There's a fire burning out here on the prairie, the fire of a farm economy in deep trouble, but one would never know it for all the outward tranquility.
From Omaha to South Dakota and then as far west as you want to go, the images repeat and sedate. Grain elevators tower over the hamlets. Snow-driven arabesques paint the corn stubble. Corrugated steel bins on the farms hold the harvest. Pink hogs root in cold barnyards. Windmills watch over fat cattle in the bleak fields, a yellow school bus, a battered pickup.
But when you come to the old hotel in Walthill and go up to the second-story offices where Judy Dye holds forth, the smell of the prairie fire becomes pervasive.
"Have you ever sat down, Tom, and worked out just what you want to happen?" she is saying to the farmer at the other end of the line. "Okay . . . let's get you some immediate help -- the heck with Legal Aid . . . . I would definitely see a bankruptcy attorney. Yes, it's like going to a specialist in medicine.
"Get all the tools on your side that you can," she continues.
Every day is like this for Dye, an amazingly cheerful woman for all the human travail that comes her way by telephone. Having been through a farm foreclosure herself, she knows the emotion and distress that drive farmers all over Nebraska to call her.
Farm crisis hot lines, now set up in at least 10 states, are a phenomenon of the economic distress in agriculture. The hot lines, funded through churches, rural advocacy groups, contributions and even some public money, are part of a new network that is showing farmers where they can turn for help, if there is any hope of help.
The Nebraska hot line was started last October and Dye has had no rest since. She gives advice to callers when she can, but more often than not she refers them to one of 10 field staff members who can make house calls, as it were, and counsel farmers on their economic problems.
"The callers are getting more desperate, because their notes are coming due," she said the other day.
"The rural banks seem to be our prime problem. What we're hearing now is that they're really tightening up, even on farmers who aren't overdue, and leaving them no money to pay all their local bills. That is what is going to bring so many of them down." Not all of this involves money, however. As Dye explained, the trauma of losing a farm that has been in a family for generations is making flinders of rural strength. The results are estranged children, marital breakup, alcohol and physical abuse, depression of the spirit, hopelessness.
"I see a real correlation between the breakup of the farm and the breakup of the marriage. Believe me, I've been there," she said. "There is the plight of women who call, wanting to address the emotional problems. They are concerned about what happens to the fabric of the family.
"We find that quite often the man gets in a quandary over the problem. He becomes immobilized. The woman assumes a role she's never had before and she becomes very angry at the husband, angry that she is the one who is carrying on because he can't."
The farm crisis hot lines, wherever they are, produce messages and complaints that sound like broken records. Over in Iowa, at Rural America's Des Moines office that houses the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, an eavesdropper got a taste of the calls.
It was late in the evening and Dan Levitas, a Rural America staff member who manned the Iowa hot line when it opened more than two years ago, responded to the ring. A farmer, tentative and afraid, was calling (at his own expense) to see what could be done to combat pressure from his Production Credit Association, which was ordering him to sell out.
Levitas heard him out and treated him softly and kindly. The farmer's wife came on the line to write down the names of lawyers and farmer-counselers. She wrote down what Levitas told them about the PCA's apparent abuse of its rules. "We're getting a lot of these PCA calls," Levitas told the family. "They want to make you feel that this is your fault. It isn't your fault, and there are a number of things you can do to deal with this."
The family thanked Levitas, who sighed deeply and shrugged after he hung up. "That was fairly typical," he said, "but each call has a mix of emotional distress and information need. Of course, we also get calls involving very serious emotional stress, the threat of suicide or family trouble. We just learned the other day that, in three counties of southwest Iowa, suicides are up 38 percent."
"This whole thing is blowing families apart," he said, "and who knows when it will end."