New help planned for drought-stricken farms

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW WINDSOR, MD | August 28, 1999

NEW WINDSOR, MD (Aug. 28, 1999) -- The rain has come too little, too

late for mid-Atlantic farmers plagued with lost crops, a severe hay

shortage, mounting equipment bills, and overbearing anxiety about

simple survival.

But help is on its way. Interfaith leaders are creating an initiative

called Family Farm Drought Response to offer comprehensive

assistance to mid-Atlantic farmers.

During a consultation Thursday at the Church of the Brethren (COB)

Service Center in New Windsor, response workers, after sharing

reports assessing farmers' needs, realized that help must be both

immediate and long-term. Among the groups involved, besides COB, are

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Church World

Service (CWS), Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), Mennonite Disaster

Services (MDS), Orphan Grain Train, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance,

and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

"What I am sensing is that we need to respond on many levels, in many

ways, within many timeframes," said Stan Noffsinger, center

coordinator. "All these faith-based groups have certain strengths in

certain areas, and we need to combine those strengths for the best


Reports of farmers' needs -- some given by farmers themselves -- were

sobering. In addition to losing most of this year's crops, farmers are

now feeding their livestock hay and grain that should be reserved for

December. Wells have gone dry, and annual feed and equipment bills

are mounting.

In order to make ends meet, many are selling livestock, working

off-farm jobs, and cutting up trees on their property to use the

foliage as feed. Others are being forced to sell farms that have been

in their family for several generations.

Family Farm Drought Response will begin meeting immediate needs by

collecting and distributing donations of hay and grain, expanding an

effort already initiated through MDS. "Several weeks ago, we just

starting asking farmers if they needed hay, and we got so many 'yes'

answers that we've been deluged with requests ever since," said Tom

Smucker, an MDS coordinator. Farmers as far away as Nebraska have

voiced their willingness to donate hay and grain, remembering past

years when they received similar donations from farmers in the east.

But arranging transportation can be logistically challenging and

expensive, said Smucker. "We need to approach trucking companies,

railroads, and individual volunteers willing to donate


Family Farm Drought Response will also initiate financial appeals

through national denominational boards as well as through local

churches. Many farmers need emergency funds to pay for annual

equipment or feed bills.

For long-term response, Family Farm Drought Response also includes a

mental health component. "I have seen a state of depression and

anxiety among, for example, North Dakota farmers that I do not want

mid-Atlantic farmers to reach," said Shirley Norman, a COB and Church

World Service disaster response facilitator. "We have got to

intervene before suicide rates rise."

Many farmers whose land has been in their family for generations face

feelings of shame, anger, and depression when they realize they could

lose the farm. "The stress is just unbelievable," said Johanna Olson,

assistant director for LDR. "These are people who have always managed

to get by if they work hard. They can be very independent and will

only ask for help if their situation is dire."

Family Farm Drought Response has at least one other partner already

willing to provide some assistance: Farm Aid, the assistance program

coordinated by country music star Willie Nelson that attracts

donations and grants worldwide.

"Many family farms live on the edge economically, and one disaster

can jeopardize their ability to cover basic living expenses," said

Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid executive director. Farm Aid is coordinating

a concert event in Virginia on Sept. 12 with hopes of raising

thousands more dollars.

Another component of Family Farm Drought Response is education --

informing farmers of the help already available from the Federal

Emergency Management Agency, Farm Service Agency, Small Business

Administration, and Federal Crop Insurance Corporation -- and also

informing local congregations and the general public about the

situation farmers are facing.

"Most people just go to the grocery store, buy their food, and don't

think about where it's coming from," said Leon Yoder, a COB pastor in

Mercersburg, PA who has a farming background. "People will see that

it's raining and think 'what's the problem?' I think if they knew how

bad this situation is, though, they would want to help."

Family Farm Drought Response (FFDR) focuses on family farms, rather

than corporate ones, because assessments indicated that is the group

most in need. "It's hard to draw the line of where response should

focus, but we must," said Noffsinger. "We must, because that's the

most helpful way we can use our resources and our people."

Family Farm Drought Response will also approach celebrities and

foundations for funding. "We will be planning a fundraising strategy

that taps into these potential resources," said Bob Arnold, associate

director for the CWS emergency response program.

"Sometimes with a situation like this that's so widespread, you feel

like any effort you make is just adrop in the bucket," added Art

Jackson, a CRWRC and CWS disaster response coordinator. "But, I tell

you, if we get enough drops, we can fill up the bucket."

Posted Aug. 28, 1999

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