Lighter stockings for some farm kids this Christmas

Amy Barron's rural Christmas will be sparser than usual. ``No,'' she says, nibbling on a green Christmas cookie, there won't be many presents this year. ``We don't have enough money.''

The reason, adds the fifth-grader, is the farming. At this farmhouse in Dawn, Mo., finances have taken their toll on Christmas.

``I'll show you a picture from more prosperous times,'' says Mary Barron, pulling a framed photo from the mantle. There are Amy and her year-older brother, Anthony, posed in new Christmas clothes. There are other photos of dolls, sleds, and such.

``Somehow or another, they'll get a toy,'' Mrs. Barron says. So far, though, the only things under the Barron's artificial Christmas tree are a few decorative figurines.

Down the road a few miles, the story is the same. ``I've cut back more this Christmas than I've ever cut back,'' says Marsha Hughes. The gifts will be less expensive.

When her fourth-grade son, David, was told that a $119 item he wanted was too expensive, he went back to the Sears catalog and circled two cheaper toys. On the catalog page he added the prices and right by the $27.88 total, he penned the words ``Forget it.''

Both families say their children have adjusted well to the situation. ``All in all, it's going to be a good Christmas,'' Mrs. Hughes says.

In other regions of the agricultural Midwest, farmers either won't have to cut back or will adjust to material lack in other ways.

``We're still going to have a good Christmas,'' says John Millar, a Kirkwood, Ill., farmer. ``I don't think we're as visibly stressed in this area.''

``We're spending more on [doing] family things than on material things,'' says Bill Landon, a Greenwood, Neb., farmer. ``I keep telling them [the children] to be more thankful for what they have.''

Here in northern Missouri, which has had a string of bad crop years, there are signs that children have been affected by the farm financial crunch.

``That's the tragedy of this whole thing,'' says Marsha Hughes's husband, Doug, whose farm machinery may be repossessed next spring. ``My kids were picking up on this stuff.''

The Hugheses noticed it most in their son David, who misbehaved for several months in school.

``I was on him all the time,'' Mrs. Hughes recalls of the family's pressure-packed autumn. ``He's doing better now.'' Since Mr. Hughes visited the school, the misbehaving has stopped.

Children pick up on the family's financial problems, says Bill Heffernan, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri at Columbia. His surveys of families that have quit farming show that children often become depressed because their parents are depressed.

``Teachers talk about behavioral changes,'' he says. In some areas, he adds, many children come to school without breakfast, and school officials have considered serving lunch earlier to compensate.

Some junior and senior high school children -- boys, especially -- are bitter because they see the loss of the farm as the loss of their future, Professor Heffernan says. ``It is a very significant issue. The attention [to it] is growing.''

The farm situation around Brookfield, Mo., has gone on so long that children are adjusting, says Rev. Jim Fulbright of the Evangelical United Methodist parish.

``I can't paint all the gloom and doom,'' he says of the farm families he knows. ``It's there on a small scale. But . . . they're survivors. And they're going to make it'' if anyone does.

``It'll be a slimmer Christmas for 'em,'' he adds, but ``maybe a closer family celebration than it has ever been before.''

In the past, Marceda Switzer gave each of her grown children a gift; this year she and her husband will draw one name out of the box, just as her children do.

``That isn't what Christmas is all about anyway,'' the Bucklin, Mo., farm wife says. ``Everybody will be home and that's the main thing.''

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