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

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 1985



Bucklin, Mo.

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.

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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.''

``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.