Early autumn shivers the air as a wind blows across the Mississippi River from a bluff on the north side of town. A stronger chill is felt when the afternoon shift at the Deere & Co. factory lets out the workers. As they drive from the massive parking lot of the largest employer in both Dubuque and Iowa, the Deere employees are caught in tension and uncertainty. Some 1,300 out of a labor force of about 6,000 are currently laid off.
In the Deere operation in Waterloo, 4,000 of 13,100 workers no longer have jobs. In Des Moines, it is 230. In Davenport, 120. Though not plowed under, John Deere, the giant farm and construction equipment manufacturer, is harvesting a poor money crop. Earnings last year were $53 million, down from $310 million in 1979.
The hits being taken by Deere and its workers in the past three years are the bleak story behind the bleaker story of America's farm crisis. Bankruptcies and foreclosures are occurring so rapidly in the farm states that the rest of the country has been forced finally to notice. Even then, the immensity of the problem is only vaguely understood beyond the buckle of the farm belt. A recent survey on farm credit predicts that by the end of 1985 10 percent of Iowa's farms will be gone, with 60,000 people displaced.
The presidential candidates have noticed the despair. David Ostendorf of the Des Moines office of Rural America, a service and advocacy group, says that their solutions are not enough: "With regard to the Reagan administration plan or the Mondale plan, regardless of whether we're talking $630 million or $750 million for debt restructuring, it's a paltry amount based against the kind of debt- load in American agriculture today. Nationally, we have over $216 billion in agricultural debt. In Iowa alone, it's over $17 billion. We're going to solve this problem with a meager input of $630 million or $750 million in loans? I don't think there's much way."
The fate of Deere and Iowa is not a remote regional concern. As the faucet gets turned off and the land is dried of human life and community hope, others are feeling the pain. About 1,000 white-collar workers are soon to be cut from the Deere payroll. Farmers in hock buy less from Deere, and Deere needs fewer managers and clerical workers.
While workers weren't looking for jobs or worrying, social services long taken for granted were eliminated by the Reagan administration. A report by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees says $909 million in federal aid has been taken away from Iowa since 1981. Grant-in-aid losses for programs such as food stamps and low-income energy assistance were cut by $552 million.
In Dubuque, Ann Bodnar, an offical in Job Training Partnerhip, a federally funded program, reports that the Deere workers have the best and worst of it: "They have good wages, a strong UAW union and excellent benefits. But employers don't like to hire laid-off Deere workers. If you give them a new job at $6 an hour, the employer's fear is that when and if Deere recalls the workers at $10 an hour, they'll go back."
Some in Dubuque say the town is better off than other Iowa communities dependent on Deere. The factory here produces construction equipment, so its ties to the farm economy are slighter. In addition, this is a self- reliant and generous comunity of large families where the instinct for pulling together is natural. An official in the city manager's office says that despite the layoffs "the spirit is optimistic. It's personally devastating to be laid off, but we have a few projects under way." He speaks of a dog-racing track that is expected to employ 200 people. What this seasonal work will do for city pride isn't known. Making money from gambling is bad enough, but there is also the symbolism of going to the dogs to do it.
Iowa' s farms may be vanishing as its debts increase, but the state has a number of voices that have not gone silent. Ostendorf believes the disaster spreading from farmers to white-collar workers will go farther: "the farm crisis of the '80s could be the food crisis of the '90s. As farm ownership continues to be concentrated in fewer hands, this means they have that much more control of the marketplace."
This theme has long been articulated by Iowa's most tireless advocate for farmers and the rural economy, Maurice Dingman, the Catholic bishop of Des Moines. This 70-year-old son of a southeast Iowa farmer said recently that "a widespread ownership of property is the chief ingredient of a democracy. And yet we're drifting to a situation where 14 corporations might own all the land in the United States."
Dingman has called for limits on corporate agriculture, fairer prices for farmers and a selective moratorium on foreclosures. Others have proposed these reforms. Dingman goes farther by calling them moral obligations. This is what the farmers have known all along.