A Mainstreet Radio special from southwestern Minnesota town of Madison. MPR’s John Biewen presents a documentary entitled, "We're Not Dying," which highlights how the town survived the 1980’s farm crisis. Across the farm belt, the 1980s were the most difficult decade in a half-century. One farm in ten went out of business in the decade. Farming towns suffered as well, losing population, schools, and businesses. Madison was no exception to those challenges. Program includes various interviews of residents, who share their memories on the upheavals of crisis and thoughts on their uncertain future.
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What do you mean? Blueberry Hill going back to the 50s with Fats Domino of this morning and Q90 229 now before 9 o'clock right now the Studio's north of Madison Cloudy Skies Burma Tree pressure at 30 .25 and that is on the rise this morning slowly Deborah chur. Not on the rise. In fact, that's just not doing anything seven degrees. That's where it's been since we came on the air this morning at 5:45 and was bent. There are small towns in the farm belt some not far from Madison Minnesota that are dying Shirley and obviously their main streets have a lot of vacant buildings and very few Shoppers Madison population 2221 is not one of those towns except for an old hotel and movie theater that have been closed for years. All the buildings on Madison's Main Street are occupied by healthy businesses. And on a December morning, the festively decorated street is bustling with Christmas shoppers. Business-wise, if you drive up and down the streets of Madison, it's always busy. There's always people here dick Jackson owns Jackson Supervalu a block off Main Street. He's active in the local Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation. They say in Madison that it's forward-looking business people like dick Jackson that have kept the town alive through the eighties. We went through the period of time where maybe even 83 84 85 where people felt as if the town was literally falling apart the whole area and I think this is where we saw towns like some of the neighboring towns where you drive in and it looks as if death is taking place that happened not so much physically, but mentally it happened to the area where everyone thought we were going to go down. But then all of a sudden I think certain things happen. We formed a Marketing Group in the town and we started to promote the town in different ways. We made it the lutefisk capital of the world. Those are ridiculous things that we do in order to unite people. What those marketers did Jackson explains was to create the 25-foot plastic Cod that now Graces this Junction of Highways 40 and 75 on the edge of Madison in 1985. They put the big fish on a trailer and pulled it across the United States to draw attention to Madison as the capital of lutefisk. Nobody claims that the gimmick has brought busloads of tourists to Madison. But Jackson says it did affect the communities mindset pretty soon people started to read about us in the Chicago paper of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal of the San Francisco Examiner. And so then pretty soon they started to say hey, I guess this is working and I think it United people And they started to think on a positive basis. And so that's what I think people started to say. Well, I guess I'm going to expand my business instead of closing. I'm going to expand and start to promote Madison now has several promotional events every year and has emerged as the strongest retail Center in this part of Southwestern Minnesota. And the community is working on bringing other industry to town. For example, a Japanese company is said to be considering building a soybean processing plant in Madison. Most people in Madison are upbeat about the community's future at the end of what everybody admits has been a harrowing decade Bob Benner works with rural communities as a Deputy Commissioner with the Minnesota Department of trade and economic development. It's kind of like a war. I mean the war is over. You count the dead and the wounded and you move on and in this case. The worst of the crisis is probably over adjustments are taking place. And most people expect to see if our better future for themselves, but better says the future that rural people see is far different from the one they saw just ten years ago more and more rural people are accepting the idea that if their towns are to survive they can no longer be just farming towns. As a symbol of the change in towns like Madison take this construction project 10 miles east of town in the midst of farmland for as far as you can see in every direction workers are building a large new school where 7th through 12th graders from Madison and three other districts will attend starting next fall this cool that it's going to open in the fall of 1990 s called like a pearl Valley High School Bob plumstead is principal of Madison High School, which will close after this year. He will be principle of the new Consolidated School. The Lac Qui parle Valley school is a pilot project a forerunner of what some legislators say must happen all over rural Minnesota the joining of rural schools into larger so-called area schools the idea of area schools grew out of the increasingly accepted notion that rural communities have lost too many people to maintain efficient schools of their own and they will Never get those people back glom. Stead has been in Madison since 1973 when I came here. There was just a shade over 500 students grade 7 through 12. We had a four sections high school at that time and then it declined down the three sections and down the two sections and and as of today, I think we've got 261 kids in the secondary and compared to a little bit over 500. So during that period of time we've had to cut cost reduced staff because we just ran short of kids Lac Qui parle County of which Madison is the county seat has lost about 200 Farm families since the late 70s and the families that remain are getting smaller in the last decade. The County's population has fallen by almost a tenth. This morning. I was the one we had to drop in on any gathering in Madison and you'll find people who have been affected by the upheavals in the farm economy at the school a group of volunteers who teach a great books program to gifted Elementary School students get together for coffee after their classes several of these volunteers are Farm women a few others live in town, Ricci Larson says her family bought a farm that had gone through foreclosure. They were neighbors of ours and they struggled for many years, but they finally just just lost the whole thing and we bought it to Farm Credit and I don't know if I was not too happy with my husband buying it and because I did cause some hard feelings being we were friends of there. So we did buy the farm from five years ago we moved here and that was at the height of the farm crisis where I guess the start of it were interest rates. I climbed so high and so when we moved here, there were a lot of farmers that were in that situation where they just couldn't pay Julie Boyle explains her husband works for Farm Credit Services a government lending agency and he had to close a lot of people out at that time. And that was really tough. Although we didn't know them so it wasn't as personal to us, but but I can say since then it's really turned around and they're farmers are doing a good job. So it's kind of that part has passed. I feel like it really is on the positive side. Now, I'm not quite as optimistic towards the future as some people robinred a penny City and in the past 14 years that we farmed we've gotten through the crisis and we've done fine and we're still farming and there's no threat of losing the farm. But in order to do that both, my husband has enough Farm job and I have an off Farm job and that's just to maintain a moderate standard of living. I think we'll stay on the farm because that's what he wants to do and the off-farm income makes, you know gives you the money to live off of and the farm can just pay for itself and From being a big city girl. I look at this and growing up with the work ethic that the harder you work the further ahead you're going to do and if you do all your homework, you're going to get an A and with farming, it's just not that way Carmen fernholz send a farmer here Madison, Minnesota been farming here since 1972. In fact, I grew up on the farm that is about a mile and a half to the northeast of where I live here until I put met with the area. Got about 200 Acres farming and then 60 self are of the Finnish livestock operation. The geese are flying I see. Carmen fernholz doesn't accept that the Family Farm must disappear. He has been deeply involved in the major agricultural movements of the last decade. He's an organic farmer. He supports the sustainable agriculture movement that's gained a lot of momentum the last couple years and during the mid-80s Farm Credit crisis Fern holds was at the center of the protest movement LED in Minnesota by the Grassroots organization known as Groundswell. It was December of 1984. I believe there was a meeting in Minneapolis at them Auditorium and a couple of friends and I decided we were going to go in and see what it was all about. And I guess that was a turning point for my life because when I got there we had the meeting and people asked me if I would head up some of the activities for grounds Wellness is I'll do whatever I can and it was from that point on that. I really became involved because that was the meeting where we set up the goal to put Fifteen to twenty thousand farmers and Rural business people on the capitol steps the middle of January. He did full force demonstrators of the Groundswell Farm protest movement crowded the state capitol staircase bundled against 11 below wind chill factors. They came from around the state while a number of Rural school districts called off classes and small-town businesses closed in support several State labor groups also pledged their commitment to economically troubled Farmers surrounded at the podium by legislative leaders and Governor Rudy perpich activist Carmen Fern holds of Madison, Minnesota likened current Farm problems with the Great Depression today. Got a faces an emergency that threatens the very survival of our family farms and Rural communities as in the 1930s temporary emergency measures and courageous political leadership will be required. If we are to avert an irreparable disaster. I'll stay in response to Farmers appeals Minnesota and other states passed laws that allowed some Farmers to restructure their debts and the farm economy improved in the late 80s. But nationally there are a quarter million fewer Farms today than there were in 1980 the farmers who lost their land were those who expanded their operations in the 70s on the advice of bankers and other experts and then were buried by their debts when in the early 80s the value of their land plummeted. One of those who lost his farm was Don fernholz Carmen's cousin Don now works for the city of Madison laying power lines on this wintry day. He's straightening up a truck in the city shed. I'm 34, right? No, I think I was 21 when I bought the farm and my wife was I believe twenty three or four only been here at City six years. I was 28 when we sold out. So yeah, like I said, I was too young. I made a lot of mistakes when I done it too. But still it boils down to that did it to me? I just has to be a little fair price for what the product the farmer selling if it's from the cull cows all the way down to the veal the Cavs to the milk and everything, you know, you just you should be able to make a mistake or two in any kind of business and then be able to rebound somewhat and in farming it seems like that's really tough to do, you know had you expected to farm all your life? Yeah. That was the the biggest thing about it. We had started remodeling the house and started, you know, making the Long-term plans that you know, we had two sons and they were already starting to help with the calf chores and stuff and in between there, you know Elementary Sports and so forth and you know, it's there was a lot of nights that a person cried or we both did lay in bed and touches. What are we going to do now, you know, but I guess it hit all world seems to work out, you know, it's not the end of the world. But yeah, it was it was a bad time. There's a garden now and tomorrow morning. The farm depression of the 80s brought a Revival in popular culture of the image of farmer as victim from songs like this one by Crosby Stills Nash & Young to movies like country artists and the media embraced rural people and portrayed them as helpless against an uncaring system economic developer Banner says the 80s were the worst decade for Rural America since the depression and dust bowl era of the 30s the devastation that we saw in the 30s The Grapes of Wrath kind of kind of a wrenching poverty certainly wasn't duplicated in the 80s. But to people living in the 80s that don't have the benefit of contrasting their expect their experience and losing a farm that they have maybe grown up on and their father grew up on seeing that pulled out from under them because of not because of their poor Management on their part or their lack of hard work, but simply because of economic change over which they had absolutely no control. They probably feel the 80s were pretty damned awful. But some people in Madison say they're frankly tired of hearing how bad the farm crisis was Maynard Meyer who owns and runs the local radio station says the news media exaggerated the suffering he says, they took isolated incidents and played them for all they were worth a one good example of that is on one of the Foreclosure sales are several Farmers that were very upset. They had to Highway Patrol and the sheriff and everybody up on the UPS trying to auction off this particular piece of property and they kind of got into a little bit of fisticuffs up there on the top step and one of the people involved had shoved a highway patrolman a little bit too hard and actually had wrapped himself around that I was patrolling his leg is what he had done and I would patrolman had kind of nudged him off in the guy rolled down the steps. So that's what appeared at the beginning newscast of one of the Twin Cities television newscast for quite some time was this supposedly somebody being abused by an officer of the law or whatever which was you know, not it wasn't as bad as it looked on the on the whole thing. There's people that are going to make it in there people that aren't going to make it and that's that's the American way Wanda off to dolls family owns a drugstore on Madison's Main Street, her sentiments about the farm crisis are shared by many rural people including a lot of farmers. I mean, not not everybody is going to be successful in everything they do and Matter if you're a farmer is small business person or teacher or whatever. There's going to be people that fail and rightly soul only 20 percent of the businesses that start in Minnesota succeed. You know, why should farming be any different that farming is not unique and that it is not the destiny of towns. Like Madison is an idea that has spread in Rural America in the 1980s a few years ago. The main concern of small-town people was saving the Family Farm but no longer. In a large workshop on the edge of Madison one of 15 workers at the pine cone rustics plant sprays lacquer on a wooden bunk bed. Ladder Community leaders in Madison say this is where their towns future lies in small non agricultural industry Wayne stands route who is 42 started the wood furniture company three years ago after he'd given up farming one of our objectives here in this farm community should be to entice laborers from Minneapolis to move into our areas. We have cheap housing. We have good school facilities. We have a lot of things to offer really that I know that there's a number of people in Minneapolis could be looking for you know, those kinds of things we have we have four or five thousand dollar homes out here that are beautiful homes, but that's all you can get for them, you know, and You talk their street people in Minneapolis, you know understand that for $5,000 and a decent job could live in a home, you know what I mean? But almost in the next breath stens rude explains why he has trouble finding good workers for his company like a lot of the new manufacturing jobs in small towns that are touted as the substitute for the old Family Farm based economy the jobs at Stan's Roots plant our hard work and pay only five or six dollars an hour. If you enjoy working hard in and not living extravagantly. This is the place to be but if you want to work hard in really get somewhere. I would move somewhere else. I happen to like it. I like Madison Madison is mean but I wouldn't suggest that my child try and rub out a living here as we're talking stems Roots phone rings in his office and he goes to answer it some sociologists and economists think the next major shift in American living could be a movement from cities and suburbia to the country. The idea is the people will get tired of the traffic and the crime of big cities and be drawn to rural areas by the quieter life and low real estate prices when I asked stens rude about the idea. He said it makes some sense to him, but he hasn't seen it happening here. Okay, just as we were sitting here talking you heard the phone ring. It was an individual from Bloomington Jonathan France that call out here to see if I was doing any hiring he had seen my my truck driving down interstate. Or ninety four yesterday afternoon was looking to relocate in an area like this and was wondering if if I was going to be hiring so I told them that I would call them on Monday and we would arrange something so that he could come out and we could interview him next week and told them we had housing and everything available here and he says oh great. He says long as it's livable. He said so strange how things work, but we'll see what happens. Carmen Fern Holt is holding out for another kind of rural Revival that of the family farm that hope puts him in a small minority fernholz says things are better now on the farm than in the mid-80s, but he says the prices Farmers receive are still unjust and he says something valuable that emerged during the farm crisis has been lost. It was something a Unity. That was not Really visible in a sense, but you could feel it when the groups were together. You could feel that these people all of them were suffering in some way or another either because somebody lost their Farm or that they themselves are under pressure and all of a sudden I think everybody felt Jeepers. Am I next am I the next victim and it it wasn't, you know after a while if you've no longer had the drama that it did initially and so it moved to the back of people's minds and I think people just went back to their you know, their ordinary ways again, and and I guess that's the way it's been for years and years in agriculture and Sad to say I think it's it's the it's the cause for the demise of Agriculture. And I think it's the cause for what I would say is the demise of the rural social structure Fern Holt says the loss of people of schools and hospitals and businesses will only be slowed not stopped by economic diversification the trend could be reversed. He believes if Farmers pulled together and insisted on environmentally sound agriculture at prices consistent with the cost of production that he says would mean more people on the land and healthy rural communities. The basic line. Is that wealth New monies comes from raw materials and out here. The raw materials is what comes out of the soil and if we if we shortchange that raw material if we don't put the true value on it, we just short change the whole economic system. And because we don't speak as one voice will never accomplish that if you ask people around Madison what they expect in the 1990s most say they don't for see much change some neighboring communities may look more and more like ghost towns, but people in Madison expect their town to hold its own and perhaps to grow if more industry can be brought in if the trend of the last 40 years continues in farm country, there will be fewer Farms fewer people fewer schools hospitals churches and businesses fewer towns some rural people like Carmen Fern Holtz are trying to change the forces working against their way of life, but most are resigned to those forces and for them. The goal is not to save their old world but to find a niche in the new one. As one Community leader in Madison puts it we are not dying out here. We're changing. We're not dying was written produced and narrated by John be one edited by Dan Olsen and engineered by Alan Strickland executive producer George Busey, Main Street. Radio Productions are made possible by a major Grant from the blandin foundation.