Pulling together when financial troubles pull them apart. Farm communities face threat of growing violence

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There are fears that violence may spread in economically troubled rural America. Here in north-central Missouri -- one of the nation's most agriculturally depressed areas -- two things are clear. The potential for more violence exists. And farmers, nonfarmers, and sometimes whole communities, are trying to prevent it. At times they succeed. And sometimes they don't.

Last week an Iowa farmer killed his wife, a neighbor, and a banker, before committing suicide. In the aftermath of that tragedy, questions remain: Is violence inevitable in hard times? Are there ways to stop it? And how are individual families coping?

``I used to worry,'' says Jeanne Parks, a Bucklin, Mo., farm wife whose husband declared bankruptcy last March. ``And anymore, I don't. I have a lot of faith in God. And somehow it will work out.''

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``We talk. We've sat down and cried about this,'' says Marsha Hughes, a farm wife from Dawn, Mo., who says the family is coping better now. Her husband, who stands to lose his machinery next spring, playfully taps her on the head with a rolled-up piece of paper.

In small ways, rural communities are trying to pull together too. ``It had almost become myth that rural people worked together,'' says Jack McCall, chairman of a nine-county rural task force here. Now, ``I think the stage is set for community cooperation.''

He ticks off examples: The town of Jamesport (pop. 650) wants to attract tourists to its old-style community; five farmers' markets have been set up recently to let farm families earn extra cash; ministers, mental health professionals, and community leaders gather to learn how they can train farmers in their localities to lead support groups.

Last week, 50 of them showed up at a lodge near Marceline. ``A year ago, we wouldn't have gotten 10 people,'' says Mr. McCall, who is also an official with the US agriculture department's extension service. ``I have bigger, stronger, more self-reliant [support] groups than ever before.''

The cooperation is often informal. Taped to a wall in Mrs. Parks's kitchen, next to an orange telephone, is a new list. It has phone numbers for seven nearby farms -- part of a network that local farm wives set up to keep in touch and pass on important news. The phone network came about after farmers and law enforcement officials defused a potentially violent confrontation two months ago.

On a chilly, sunny October afternoon, Albert Wayne Switzer was chatting with a feed salesman at his Bucklin Mo., farm when two deputy sheriffs pulled up. They had a court order authorizing that all of Mr. Switzer's livestock and equipment be repossessed.

For nearly a year, Switzer's loans had been considered delinquent by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC had charge of the loans because Switzer's bank had failed in 1984. And after several months of demanding payment and not getting any, the FDIC decided to repossess the livestock and machinery. The Switzers, claiming that not all of it belonged to Mr. Switzer, called their lawyer and several neighbors, who began arriving to protest the action. By 4 p.m., the machinery and livestock rem ained unloaded; some two dozen farmers faced the two deputies, now reinforced by six other deputies and eight or nine highway patrolmen.

The mood was rancorous, though not explosive, until Switzer's son, Randall, arrived from town. Angry over the repossession, he was even angrier because, as he remembers it, the FDIC planned to cart off some of his own machinery.

``I went to my pickup and got my rifle out and started to go out and make sure that they didn't run off with any of my stuff,'' he recalls. With his Remington .243 rifle slung over his shoulder, he walked 50 feet, lay the rifle against a utility pole, and continued toward the knot of farmers in full view of the deputies.

``That was tense,'' recalls chief deputy Richard Freeman, who at the time reached for his own .357 Smith & Wesson revolver. ``Anytime you're dealing with two armed parties who are in any type of conflict, there's always a chance for violence.''

Cool heads prevailed that day. A cousin quickly talked the young Switzer into putting the rifle away; deputy Freeman never drew his weapon. There were no arrests. The situation was resolved later that afternoon when a circuit court judge imposed temporary restraining orders on both the FDIC and the Switzers (who have since declared bankruptcy).

Now, two months later, the Switzers and deputy Freeman say they've learned from the experience.

``You don't know what you're going to do until it happens to you,'' says Randall Switzer, bouncing his eight-month-old son in his lap as he sits in his parents' kitchen. ``You can't tell somebody how you'll react. . . . But I wouldn't use a gun [again].''

Says Freeman: ``The thing you learn there is that even the people you know will at times behave in ways that completely surprise you.''

It is during periods of great burden that these unexpected reactions can occur, sociologists and other rural experts say. ``They go into this whole grieving process, but they're not coming out the other end,'' says Bill Heffernan, a rural sociology professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. ``They don't think very well.''

``I hope we can do enough to keep it from happening [to others],'' Mr. McCall says of the Iowa shootings last week. ``What we're trying to do is increase the opportunities for people to be supported.''

A half-dozen support groups will operate this winter in his nine-county area, he says, but 20 to 50 are needed.

Support -- from professionals and communities -- is vital, adds Professor Heffernan. ``They've got to have people who will listen to them.'' His surveys show that many farm families in financial trouble feel betrayed and isolated.

Around north central Missouri, at least, the small examples of cooperation may be a sign that farmers and nonfarmers have begun to recognize the challenges and duties that each one faces.

``Personally, it's harder when you're dealing with people you know and grew up with,'' says Freeman of the incident with Randall Switzer. His duty required him to serve the papers on his father, he adds. But ``I understand what he was doing. He was trying to protect what he thought was legally his.''

``This is the time you need to be closest to your husband,'' says Mrs. Hughes, of the challenges faced within families. ``You can lose your farm -- and that's a tragedy. But if you lose your family, what have you got?''

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