As of 1987, the farm crisis of the mid-1980s was far from over for hundreds of small farmers across the United States. Although larger farms had been able to pull through the crisis unscathed, small farmers found themselves overwhelmed by escalating debt. Families could no longer support the small farms that had been passed on for generations.
Analysts from Iowa State University predicted that 20 percent of Iowa's farmers would lose their farms over the next decade and at least 50 percent of Iowa farms were in jeopardy. The farmers' plight threatened the fabric of Iowan small-town life. Mental health workers noted a marked increase in rates of domestic and child abuse, indicating severe emotional distress among farmers. Rural farming towns were losing young people in droves, leaving older farmers to attempt to salvage their deteriorating farms and to establish stability within their communities.
Iowa Comprehensive Human Services set out to help these farm families retain their property by establishing the Farm Family Assistance Program in 1987 with funding through the federal Job Training Partnership Act. Although dozens of state, federal, and voluntary programs had been established to address the farm crisis, the Farm Family Assistance Program was the first to zero in on the overwhelming cause of distress for most farmers: a seemingly insurmountable debt. Debt Management Training connects farmers with experts who analyze the farm's cash-flow problems, instruct farmers in financial management techniques, and provide the detailed information farmers need to negotiate with creditors. If preservation of the farm is not viable, the subsidiary goal is to enable families to retain their homestead and to remain in their community through alternative employment, minimizing the carryover debt. For many, the farm can no longer serve to support the family but rather the family must earn a sufficient outside income to maintain the farm.
The Farm Family Assistance Program also links farmers and their families with an array of other supportive services, including medical, mental health, financial, and training assistance. The program contracts with outside organizations or engages with other voluntary networks to meet the specific needs of each individual family. The frugality of the program allows the provision of all these services at the surprisingly low average cost of $3,000 per family. The development of specialized expertise located in Iowa in the highly complex field of agricultural debt restructuring is an important result of the Farm Family Assistance Program.
Small farmers, who are often deemed notoriously difficult to communicate with and reluctant to seek advice, praise the efforts of the program and enthusiastically utilize these new resources. In the 18-month period from July 1988 through January 1990, the Debt Management Training deserved credit for directly saving at least 80 family farms. During this same time, 111 of the 169 program participants were able to continue farming their land and 158 of the participants were successfully placed in unsubsidized employment, a success rate of 93.5 percent.
The Farm Family Assistance Program tackles the farming crisis head-on by acting before farms can be liquidated and creating options for families so that they are able to retain their property and, more importantly, their pride and sense of identity.