It’s been 34 years since the nation’s news was filled with reports of feisty farmers.
During the first week of February 1979, there were farmers from Kansas and elsewhere driving their tractors to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness and demonstrate the fact that they could no longer make a living on the family farm.
“It let people know there were big problems out there,” said Peggy Arnesman, a farmer from Kinsley who, in the 1970s and 1980s was the Kansas state president of WIFE – Women Involved in Farm Economics. She also served on the national steering committee that made policies for WIFE and weekly flew to Washington, D.C., to lobby.
A perfect storm was brewing on the family farms during the late 1970s and early 1980s in that interest rates were in the double digits.
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Farmers were heavily borrowed.
Farm exports were suffering because of the economy.
Energy costs were high.
Land prices were plummeting.
And, there was an ongoing drought.
Some of the most outspoken leaders of the American Agriculture Movement were from Kansas – people like Darrell Ringer, a third-generation farmer and rancher whose 320-acre farm near Quinter was foreclosed on and his farm was auctioned to the Federal Land Bank.
The rise of the AAM came at a time when young Kansans had been lured into farming by good prices in the 1970s.
And then, when they had heavily invested in farming, the bottom fell out.
One of the lowest points was in 1988 when the Farmers Home Administration sent out notices shortly after the Nov. 8 election to collect $8.8 billion in past-due loans.
According to the Wichita Eagle, spokesman FmHA Marlyn Aycock then said rules implementing new credit legislation would take effect on Nov. 14 that year and that “Dear Farmer Jones” notices will be sent to an estimated 90,000 delinquent FmHA borrowers.
Through the agricultural recession, Ringer led organized farm foreclosure protests that often garnered attention in not only Kansas but the rest of the nation.
On Feb. 2, the library in Kinsley is hosting an open house recognizing some of the leaders in Edwards County who were leaders in the AAM movement. Oral histories are featured on the library’s website. The project was funded through a grant from the Kansas Humanities Council.
For some, their mark in history has been a long time coming. At the time, they were labeled as “hot heads” and rebels. Some were lawbreakers.
Ringer and 300 farmers disrupted a farm sale of C. David and Virginia Jensen near Grinnell. Some ended up in jail charged with obstruction of legal process.
Ringer died in 1993, crushed by a tractor in a farm accident.
“I tried to forget a lot of this because there is nothing you can do about it anymore,” Arnesman said.
Her voice is among 14 people who will be featured in the Kinsley library’s open house.
Arnesman remembers going with the tractorcade to Washington in 1979.
She remembers looking up at the skyline.
“I remember looking up at the top of building and seeing SWAT teams, men with rifles who watched everything we did,” Arnesman said.
She remembers “feeling kind of skitterish.”
And, she remembers when the last farm bill of the 1970s failed.
“We were standing in the chamber and the halls were marble and so everything echoed,” Arnesman said. “You could hear these farmers crying because when the vote failed, it put them out of business. It was a serious thing. You knew you were not only losing that person’s farm, you were losing their grandfather’s farm and great-grandfather’s farm.”