Faith organizations respond for farmers

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW WINDSOR, MD | December 16, 1999

NEW WINDSOR, MD (Dec. 16, 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.

In addition to funding from faith-based response groups, Farm Aid has also announced a $35,000 grant for Family Farm Drought Response.

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


Posted December 16, 1999

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