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

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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.

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``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?''