Faith organizations respond for farmers

BY SUSAN KIM | New Windsor, MD | December 1, 1999


After destroying crops throughout the mid-Atlantic this summer, the ongoing drought in the mid-Atlantic continues to cause suffering for farm families.

The Family Farm Drought Response Coalition, an ecumenical group established in late August, has been addressing critical rural needs. Many farmers are facing the winter with severe hay shortages, unmanageable debt, and severe emotional strain.

Despite an announcement by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman announced that farmers who have suffered a severe crop losses due to national disasters can sign up for cash grants starting Dec. 13, the unmet need is growing collectively more urgent.

As the faith community works to respond, many relief leaders are quickly learning about the difficult predicament of today's farmers. And they have begun to ask the question: 'What should the faith community be doing about it?'

The coalition focuses on family, rather than large, company-owned farms because its mission is to provide critical care to farm families in urgent need. Already, it has distributed more than 200 loads of donated hay to farms, and request for hay continue to come from Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Family Farm Drought Response is also operating a toll-free help line (888-800-0118) that connects farmers with information about available disaster response resources, including federal, state, and local government disaster assistance, supplemental hay and grain programs, and faith-based family support services.

Farmers in need of such support are quick to say it's more than just the drought. "Farm prices are so low," said Irene Molison, a farmer in Hanover, Pa.

"We sold three bull calves for $124 total," Molison said. "Those should go for about $100 each. The biggest problem is the debt load. It's depressing. My husband is 62 years old and he still has more than $100,000 in debt."

Besides offering material assistance and information referrals, the faith community also needs to proactively advocate for farmers, she added. Many of her farmer colleagues -- whether in the mid-Atlantic or mid-west -- voiced their agreement.

"Most of the churches have stood silent while families all across rural America have been forced out of their homes and off the land that they love," said Nolan Seim, a rancher from western South Dakota.

"The churches have brought food and other supplies to this area, giving food to farmers and ranchers," he said. "We grow it but we can't afford to buy it? This by itself should prove the level of injustice that we are dealing with. The nation's churches would do well to fight for open competitive markets for all farm products. We don't want charity, just fair prices for what we grow."

Bob Arnold, associate director of the emergency response program for Church World Service (CWS), said he thought that the churches are better prepared to take on a role of public policy and advocacy than they are transporting hay and grain.

"The capacity just isn't there to operate large-scale hay lifts or grain transports," he said. "But the churches are ready to weigh in on public policy that addresses the overall farm crisis. Ultimately, the ministry is one of hope."

Tom Smucker, executive coordinator of the Mennonite Disaster Service, said the church response needs to expand to address more than drought-related needs. "The drought has showed that we should be more concerned with the whole farm economy and the future of the family farm. If farming is on a pendulum swing where it is going to go to big business, then it's the church's job to protect the families."

But if the faith community is to expand its response to farmers, then local congregations need to learn more about the lives of those they're helping, said Lonnie Ream, a Church of the Brethren member who serves on the Family Farm Drought Response coalition.

For example, that means knowing that hay quality varies vastly, and that mid-Atlantic farmers need high-quality hay to feed their livestock -- or they simply can't use the hay.

Still, Ream thinks churches can successfully coordinate hay donations. "This is a learning experience for everyone," he said.

Offering emotional and spiritual support is more important than offering material aid, argued the Rev. James Benedict, pastor at the Union Bridge Church of the Brethren in Maryland. "Churches have the advantage of knowing family dynamics intimately and being able to intervene even after material aid is there," he said.

Walter Heisey, a Newmanstown, Pa. farmer, said that, of all types of support that churches could provide, he most wants "a sense of appreciation for the challenges farmers face."

"Each year we hope to get a crop but sometimes we don't," he said. "The worst insult is when farmers are looked down upon or not appreciated."


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