all the people in the county offices if they see farmers having trouble, to recommend them to farm advocates. I recommend farmers to talk to me. We need a second set of ears to help us. We need a second set of people to help us talk things out and work things through and explore the options.

The stress out here is extremely high. This morning, when I was driving down here, there was a farmer parked out in his cornfield with his chopper ready to start chopping down that corn. And he was standing, just standing there in that field. And you could just feel the stress going on in him, knowing that he was going to be chopping down food, and there's hungry people. But he had to do it to survive. And so just imagine having to live with that day in and day out on that farm.

So we really need to get a lot more of that help out here for people. There's legal services, free legal services for farmers to help them. And I know that the extension service is working on counseling services there. So please, if you farmers feel that you need some help, get in touch. You can either call the Minnesota Department of Ag, or in the Lamberton area, you have David Hess over at Comfrey. He's a farm advocate. You have Groundswell at Wanda that will get you to farm advocates. But seek help early.

CATHERINE WINTER: You're listening to a live broadcast from Lamberton. This is a special Mainstreet Radio broadcast. We'll return in just a moment to questions from our listeners and questions from members of our audience. In response to the flooding this year, the Clinton administration is considering not rebuilding some of the levees that failed and returning some areas to wetlands.

Instead, the government may buy or lease farmland or even entire towns partly to save money and partly because levees are believed by many people to have contributed to the flooding. We spoke with Ford Runge, director of the University of Minnesota's Program on Agriculture and Applied Economics about the idea of scrapping the levees.

FORD RUNGE: Levees themselves, of course, are intended to hold back water. And so long as they hold it back successfully, there's not a problem. But when they break, the volume of water that's released is larger than it otherwise would have been and, therefore, is more destructive.

In addition to levees, there are extensive channeling, and tiling, and draining of agricultural lands as well as smaller check dams and other things that are used to move water from one place to another, all of which in total have the effect of increasing the volume of flows where they flow the rate of flow, and as a result, increasing the damage that water does when it is not under control.

CATHERINE WINTER: So it's not just the dams and the levees. The tiling, the drainage of farmland has quite a bit to do with it, too.

FORD RUNGE: Well, many critics of extensive drainage of wetlands have pointed out that what wetlands really are nature's way of buffering the system from adverse weather events. And as wetlands have been drained and water has been moved off of fields, which has been the objective, the consequence has been to increase the volume and flow of water in instances like this one of a flood.

CATHERINE WINTER: So they act to hold on to water during a drought and to absorb water during an excessively moist year, huh?

FORD RUNGE: Exactly, it's not just a question of flooding. It is also, as you point out, a question of drought. And on both sides of the ledger, the absence and presence of water wetlands serve as a buffer. So many people feel that excessive wetlands drainage has also contributed to the severity of drought events when we've had them.

CATHERINE WINTER: I can't imagine that the idea of returning quite a lot of farmland to wetlands would be greeted very enthusiastically by the people who own that land or live nearby, huh?

FORD RUNGE: Well, if you've invested in the tiling and draining necessary to drain your land and make it productive, of course, it's not something that you would like to see. Many of these investments have been assisted by the federal government. The government has been active in promoting wetlands drainage until relatively recently. And now to answer this want is changed policy and is active in encouraging the opposite.

I think the administration is thinking about a whole complex of possible responses, including purchasing of flood-prone areas for return to wetland, purchasing an easement on lands, which would allow them to be flooded periodically but not all the time, relocating or elevating structures and floodplains that had been flooded out, reconstructing levees further back in floodplains so that the volume of water doesn't build up that did this time, and returning many levees to their original status.

Some of these developments are likely to displace people and agricultural activity or commercial activity. Most of the time that that occurs, I think that the people involved will be compensated and therefore, if not made whole, at least given some compensation for the activity. But to the extent that the whole communities are affected, they're going to be unhappy.

CATHERINE WINTER: Given those political considerations, does it seem likely that this policy shift will actually occur, and that large areas will be returned to wetland or some areas will be returned?

FORD RUNGE: I think some will. But I think that wholesale return to wetland is implausible, given what we know about our political system. I think that what we'll see are some attempts around the edges to prevent repetition of these events by taking those areas that are most vulnerable to adverse flooding, and in some cases, perhaps encouraging these areas to return to a more natural wetland state.

CATHERINE WINTER: Do you think that it makes sense for the government to plan-- to set its policy based on a worst-case scenario? Would it make more sense to plan hoping that a flood like this one or a wet year like this one does not occur?

FORD RUNGE: Well, that's always a-- that's always a problem when you're dealing with uncertain developments in weather and nature. This has been acknowledged as being a hundred-year, if not a thousand-year flood. And so the question is, does it make sense to build levees and dams to protect against this extraordinary event or not? And that's part of what's leading people's thinking toward maybe not reconstructing all of these levees, but thinking through the ability to buffer these floods in other ways.

You also have some serious problems of what economists refer to rather cryptically as incentive compatibility, which arise in the insurance industry, generally. One is called adverse selection. And the example that's most common here is that if you know you're going to die but the insurance company doesn't soon, that is, you might take out a million dollar life insurance policy. And that manifests itself in the case of flood insurance by people taking out flood insurance who are most likely to get flooded out.

You've also got a problem, which is called moral hazard. If through luck or good fortune you've been granted a million dollar life insurance policy, you might decide it's time to start smoking again. Well, the same problem exists here. Those people that are granted insurance may engage in risky behavior by building developments in floodplains or what have you.

So there are problems of public policy that I think are worth addressing and worth thinking through in terms of whether or not we can avoid some of the exposure that government has had to taking the burden of these adverse weather events and in effect, making taxpayers shoulder this burden.

CATHERINE WINTER: Ford Runge is director of the University of Minnesota's Program on Agriculture and Applied Economics. You're listening to a live Mainstreet Radio broadcast from Lamberton in southwest Minnesota. And I'd like to ask Wally Nelson to rejoin us. Wally Nelson is the former head of the Southwest Minnesota Experiment Station here in Lamberton. And I know, Mr. Nelson, that you have some opinions about drainage and wetlands.

WALLY NELSON: Well, I believe that we're in the center of a ground moraine in southern Minnesota. It was all prairie. And it's only 10,000 years ago since we had glacial left. And so our drainage has not become very mature at all. And so there's a lot of wet areas. And in order to farm this, we put in drainage. This drainage has had a number of factors that are very important, I believe, to Minnesota agriculture.

Number one, it allows us to get our crop in in the spring in a timely manner. If we're talking about flooding, it allows us to drain out water slowly so that the soil and the top 4 feet can act as a sponge during another rainstorm. And so I believe our peaks would be much less if we have tile drainage. With tile-drained soils, environmentally, there is a most nonerosive from wind and water. If we would take them out of production, we'd have to go to some of our more erosive soils that are now in the Conservation Reserve Program.

And data that I've collected from 30-some years at the experiment station being both superintendent and a [INAUDIBLE] individual is that I believe tile drainage is one of our first lines of protection to groundwater. And also, it helps us during drought periods, during the summer because we have a favorable area for the root systems to grow into-- during the early part of the growing season when we may have access or ample water. And so it also makes us more drought tolerant.

CATHERINE WINTER: So you would say that as opposed to actually contributing to the adverse conditions, drainage may actually help out in some years.

WALLY NELSON: I believe it does, yes. And I think they would keep the peaks down, but maybe have a longer flow.

CATHERINE WINTER: Would any of our other panelists like to respond on the drainage issue, or shall we move on?

WALLY SPARBY: Well, I'd like to--


WALLY SPARBY: I'd like to respond to that as well. If you take a look around the state of Minnesota and all of the impoundment areas that have been put in place along with what Mr. Nelson was talking about here, I'm a firm believer that if we had not had all that in place when we would have reached the peak here, and we had not done any of that, we would have been much worse off than what we were with this amount of rain.

MARK STEIL: We're broadcasting from the Meadowland Farmers Coop in Lamberton on a nice autumn day. And we have a caller on the line now. Go ahead with your question.

SPEAKER 4: Yeah, hello. I'm calling from rural Seward County. And I guess I probably have missed some of the comments while I've been hanging on the line here. But I guess I take a little exception to one of the panelists' continued comments on how farming does not drive the Minnesota economy.

And I'm probably one of the first to admit that Minnesota farmers were probably not as diverse in our food production as we used to be. Thanks to federal subsidies and the transportation system, we can get our food from almost anywhere in the nation. But I'm a little curious if the Minnesota farm economy isn't driving or isn't a driving force in Minnesota economy. Are we having potato chips or microchips for our lunch today?

CATHERINE WINTER: I think the caller is responding to some comments that you made, Steven Taff. Would you like to respond?

STEVEN TAFF: Well, yes, I did say that farming doesn't drive the economy. I don't think anything drives the economy. What we have in any economy is just a complex set of human interactions. And we're moving stuff hither and yon. And we're doing a bunch of work. And folks are buying and selling and getting on with life. Now, we can decide to start at any point in that web of economic activity. Some people would argue that labor, human labor is the driving force of the economy. Without folks after all, we wouldn't have anybody who would demand anything that we grow.

Other folks would say that the soil is the principal driver. Other people say that foreign demand is. We can start any place in that chain. I think it's counterproductive to even argue about that sort of thing. We know that farming and agriculture in general is an important piece of Minnesota's economy, but it's not the only piece. And we know that farming is an especially important piece of certain smaller nonmetropolitan area economies. And farming is-- as I say, it's important, but it's not the only thing going on in the world, even in small town economies.

We've got to get beyond that argument saying that farming has a special place in our hearts and move instead to some discussions about why we ought to deal with farmers in particular ways and why we ought to not deal, for example, with elevator operators who are facing equal economic hardships this year. And yet we do not have advocate programs for elevator operators. We do not have advocate programs for truck drivers who would normally be hauling the crop. We need to pay some attention to everybody in this web of economic activity.

CATHERINE WINTER: Sounds like you feel like maybe emotion gets in the way of good policy.

STEVEN TAFF: Well, I don't know that it gets in the way of things because I don't think that emotion should be left out of policymaking. After all, we're talking about decisions that don't have right or wrong answers. They're just decisions that we, as a society, make through the various ways that we do it, often through politics. Often, politics is emotional.

I'm not saying that economics should drive all of those decisions, either. We'd be in real big trouble if economists ran the world any more than we do now. But sometimes emotion does clutter some of our abilities to think through an issue. And we squander money that we could sure use in a lot of different places.

CATHERINE WINTER: Lou Anne Kling, you wanted to respond?

LOU ANNE KLING: Well, I think one of the things that is being forgotten to talk about is the raw materials that agriculture provides. It's a renewable raw material out here. You don't get that in manufacturing or anywhere else. Every year, the soil renews itself with a new crop. And you talked about advocate programs for truck drivers and elevator operators. Well, where would truck drivers and elevator operators be if there wasn't the corn and the soybeans to deal with? And so it all starts at agriculture.

And you can read most economics. And I'm not an economics major, so I can't argue with that far. But common sense tells you that agriculture is the base of what starts the economy churning in Minnesota. And as it churns up, there is a lot of data to prove that the agriculture dollar churns itself over as it goes through the economy into the Minneapolis-Saint Paul areas five to seven times. How many other materials manufactured can have proof of that happening?

CATHERINE WINTER: Sandy Ludeman, you'd like to respond too.

SANDY LUDEMAN: I think one of the frustrations we in agriculture have is that we sense that other segments of the economy don't appreciate what we do contribute to it. For example, this summer, I've heard we are facing an economic situation here that is devastating in southwest Minnesota and other parts of the state as well as other parts of the country, yet farmers say, why hasn't the market responded?

We seem to be powerless in the system and don't really know how to try and change it. Certainly, we try in terms of policy and some of those things, but we seem to be getting to be a smaller and smaller player as time goes on. And that certainly is part of the frustration we share. Maybe we haven't done as good a job of telling others in the economy what we do contribute. But certainly, that adds to the frustration that in difficult times even comes greater.

CATHERINE WINTER: Let's return to Steven Taff for a response and then take another listener call. Do you have a response to that, Mr. Taff?

STEVEN TAFF: Oh, I don't think we want to spend a whole lot of time arguing about the importance of farming. As Sandy points out, the question is, what are we going to do about it? And we have lots of different mechanisms. One is the market, this fabled thing that somehow determines prices. And another is through policies, when we decide, OK, we're going to spend our money this way rather than that way.

That's what a lot of this debate boils down to. And when we have a strange weather year like every year seems to bring but this year in particular, it's like Wally Nelson said early on. Everybody talks about the weather. Now, what are we going to do about it?

MARK STEIL: We have another caller on the line. Go ahead with your question.

SPEAKER 5: Yeah, I just wanted to talk about the loss of farmland to new housing projects. As someone who loves farmland, and wooded areas, and things, it's always a tragedy for me to see that sign up "land development." I think it's, first of all, not the right word to use. It's more like land destruction to my mind. And I've never understood. If the population isn't increasing, how there can be so many housing projects?

Like that I'm wondering what they're doing with the excess, previously owned homes, for one thing. I know that's not exactly the subject today, but I always really feel that is a real tragedy to see the land scarred and littered with these housing projects in the country that way. And I guess as a larger question, I wondered if the farming community feels the loss of this farmland that has an impact on them.

CATHERINE WINTER: Would any of our panelists like to respond to that question? Sandy Ludeman?

SANDY LUDEMAN: Well, certainly, this country doesn't have a comprehensive land use policy. To my knowledge, there are certain parts of government bodies that do have some things that try and preserve some land and so on. But as we do lose that land, it does place additional burden on that land that is in production to be productive and provide the commodities and food that we do need in this country.

And so it does have an effect further down the line perhaps than a direct impact. But certainly, I somewhat share her concern that we probably are losing some prime farmland that we shouldn't and yet are forced by other means to farm some land that we shouldn't be farming.

MARK STEIL: This is a special Mainstreet Radio broadcast from Lamberton in southwest Minnesota. We're under the bright sun and blue sky outside at the Meadowland Farmers Coop. And Rachel Reabe has been talking to people in the audience and has a guest now. Rachel.

RACHEL REABE: Mark, we have the mayor of Lamberton. Ron Kelsey is here with me. Ron, there's been much discussion about how bad it's going to be. And it's still not known yet whether it's going to be just horrible or disastrous. What are the coping strategies? What are the survival strategies that your community as many other communities in this area are looking at?

RON KELSEY: Well, I think that probably the strength of-- in a situation like this comes from the people. The people draw on each other. If it's through our churches or if it's through the cooperation of the people in the community, we know economically, it's going to affect our community.

We realize that in rural areas, it's necessary for the people of our area to do as much of their business as they can in their home town and look for other possibilities of working with other communities maybe through things like tourism or-- I teach agriculture at the high school. And we are cooperating with Sanborn, and Storden, and Jeffers and have the Red Rock Central School, which helps cut down on some of the tax dollars that go for education if you can work together with other communities.

So all of these things-- although it's been since 1878 when we had the grasshoppers at Lamberton. And only one merchant stayed during that time. And then they came back again, and they built up. And through the years, we've had-- this community of Lamberton has had all types of problems to deal with. And I think the strength of the people drawing on each other and through the faith that they have in the Lord-- they've been able to survive.

RACHEL REABE: We have one more comment question from one of the farmers in our audience. Sir, go ahead.

SPEAKER 6: This is basically directed at Steve Taff. And it's a comment, and there may be a question hidden in here somewhere. We are standing today in what is basically the middle of the most agricultural, by character, congressional district in the nation, Dave Minge's district. It's very difficult for us out here to understand your minimizing of the impact when we're in a district that stretches from the southwest metro all the way to the South Dakota-Iowa border, the very southwestern corner of Minnesota.

Farmers typically spend up to 78% of the income they generate in their home communities. The impact of this disaster that we're faced with this year is going to impact local merchants, the way education is funding, the quality of health care. We have hospitals closing in this district.

Is it in the best interest of the state of Minnesota then to concentrate our economic vitality in the Rochester metro area, St. Cloud corridor? You talked about the diversification that Minnesota is fortunate enough to have, and yet agriculture is a big part of that diversification, and it is frankly being decimated by this type of a disaster.

CATHERINE WINTER: Steven Taff, would you like to respond?

STEVEN TAFF: Well, I agree wholeheartedly with the speaker as I was asked what the effects were on Minnesota as a whole, which is a much more complex economy. And I did say that the effects of this year's bad weather would be felt much more strongly in a place like southwest Minnesota, which is indeed highly agriculture. But it is not completely agricultural.

And we do have to recall that there are a whole lot of activities that are not at least directly tied to agriculture. It's this complex web of economic action. We have to remember, for example, that one of the principal sources of income for the people of southwest Minnesota is pension funds and retirement monies from Social Security. A huge amount of money comes into the economy from other places in the country not related directly to farming.

I'm not trying to minimize the pain that individuals are experiencing this year, and that some portions of the rural economies and the state's economy as a whole are going to be facing this year. But I think we run a risk if we overemphasize that because what it does is it sends a message to folks who aren't farmers, here we go again, more farm problems. And I deal a lot with farm groups and nonfarm groups. The message that nonfarm folks hear a lot is, here we go again. I worry about that because once to the well too often.

Now, this year is a year when we do need to move some money from one part of the economy to the other part of the economy. And indeed, we're doing so. But for the future survival of farming as we know it, and for young farmers trying to start out, we've got to do a lot more in different ways than we have traditionally in dealing with our agriculture. The way we've done it before just won't work anymore. Those are the points I'm trying to raise by being aware of how agriculture fits into our economy these days, not how it did 50 years ago.

CATHERINE WINTER: So you're concerned that there's a cry wolf factor, I suppose you could call it.

STEVEN TAFF: Well, I think that's absolutely a possibility. Again, it's not saying that the wolf isn't there. It's the perceptions that people get. Think of the horrible message that those plowing up the crops send to people who don't know much about agricultural policy. Think of the message when I just turn on the TV, and I see folks plowing it up in order to get federal money. Of course, I'm going to think this is welfare. I'm going to think it's a silly program. Farmers think it's a silly program, but they are forced to do it.

Well, if we've got a silly program that everybody agrees is a silly program, let's start talking about changing some of those things rather than talking about some sort of obligation that the rest of society has to pay farmers because of their way of life. I just worry about the messages that some of the literature of complaint that it's been called. I worry about the messages that sends to the 98% of the economy that are not farmers.

CATHERINE WINTER: Wally Sparby, you wanted to respond briefly?

WALLY SPARBY: I'd like to ask Steven Taff a question if I might in regard to--

CATHERINE WINTER: We've got just about a minute and a half left, so let's-- if it's a question, let's make it a brief question and answer.

WALLY SPARBY: I'll try to speed it up.

CATHERINE WINTER: Mm-hmm, sorry.

WALLY SPARBY: The question is this. If we have the disaster like we have-- and I think it's probably in about a dozen states-- why haven't we seen a better reaction in the market?

STEVEN TAFF: The conventional story for why we haven't seen a reaction in the market is that the states that have been hit worst are not those that produce most of the grain, that Illinois, and Indiana, and Ohio are still producing a heck of a lot of corn, wheat prices, the same sort of a thing. There's a perception at least that the world has got plenty of wheat. In fact, prices are off a little bit on that.

The real answer is, we don't know why the market does what it is. The market is just a whole web of a whole lot of different folks making decisions. And we act as if it has some sort of sentience, that it understands what it is doing. Really, economists are like farmers. We watch what's going on, and then we try to figure out why later on down the line.

CATHERINE WINTER: Well, I'm afraid that Steven Taff is going to get the last word in this discussion. I hate to close it off at this point because it does seem that there are still a lot of questions to be asked and answered. But that does bring us to the end of the panel discussion portion of our program.

We'd like to thank our guests, Wally Sparby with the Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service, Lou Anne Kling of the Farmers Home Administration, and farmer Sandy Ludeman, who is past chair of the United Soybean Board. Also with us was Steven Taff, an ag economist with the University of Minnesota. Thanks to all of you for being with us, and thanks to everyone who called in or who asked questions from the audience today.

MARK STEIL: And finally this afternoon, in the aftermath of this year's dismal growing season, even well-established farmers are facing tough decisions about the future of their operation. Now, consider the dilemma of the new farmer or perhaps the high schooler born and raised on the farm who's considering the family trade. The imprint left on them from the summer of '93 is varied, and in many instances, not encouraging. Minnesota Public Radio's Carol Gunderson has the first of two reports.


SPEAKER 7: Your attention, please.

CAROL GUNDERSON: It's 3:06 of Friday afternoon at Pine Island High School. The faceless voice on the public address system reads through announcements moments before the halls of this rural school in southeast Minnesota fill with the energy and commotion of hundreds of kids anxious for their weekend break.

Before the day ends, banners will be made and a school football game played. Senior Jodie Andrist is tired but determined to go to the game. She wears an early morning look, her day having begun in the barn at 5:00 AM, where she milked 75 dairy cows with her family. Jodie's been milking cows twice a day for years. Farming is more than a lifestyle to Jodie. It's a job, and more importantly, it's a job she's burned out on.

JODIE ANDRIST: That's what it feels like. You wake up every morning. I'm up at 5 o'clock every morning before school. I've been doing that since, gosh, about seventh grade, getting up before school to go do chores, and then coming up to the house and getting ready for school, and then getting home from school and going right back to it. People-- most Americans change their jobs three to five times in their lifetime. And after you've lived on a farm your whole entire life, it's time for a change.

CAROL GUNDERSON: Jodie hopes to become a journalist. She's one of a growing number of young people raised on farms joining the exodus to other work, other meaning anything but production agriculture or commonly known as farming.

JODIE ANDRIST: A lot of jobs-- you know you're going to be there for a certain amount of time teaching, and being a doctor, and that sort of thing. But farming-- you don't know what's going to happen from one day to the next. It's too iffy.

CAROL GUNDERSON: It's Saturday morning just before 6:00. The sky emits an orange dawn glow as the milking pump at the Andrist farm is turned on. Six cows at a time give up their valued milk to the stainless steel bulk tank. Jodie and her two sisters are helping their mom and dad this morning. Early hours aside, the work is peaceful and monotonous, masking the stress involved in raising a family of seven on a dairy operation.

JODIE ANDRIST: I admire my dad a lot. I look up to him. Right out of high school, he started helping his dad. He'd been working ever since he was about five years old on the exact same farm. And I really admire his dedication to it. But every time he gets down, he's kind of like, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't be farming.

CAROL GUNDERSON: Jodie and a number of her friends who've been raised on farms are members of FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America. FFA is the public school program that serves as a training ground for kids interested in some aspect of agriculture. The number of FFA programs in Minnesota topped out at 285 in the mid-'80s just as the farm crisis began cutting a swath through rural communities. Now, there are 195 programs.

Jeff Schrader oversees the FFA program at Pine Island High School. In his more than 20 years of teaching, he's seen interest in ag production classes decline significantly as students turn more to things like resource management and agribusiness classes.

JEFF SCHRADER: I really don't blame the kids necessarily. It's the economics. It's maybe what they've been hearing from their parents. It's widened into opportunities.

CAROL GUNDERSON: Schrader says the shift by students away from actual farming is understandable.

JEFF SCHRADER: We can no more than say to somebody, well, because you grew up on a farm that you should be a farmer. And we should say, well, because your father owns a hardware store, you should run a hardware store.

CAROL GUNDERSON: He admits though the dwindling interest by his students in farming scares him. Schrader points out in Minnesota, one job in six is ag related, underpinning the importance of farming. That fact is not lost by students of Schrader's like Jodie Andrist. But knowing that doesn't change what she's experienced growing up on the farm and the decision she's made to leave. Farming is a lifestyle meant for others.

JODIE ANDRIST: My cousin has just bought a new farm. And I'm hoping he makes it because I mean, he's lived and worked on a farm his whole life. And I'm really rooting for him, but if the economy just isn't what it should be-- and it's always against the farmer. And the government's always saying, well, we'll give you low-interest loans, low-interest loans. What they don't understand is that farmers have enough loans that they're still trying to pay off. They don't need any more.

CAROL GUNDERSON: I'm Carol Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio, Rochester.

CARA HIRSCH: I'm Cara Hirsch in Worthington. Too many loans, three years worth of high interest rates, low-crop prices, and the inability to sell farm equipment at a profitable price are just some of the reasons why Dan Streiff filing for bankruptcy. Streiff up on a farm and has been trying for the past 10 years to farm on his own near Avoca, Minnesota.

He says he supplemented farming by doing mechanic work and a small hog operation. He's now driving truck for a feed and grain company. Streiff says farming means freedom, but it's getting harder to maintain it. He says mediation and lenders aren't working out, and he has no choice but to file for bankruptcy.

DAN STREIFF: We tried to deal with the banks in that. And we try to get some of the interest down, but they want everything or nothing. So that's basically where we're going to leave it, at nothing, and try to come back next year and hope we can make a living at it.

CARA HIRSCH: Streiff says they own their home and the 3 acres around it and were renting farmland except for this year during mediation talks with lenders and farm advocates. Streiff's wife Renata says they both work in town and are cutting costs as best they can to make ends meet each month.

RENATA STREIFF: Try to buy less groceries, buy less clothes, drop some insurance, life insurance because we can't afford to make the premium payments, do less upkeep on the house, and that type of thing.

CARA HIRSCH: Renata says the toughest part of filing for bankruptcy is they've already given up farming this year. And now the same emotions are surfacing again.

RENATA STREIFF: So now it's all back to the loss of self-esteem, the sense of failure, and the anger, and everything else that goes with the loss.

CARA HIRSCH: Dan Streiff says he wants to keep at farming until he makes it. He says it's a lifestyle he and Renata chose, and it's worth sticking out. He says they have to find new land to rent and wait for the trustees to decide what they can keep before they'll know if they can start farming again. He says no matter what happens, he'll continue to work in town for a few years.

Director of the Minnesota Rural Finance Authority LaVonne Nicolai says as with any new business, new farmers are the most vulnerable to financial losses. She says there are several loan programs for all farmers that will help restructure their business in cooperation with the local lender. And she says the department wants to help farmers bounce back.

LAVONNE NICOLAI: We need to be there to be that net to catch them to try and help because certainly, next year won't be this bad. And although it's just horrendous for them as they're looking at their fields right now, I hope that we can be there for them. We can help with those loans. We can help keep stabilize things to get them through till next year when that crop in the fall of next year is ready to harvest.

CARA HIRSCH: Nicolai says there is also a farm connection program available, which matches retiring farmers with new farmers to keep the business going in Minnesota. I'm Cara Hirsch, Minnesota Public Radio, Worthington.

CATHERINE WINTER: And you're listening to a special live Mainstreet Radio broadcast from the town of Lamberton in Redwood County in southwest Minnesota. It's a very hot, sunny afternoon. We've been shucking our sweaters, although we are talking about rain today and flooding. We're broadcasting from in front of the Meadowland's Farmers Cooperative, which has been kind enough not only to allow us to set up all our equipment, but to set up-- they have loaned us chairs for the many audience members who are sitting here today. And we're very thankful to them for that today.

MARK STEIL: When we look back on 1993, our memories will be filtered by personal experiences. For most farmers, it will be the year of historic rainfalls. Some farms recorded June rainfalls, which nearly equaled what they normally receive in an entire year. Just as the rain falling on these farms began a series of events, flooding first fields, then small streams, and then major rivers. The weather has also started a series of farm events, which will conclude next spring when the survivors enter fields to plant once again.

The weather disaster brought millions of dollars in federal aid to the region. These dollars will keep some farmers going and help prop up some Main Street businesses. For other farmers though, the muddy fields will end a way of life, piling on more debt than they can handle. Others will work out an agreement with their lender and scrape and borrow enough to plant another year. Still others will decide that they've had enough of the farm struggle and sell out.

The next few weeks will be important. When will a widespread killing frost occur? Will fields be too muddy to support harvesting equipment if crops mature? Those questions will be answered in farm fields like the ones surrounding us here in Lamberton and in small towns like this Redwood County community. That's our program for today. Thanks for being with us. I'm Mark Steil.

CATHERINE WINTER: And I'm Catherine Winter. The other members of the Mainstreet Radio team are Leif Enger and Rachel Reabe. The engineers for today's broadcast have been Scott Yankus and Denison Hansen in Lamberton and Randy Johnson in Saint Paul. Jean Joslyn was in charge of data processing. The assistant producers are Sara Meyer and Mike McCall-Pengra. The program was edited by Kate Moos and produced by Mike Edgerly.

Special thanks again to the Meadowland cooperative. Thanks for joining us. Mainstreet Radio coverage of rural issues is supported by the Blandin Foundation, providing leadership training through the Blandin Community Leadership Program.


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