THE EMERGENCY meeting of 800 people in Jamestown, North Dakota, begins like all the others: A man stands to pray: “Dear Lord, Let us all remember at this time how difficult it is to tell our neighbors how bad things are. But as we stand here united in a crisis we know that you are there, and you understand it is not our fault. And even though we blame ourselves and say to ourselves, ‘HOw could I, after four generations, lose my family’s farm?’ We know that you know, God, it is beyond our control.” People offer testimonials. A man puts the foreclosure notice for his farm on the blackboard. As he tells how it felt to stand in his farmyard and watch his possessions sold, he bursts into tears. People weep. They stand up and shake their fists. They talk about fighting back, about the need for a moratorium, for higher prices. “If anyone comes on my place I’ll shoot them,” shouts out one farmer. The meeting adjourns. There is no resolution in this atmosphere of anger, frustration and grief. On other nights this week in towns like Hettinger and Larimore, similar gatherings take place. About 600 miles south, in Gove, Kansas, Sheriff Dean Baum manages to auction off the personal property of the Jensen family. Four generations on the land, the Jensens stand quietly on the courthouse steps as their family heirlooms are sold. A grandchild holds up a sign: “Stop farm foreclosures. Don’t sell my grandpa’s farm!” A few days later in Gove, the sheriff prepares to sell off the Jensens’ land. This time, 300 farmers drive into town, blockade the main roads, and angrily gather on the courthouse steps. When Sheriff Baum begins to read the bill of sale, a woman snatches the paper from his hands, and tears it to bits. There are shouts of “No sale! No sale!” The sheriff spooks, and runs inside the James Ridgeway’s chronicles of the Age of Reagan are a regular feature of the Observer. courthouse. The crowd follows. They chase him up the stairs and across the courtroom. He locks the door, then later runs down to try to resume the sale outside. Again there are cries of “No sale! No sale!” The microphone is ripped out of his hands. The attorney for the bank, who made the only bid for the land, is shoved to the ground and roughed up. Across the heartland of America, a vast mobilization is taking place. These long-time friends of Ronald Reagan, many of them conservative Republicans by tradition, are no longer the pathetic figures pictured on TV. They are engaged in a broad populist rebellion. Across the heartland of America, a vast mobilization is taking place. On a trip last month across the Midwest, it seemed to me that just about everyone was on the move, preparing for a demonstration in Iowa, getting ready to go to Washington \(where the entire South Dakota state legislature was foreclosure sale. Former bank loan officers sit huddled over the phones, instructing farmers facing foreclosure about what to do. When a farmer proposes to block an interstate highway at a protest meeting, another rises to ask that everyone pledge themselves to a “people’s moratorium,” a general refusal to pay loans. The crowd leaps to its feet. Everywhere Jessica Lange’s Jewel Ivy is Mother Jones, the inspiration for this movement. In DeceMber, when a handful of citizens in Worthington, Minnesota, called a meeting, 75 people turned up. Another meeting was scheduled, and 500 showed up. A petition demanding a moratorium was circulated. One man brought in 15,000 signatures. A thousand people came to the next meeting. And then, in the freezing cold, there were 17,000 on the steps of the state capitol. And so Groundswell was born. Now it has organizers in every county in Minnesota, and has spread into Wisconsin and South Dakota. “We’re not an organization, we’re a movement,” says Groundswell’s Bobbie Polzine. “We come naturally from the shoe shops and implements stores and feed sheds. On the first of February we had four different actions to stop foreclosures. There were no successful stoppages. Some paper was traded. But that was all. Paper. We were standing in this courthouse and there were one thousand people stuffed in there. And I said, ‘We’ll see a lot of paper traded before this is over. But it’s when they come to occupy the land, to actually take that family from the land, when they’ve got to have that dirt, that insurance company, then I’ll stand in the gate.’ And I asked them who will stand with me, and all thousand people stood up.” EHIND THIS populist revolt lies a real populist villain: the Farm Credit System an immense hidden banking operation with roots in ‘Wall Street that reach far beyond the farms to bondholders in commercial banks, state and local governments, insurance companies, pension funds, and thousands of individuals, including many foreigners, who buy the securities as nest eggs. As the farm crisis worsens, the Farm Credit System has begun to sag beneath the strain, causing even its own officials to grimly speculate about its future. The System consists of three independent banking networks, which in turn are regulated by the Farm Credit Administration, a federal agency. Organized on a regional basis and owned by their farmer-borrowers, these banks provide three basic kinds of loans: long-term mortgages on farm land, offered by the Federal Land Banks; short-term funds to cover the cost of growing and harvesting crops, offered by the Production Credit Associations; and loans for co-ops, made by the Bank for Cooperatives. The System is coordinated by the Farm Credit Administration, which audits it and, in general, is meant to regulate the farm banks, just as the controller of the currency regulates commercial banks. The federal government used the Farm Credit System to rescue farmers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Farm Credit System ranks second only to the U.S. Treasury in the amount of money it borrows on Wall Street: nearly $100 billion a year. The system currently has $82.1 billion in loans outstanding and accounts for the single Against Farm Credit System Populist Rebellion By James Ridgeway 16 APRIL 19, 1985
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