BOONE COUNTY, MO. -- In debt for $1,000 an acre but not plowed under, farmer Roger Allison watches the stock market chaos and wonders why the nation is in shock. ''Farmers were hit in 1980,'' he says, sitting in the office of the Missouri rural crisis center which he directs. ''The current crash was preceded by a depression in the rural areas. Out here we've lost billions' worth of assets -- land and equipment devalued, lost incomes and wasted futures.''
With portfolios now being foreclosed the way farms were, Allison has a credible argument: if the farm economy is allowed to keep rotting, so will the national economy.
Allison, 38, full-chested and the son of a farmer, began raising corn, soybeans and alfalfa on 403 acres of land in this central Missouri county a few years after returning from the Vietnam War in 1968. As a 19-year-old First Battalion Marine, he was wounded on Hill 881 near Khe San in a round of battles that saw a high death toll on both sides.
The violence Allison witnessed in Southeast Asia turned him against military solutions. Back in Missouri, it also helped radicalize him to notice the violence in farming areas when foreclosures led to higher rates of rural suicides, homicides, spouse abuse and depression. Wounded in Vietnam, Allison became a casualty of the economic war at home in Missouri. In 1980 he was arrested when nonviolently blocking a Farmers Home Administration official and a deputy sheriff from carrying out a federal order to remove machinery and livestock from his father's farm to pay delinquent debts. A federal court later ruled that the FmHA had not followed due process.
By then, Allison's own farm, after a year of drought, was threatened by foreclosure. He successfully stayed the FmHA by winning a court case that allowed a deferment on paying his loans. That case led to a larger class-action suit that ordered the government to write new regulations for foreclosures. The government did, and now Allison is fighting again -- both to save his farm and to push Congress to provide credit relief and other emergency help for farmers. Sens. Conrad, Harkin, Daschle and Grassley have introduced the FmHA Reform and Modernization Act, a bill that would require, among other things, an independent appeal process and a requirement that the agency offer debt settlement and write downs.
One problem that Allison fears may be too large for the courts and Congress is a public perception that farmers are making hay again. The bales remain thin, Allison says, at least if conditions in Missouri mean anything. Land values have dropped more than 60 percent since 1980. Missouri has 187,000 acres in foreclosed farmland, which ranks it first. Missouri is second in the number of low-income farmers. It ranks third in topsoil erosion, as well as in the number of counties getting food relief. Between 1981 and 1985, farm bankruptcies increased 300 percent. Missouri had 238 black farmers in 1982, nearly half the number in 1969.
In his office the other afternoon, Allison cited these and other figures. Of late, he has been behind a desk more than a tractor. Two years ago, his center received a $10,000 check from Willie Nelson and Farm Aid. With that money, plus help from the North American Farm Alliance in Ames, Iowa, Allison offers advice and arranges food assistance to about 100 Missouri families a month.
From the window of his center, which is a short haul from the business district of Columbia, Allison often sees farm families walking to the homeless shelter or soup kitchen run by the local Catholic Worker. ''Some of the farmers went to Texas looking for jobs,'' Allison says. ''They found none and now they're back.''
Those who seek out Allison for ideas or comfort find a sophisticated tactician who can quote Joe Hill in one breath -- ''Don't mourn, organize'' -- and explain why he likes Jesse Jackson in the next. Jackson has been to Missouri several times to speak of coalition-building. ''He stands with us,'' Allison says. ''He understands the economic violence we're going through.''
The strength of Roger Allison is his wholeness. He is put together with a love of the land and the political skills to keep a place on it for himself and others. If anyone is listening on Wall Street, Allison's message is that Black Monday was no accident, it was an extension -- of the collapses that shook Boone County eight years back.