Remembering Ambassador Branstad’s Legacy from the 1980s Farm Crisis in Iowa
A morning talk-show host on WHO Radio in Des Moines posed an interesting question when former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to China on May 22, 2017. The broadcaster asked what might define Branstad’s enduring legacy, and he suggested it may be Branstad’s service during the 1980s Farm Crisis.
The more I thought about it, the more I agreed. I was just a kid in the 1980s Farm Crisis and didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew it was bad. I remembering writing a poem about the Farm Crisis in 7th grade in 1987 for my contribution for a time capsule that was buried in Lake City.
Sheltered as I was from my family’s financial realities, I had no idea my dad only made $800 one year during the peak of the Farm Crisis. Still, that was far better than what some other farmers were experiencing. As one farmer told me during a recent interview about his family’s Century Farm, the thing he dreaded the most during the Farm Crisis was the phone ringing. “You never knew who it might be or what bad news it might be,” he said.
The Farm Crisis was just starting its brutal transformation of Iowa agriculture when Terry Branstad was first elected governor of Iowa in 1982. This new era was a far cry from the heady go-go days of the 1970s, when agriculture was booming, and making good money in farming was not only possible, but almost easy.
Farmers were hurting
By the early 1980s, however, a combination of national and international factors, including a Federal Reserve Board policy of high interest rates to fight inflation and a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, devastated the farm economy. Crop prices to dropped below the cost of production. Land values plummeted. Countless rural Iowa banks closed.
“All of us who lived in Iowa at the time saw friends and neighbors lose their family farms and struggle with what to do next to earn a living,” said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who recalled the Farm Crisis in a 2015 press release he issued about Branstad becoming the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history.
By the time Branstad took office as governor, individual farmers across the state were hurting. No one really wanted to believe it was as bad as it was, but agriculture was in serious trouble.
In early December 1985, an eastern farmer who was apparently distraught over his finances killed the president of his bank, his neighbor and his own wife before he killed himself. Dale Burr, 63, who farmed near Lone Tree, made national headlines after he walked into the Hills Bank and Trust Company and shot its president, John Hughes, with a 12-gauge shotgun.
With farmers in desperate need of help, the Iowa governor’s office created the Rural Concern Hotline to provide assistance where possible. The state tried to help producers with debt restructuring as much as it could.
As the Farm Crisis deepened by the mid-1980s, however, one of the biggest frustrations was the seeming indifference from officials in Washington, D.C. “President Reagan was very supportive and sympathetic,” Branstad recalled in an Iowa Public Television documentary about the Farm Crisis. “Unfortunately, David Stockman, who worked for him and who was the director of the Office of Management and Budget, was pretty cavalier in his attitude. Considering all the stress and challenges we were going through in Iowa, we didn’t just take no for an answer.”
Hollywood goes to Congress, Branstad creates a new environment for business
Even Hollywood took note. Two popular films, Country and The River, drew the eyes of America to the plight of the nation’s farm families. Soon, Hollywood stars like Jessica Lange were testifying before Congress about the Farm Crisis.
Far from Congress and Hollywood, however, Branstad relied on his small-town and farm background to lead Iowa through the Farm Crisis.
“The state needed men and women with vision and ambition to pull the economy out of the doldrums,” Grassley noted. “It needed people who could see the potential for farmers to add value to their operations and for Iowa to diversify its economy. Terry Branstad was one of those people.”
Branstad was at the forefront of creating a new environment to do business. He welcomed and actively encouraged innovation that would capitalize on Iowa’s bedrock work ethic and strong schools. As a result, agriculture continues to be a mainstay of the Iowa economy while providing the economic engine that benefits many other employment sectors, including renewable energy, manufacturing, crop research and much more.
Ironically, some of Branstad’s actions in the Farm Crisis didn’t seem that significant at the time but would benefit agriculture decades in the future. In 1985, while still in his first term as governor, Branstad welcomed Xi Jinping, who was then a Communist party official and feed cooperative director from Hebei Province. Xi Jinping, who is now the president of China, spent several days in Muscatine in 1985 leading a delegation of Chinese government officials who saw Iowa agriculture first-hand and became acquainted with Iowa farm families.
That visit 32 years ago forged an unlikely bond between China and rural Iowa that endures today. I believe this bodes well for rural Iowa and our role in the global economy as Branstad serves as America’s ambassador to China.
It’s also a large feather in the cap of an Iowa farm kid from Leland, population 284, whose legacy as Iowa’s governor and ambassador to China can’t be told accurately without looking back to those painful, pivotal days of the 1980s Farm Crisis.
Thanks for stopping by. I invite you to read more of my blog posts if you want more more intriguing Iowa stories and history, along with Iowa food, recipes and tips to make you a better communicator. If you like what you see and want to be notified when I post new stories, be sure to click on the “subscribe to blog updates/newsletter” button at the top of this page. Feel free to share this information with friends and colleagues who might be interested, too.
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P.S. Thanks for joining me. I’m glad you’re here.
@Copyright 2017 Darcy Maulsby & Co.
Some people know me as Darcy Dougherty Maulsby, while others call me Yettergirl. I grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and am proud to call Calhoun County, Iowa, home. I’m an author, writer, marketer, business owner and entrepreneur who specializes in agriculture. Learn more at www.darcymaulsby.com.
This column first appeared in Farm News in June 2017.
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Thanks for sharing a very serious time in Iowa and what helped to shift that crisis.
Thanks so much, Marcia. It’s so important to know ag history in a state like Iowa to understand the present.