Churches to help farmers

NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) — As farmers head to banks to arrange loans for spring planting, some will be turned down following losses during last season's drought. Some will become depressed again and will need help. Farmer Richard Jameson has been there, and he knows.

As week after week went by last summer without any rain, Jameson saw his crops wither and felt his spirits decline. He sank into a depression that was exacerbated by the death of his father and a close friend's serious illness.

''I was at the bottom of the barrel. And one of the keys for me was our minister,'' he says, adding that medication and support from his family and doctor also helped.

Now he wants to make sure other farmers who are depressed as they try to scrape together money for seed and fertilizer have a place to turn for help.

With the help of the Methodist Conference Program for Ministries, Jameson and his minister, the Rev. Stan Waldon of Brownsville First Methodist, have assembled three meetings with pastors from churches in western Tennessee and Kentucky. The idea was to alert pastors to the seriousness of the drought and give them ideas for providing pastoral care to farmers.

''We try to instill hope, try to help them recognize that the problems are not the fault of poor farming,'' Waldon said.

They invited farmers, bankers, mental health professionals and agriculture specialists to educate the ministers about how the drought and failing crops could hurt families and communities.

''There's not really much that we can do as pastors to put money in their pocket,'' Waldon said. ''What we're trying to do is say the church is here.''

Similar efforts have been organized in other states where farmers are in crisis.

''Farmers were feeling they had failed to do their work properly. ... They were really hurting,'' said the Rev. Gene Handwerk, a Lutheran pastor who coordinated efforts to reach out to farm families in Pennsylvania.

Handwerk, a staff member for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod near Allentown, Pa., and a partner in a family farm, helped get hay donated by Nebraska and Wisconsin farmers to drought-stricken Pennsylvania farmers.

The synod also ran a series of workshops for farmers about how to deal with crisis and gave pastors and rural congregations specific suggestions on how to reach out to farm families.

''We've gotten quite a bit of both verbal and written feedback that people have finally listened to their plight. ... It's been a spiritual lift to farmers who have been open to it,'' Handwerk said.

He sees worse times coming.

''It's going to be like the aftershock of an earthquake when farmers need to come up with money for seed and fertilizer. I don't know that banks are going to be very liberal,'' he said.

Sandra A. LaBlanc agreed. She is director of Rural Ministry Resouces and Networking for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Des Moines, Iowa.

''A freight train is coming down the pike and it's going to hit in March,'' said LaBlanc, who is developing a national program for clergy awareness of the farm crisis. ''What I've been told is that March is when operating loans to farmers will be refused.''

The Catholic-Lutheran Rural Life Commission of Northwest Minnesota developed an outreach program after a flood in 1993, said the Rev. Milo Mathison, a retired Lutheran pastor in Mentor, Minn., and vice chairman of the commission which serves the northwest corner of Minnesota. The outreach arm was eventually incorporated and receives federal funding.

''We have pockets of the state now that after years of crop losses may lose 30 percent of the farmers,'' he said. That's despite good crops last summer. ''The crops were decent, but the prices were low,'' he said.

Outreach workers help farmers plan an orderly transition out of agriculture, with job training and direct assistance for such things as utility bills, child care and counseling.

The commission runs workshops for ministers and priests on depression so they can spot farmers who need help.

''Farmers tend to be rather quiet and reserved. ... A lot of the pain is hidden,'' Mathison said.

In Tennessee, the drought began early last summer and stretched into the fall. West Tennessee, where farmers mainly grow cotton and soybeans, was hit hardest.

''There are places that went 60 to 80 days without rain,'' said Gene Danekas, state statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When rain arrived, it was too late.

''It's not just poor quantity of harvest, it's poor quality,'' Danekas said.

Some agriculture officials estimate the drought will force up to 10 percent of the state's farmers to quit the business, he said.

At one of the Tennessee meetings, farmer Sidney Talley Jr. of Ripley, about 50 miles northeast of Memphis, told the ministers that he had considered killing himself.

''I figured I was worth more to my family dead than alive,'' Talley said.

, explaining his family could have sold the farm and collected insurance money.

He sought counseling and said it helped, but what really helped was switching to organic farming. ''I did pretty well with that and I'm working on places to sell it,'' Talley said.

The outreach program has been word of mouth, with no formal referral service or hotline. Mike Campbell, director of health and welfare ministries for the Methodist Hospital System, said farmers say they just need a place to turn to for help.

''They are asking for a sense of personal support,'' Campbell said.

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