Gilman, Ill. — IN a tiny office with dingy walls, Bill Brenner pulls out five bills. ``That's all we've got,'' he says, looking at the $24 lying on the desk in this rural car dealership. ``That's what we've got to our name.''
Five years ago, Mr. Brenner was a prosperous farmer, farming 1,375 acres of rented land. He had a house and a swimming pool. (He still drives a Lincoln.) But today, Brenner is bankrupt. He is part of an American farm exodus not seen for several decades.
``All of a sudden, you wake up one morning, and you've had it,'' says Harlon Boer, a former farmer from Ocheydon, Iowa, in a telephone interview. ``You're worth $200,000 -- and three years later, it's gone.''
Like Brenner and Mr. Boer, many farmers in rural America are quitting or losing their farms. Nationwide, the decline in the number of farms is slight -- about 1.25 percent in 1983 and zero in 1984, according to estimates by the United States Department of Agriculture. But surveys in several Midwestern states show alarming potential for the loss of more farms.
When Iowa farmers were asked if they could survive more than a year under current economic conditions, 9.3 percent said no. That state survey was in March. In May, 11 percent of Wisconsin farmers surveyed answered the same way. Another 25 percent said they couldn't keep going beyond five years.
Those figures might be exaggerated, says Carrol Spencer, a federal-state statistician for Wisconsin. But ``if there are that many concerned, it's a concern of the public.'' Missouri is getting similar results in its uncompleted survey, an official says.
The farm decline of the 1980s -- thought to be more precipitous than in average years -- is not as bleak as the days of the Great Depression, says Marty Strange, codirector of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit research organization in Walthill, Neb. The current one is largely unseen.
In the 1930s, when roughly 1 out of 5 Americans was in farming, ``what happened to these people was a great social issue,'' he says. Today, less than 3 percent are involved in farming. ``Pretty much, the economy absorbs them'' -- in radically different ways.
``The patterns are very mixed,'' Mr. Strange says. Not everyone leaves the farm. And some of those who do try to take up farming somewhere else. ``I've had people call from California and say: `Gee, are there opportunities to farm in Nebraska?' ''
Others leave to try a new career. Still others stay on or near their farms -- to retire, to take up a new career, or to have another go at farming.
Mr. Boer, who had farmed for 22 years, decided a year ago to quit for good.
``I guess the wind was let out of my sails,'' he says. He bought land in 1981, which tripled his debts and eventually forced him to get out. He sold some of his land and gave the rest to creditors in 1983. ``You can't imagine what the feeling is unless you've been through it.''
Now, with only his home left, Boer is selling insurance, feed, and heat exchangers to stay afloat financially. His wife is studying to become a tailor. He has two children in high school and another in college. The eldest, a graduate of a college dairy program, had planned to go into farming until his father's troubles.
``It's better,'' Boer says of his situation, ``but it isn't like it should be. . . . Every time, it's day to day. You've got to make money.'' He is thinking about moving West.
Staying on the land and starting another career is difficult, farmers say.
``We've survived some tough times before'' by getting nonfarm jobs, says Bob Talkemeyer, an Illinois farmer. ``But all these peripheral jobs on the side have dried up.''
To fund his family's 160-acre farm, Mr. Talkemeyer has worked in Oklahoma oil fields, been a welder for a construction company, and worked in a wood-treatment plant during the past two years. Each closed down because of the souring economy. Now, he's looking again.
``We're in a pretty tight fix,'' Talkemeyer says of the farm. ``They say they're a lot of jobs in Georgia and Colorado.''
Other farmers have struggled to regain the way of life that they lost. Brenner is one of them.
``There's something special about farming,'' he says in the dingy office of the car dealership. ``You've got livestock out there. You've cared for 'em and raised 'em. It's really hard to explain [the attraction]. It's part of the family. . . . You could see those Black Angus . . . against the green pasture. That's beautiful!
``When you lose that feeling -- `Boy, isn't that a beautiful crop!' -- it's time to get out. I wasn't feeling that any more [during the last year]. I was just after the money.''
According to Brenner, his bank -- the State Bank of Piper City -- forced him into bankruptcy. ``You don't just want to call it quits, because we feel that we've done right,'' says his wife, Donna.
The fight has taken its toll. The family has spent some winter days without heat because Brenner couldn't pay some bills. Virtually all of the landlords who had hired Brenner in the past to do custom farming dropped him when news of his financial problems leaked out. The family itself has felt the pressures. ``There's a little bickering, yes,'' Mrs. Brenner says. ``You get tired of saying `I'm sorry.' ''
In 1982, the bank won its court case against the Brenners -- despite their claim that certain bank records did not match their own. The situation was complicated by the conviction of one of the bank's officers for embezzlement. But bank president Dennis Smith says that case was unrelated to the Brenner situation. Lawyers familiar with the case say most legal channels are now closed to the family.
``I've lost 15 to 18 years of my life,'' Brenner says. ``We're just trying to turn around what I've lost. In three to five years, I'm going to have gained everything that I've lost. I've set myself a goal.''
Now, the Brenners are trying to buy a building in the area to set up a used-car dealership of their own. So far, their declared bankruptcy has kept them from taking out a bank loan. They are looking for a cosigner.