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My Farm Roots: Lessons From The Farm Crisis

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Amy Mayer
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Harvest Public Media

Mark Kenney and his family lived through the farm crisis of the 1980s, when the bottom dropped out of the U.S. economy and collapsing global food markets forced many farmers out of business.

I met Mark Kenney on his family’s farm in Nevada, Iowa, when I was working on a story about farmer taxes. He turned out to be perfect for that — a farmer with a keen interest in spreadsheets.

Kenney and his family lived through the farm crisis of the 1980s, when the bottom dropped out of the U.S. economy and collapsing global food markets forced many farmers out of business. He surprised me, though, when he started describing how lucky he was to grow up during a notoriously tough time to be a farmer — and became choked up by the memories.

“At the time it didn’t feel like a whole lot of fun. The ‘80s for farmers in Iowa and the Midwest and throughout the country were not looked upon as, ‘Geez those were great times,’” Kenney said. “But they also taught us a lot of lessons.”

His family’s farm, run by Kenney’s father and grandfather, survived, but he watched with them as neighbors lost their farms.

“A lot of good farmers went out of business and that’s tough to see,” Kenney said, “In some cases through no fault of their own. It’s just — caught up in a bad economic time.”

Now a farmer himself, he knows the extraordinary effort it takes to keep a farm running. And that’s in the good times.

“I’m even more thankful for my grandparents, my parents, my uncle because of the hard work they put in during those times,” Kenney said. “[They] gave us the opportunity to stay on the farm and for me to make my livelihood from the farm, too.”

As the farm crisis spiraled out of control and farmers all over the country struggled to stay afloat, it was hard for many to imagine a future on the farm.

“Commodity prices were depressed, land values kept falling and it didn’t seem like there was a whole lot of reason to be optimistic,” Kenney said. That left many of his generation uninterested in farming.

“Becoming a farmer wasn’t cool,” Kenney said.

Even though he wanted to farm, he saw clearly the need to have a variety of skills. His background includes working at a company that financed agricultural equipment and earning a master’s degree in agricultural economics before returning to be the fifth generation to farm his family’s land, with his father and his brother-in-law. (Kenney’s niche on the farm, he said, is spreadsheets and financials.)

Talking about the 1980s is emotional for Kenney, but he said lessons learned as a young boy still stay with him today. The crisis fostered in him an appreciation for what he has.

“I’m thankful for it because I kind of know, don’t forget that those times could come again,” he said.

And the hard times also demonstrated to Midwestern farmers their intractable place in a global market.

“They taught us about world trade, they taught us about exchange rates, they taught us about interest rates, they taught us about inflation,” Kenney said. “Things that farmers before then may have been aware of, but they didn’t realize that what happens on the world stage could put me out of business.”

Now he uses a smartphone every day to check the markets.

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. Click here to explore more My Farm Roots stories and to share your own.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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