Hotline from farm state rings off the hook

Eva Melius says of the South Dakota town of Faulkton, population 980: ``This is where we want to be -- living in a small community where everybody knows everybody.'' But Eva, her husband, Ronald, and their three children are holding on by their fingernails to their rural life. Their credit association called in a loan, and they had to cut their operation in half. After 22 years of farming, Mr. Melius, the son of a farmer, is looking for another job.

That story, with varying details, is repeated many times over the telephone to Lee Edel, an assistant to Rep. Thomas A. Daschle (D) of South Dakota. Working at a desk stacked with piles of yellow telephone message slips and letters, she spends her day trying to comfort troubled constituents.

The toll-free number used to receive about 750 calls a month, she says. Now its up to about 1,100, and nearly all the calls are from farmers.

Some of the calls are ominous. A few days ago an elderly man phoned, saying that his farm was scheduled to be foreclosed upon within the week. ``He said the sheriff would not leave the property alive,'' recalls Mrs. Edel, who warned South Dakota officials.

The state officials said they identified the farmer and prepared for possible violence. That foreclosure has since been delayed, but the threat points to the growing tenseness in the agricultural community.

Not every farmer is facing ruin. One called Mr. Daschle's office last week to complain about bailouts for failing farmers. ``I've talked to some who've made it,'' Edel says. ``They sell off one-fourth of their land or machinery. They will call about neighbors.''

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