Flooding hits ND farms hard

BY SUSAN KIM | NORTH DAKOTA | August 6, 1999


NORTH DAKOTA (Aug. 6, 1999) -- Already challenged by

low market prices and several years of worse-than-usual

crop disease, farmers in North Dakota are now facing

flooding that has wiped out millions of acres and

plummeted thousands of families into dire economic

conditions and intense emotional pressure.

More than three million acres were never even planted as

torrential rains and rising ground water soaked the

northern part of the state. Hard-hit Bottineau County

registered nearly zero planted acreage this year - as

resident Gordon Smette put it, "fields that were once

green and wavy are black and brown now."

Residents in 42 of some 50 counties in North Dakota are

now eligible for federal assistance, and about 7,000

farmers and farm workers have already applied, with

another 5,000 expected. Many residents already ensconced

in the ongoing farm crisis view the flooding as yet

another disaster. But this one may make some of them give up

the fight.

"It's getting really difficult out here to get up, day

after day, and just do your thing," said Sheryl Rude,

whose farm is outside Devils Lake, which for several

years has been steadily rising to overtake farms and

homes.

Disaster response workers are concerned that farm

families -- under pressure for years -- are reaching a

breaking point. "Feelings of hopelessness and depression

are so prevalent," said Sandra Simonson Thums who,

through Lutheran Social Services, has been personally

surveying farm families in North Dakota for two years.

Thums said that the recent flooding has exacerbated

farmers' feelings of failure, especially since most farms

have been in the family for many years. "Usually their

great grandfather homesteaded here, then their

grandfather got through the depression. So many farmers

are thinking, 'I'll be the one who loses it.' " she said.

"They keep their ancestors sitting right there at the

kitchen table with them, and that keeps the pressure on,"

said Thums, who lost her own Wisconsin farm in the 1980s

after her husband died.

Local heritage and family pride often keeps people from

seeking or accepting help, she said. "So when I'm talking

to farm families, I write 'The Family Farm' on one side

of a piece of paper, and I ask them to list the resources

they're using to manage it. They list quite a few. Then

on the other side, I write 'The Farm Family,' and I tell

them about the resources they can use to help them cope."

Local residents, pastors, and disaster response workers

are increasingly concerned about how the ongoing

difficulties affect children. Nolan Seim, a farmer just

over the South Dakota border, said two teens in his

community recently committed suicide. "They don't see any

future," he said. "The pressure has reached a boiling

point out here. It's a far cry from when I grew up."

Seim's farm has been in his family since 1874.

"I have three teenage daughters," added Rude, "and

there's nothing to keep them here. It's a good place to

raise your children -- but I don't want them to struggle

the way I did."

Men and women also report different reactions to the

devastation of recent flooding and the escalating

cumulative stress. "Many men have been trained to be

providers, so when their wives have to go out and get a

job to make ends meet, they feel angry at themselves,"

said Thums. "At a men's retreat we hosted, many of them

said that they wanted to reassure their wives -- but that

was hard to do because they were scared to death

themselves."

In the past year, farm women have increasingly named

sleep deprivation as a serious problem. "Working on the

farm, plus working a daytime job leaves no time to

sleep," said Thums. "And so many people have dropped

their health insurance, so they might stay awake at night

worried that something will happen. In turn, children who

know their mom and dad don't have the money aren't going

to speak up about their medical problems."

When farmers are in crisis, it also affects the wider

community - what Thums calls "the Main Street people."

"We'll all feel the pinch," said Smette. "People who

provide oil and implements, or repair equipment, or

operate grain elevators." In Bottineau County, local

service stations are already cutting back employees'

hours in anticipation of the hard winter.

"Everybody -- from people who build trucks to the box boys

at the grocery store -- is going to be affected by what is

happening at the farm gate," said Seim.

Caregivers -- pastors, disaster response workers,

counselors, caseworkers, volunteers -- are also feeling

the strain of providing long-term help, only to see more

devastation. "Even people like veterinarians hear all the

stories, and they see the lost crops, and they need to

know how to connect people with resources that can help,"

said Thums.

If people don't find those resources, they will leave, or

their children will leave, in what Thums calls "a silent

exodus."

In response, local interfaith and community teams are

newly organizing or redoubling existing efforts to reach

people in need. The Rev. Darrell Elliott, a Church of God

pastor who also works with the Salvation Army, is leading

an effort in McLean County that combines clergy,

emergency management officials, the Red Cross, fire

department, hospitals, and schools. "We are a very

determined and very independent people," he said. "But

I'm concerned that we're moving from a survivalist

mentality to a 'just existing' mentality."

Those leading such efforts acknowledge the results might

be slow in coming - but so was the state of disaster.

Rude said that, if farmers can't plant seeds, then

perhaps churches can plant seeds of faith that will help

them cope. "Maybe the seeds being planted right now are

just the kind you can't see."

Posted Aug. 6, 1999


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