Rising from the lush corn and soybean fields like a row of gravestones, the unbroken line of boarded-up stores along the main street of this farming hamlet came as no surprise to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) as he arrived here for one of his "listening post" meetings at the town hall.
He has seen them all over his once-prosperous state: haunting reminders of the economic forces that have driven thousands of farmers off the land of their fathers and grandfathers over the past few years.
Many farmers are carrying steep debts at high interest rates. Prices for their products are low and the high value of the dollar makes it difficult to sell abroad. Some land has lost two-thirds of its value in the last several years; credit is scarce. Many farmers have been forced to sell out; others are hanging on.
The day Grassley came to town, storms threatened and a couple tornadoes skittered nearby, but more than 50 townsfolk and farmers, some straight off the tractor in mud-caked boots, trudged into the town hall for what amounted to survival shoptalk, including stubborn if slim hopes for new credit-bailout plans.
So intense was the concern for survival that little was mentioned except issues that directly affect Iowa agriculture. There was some talk of defense spending, which the farmers and those who serve their needs see as a major contributor to the federal budget deficits that they believe are driving up their interest costs and impeding their foreign sales. Those whom Grassley encountered in northwest Iowa, including conservative Republicans, were for deep, drastic cuts that even liberal Democrats in Washington would hesitate to suggest.
Grassley, who has taken on the Pentagon with bulldog tenacity and pushed for big cuts in the military budget, has "99 percent support on that issue," said Pat Forrestal, a Democrat and Ida County Realtor.
But even Grassley has not gone far enough for some. After the senator noted proudly that it was his amendment that knocked $17 billion off defense spending for next year, a farmer asked him acerbically, "Why not $117 billion?"
But deficits -- both the $200 billion budget deficit and the $150 billion trade deficit -- are what is uppermost in the minds of Iowa farmers. They have no trouble drawing a connection between deficits and interest rates, the overpriced dollar and other problems that plague their farms. "The deficit out there, it's killing us," said Robert Rogers, a farmer from Sergeant Bluff.
Many who spoke with Grassley say they would go along with tax increases, if necessary, to make a real dent in the budget. Some also say they would accept a significant shrinkage of farm subsidies, although they often hedge by saying now is not the time for such action.
Tax reform is hardly mentioned at town-hall meetings, except in relation to specific provisions that cause concern. "Even the White House knows the steam has gone out of it," said Grassley. "People care, they're interested, but they have more pressing problems," said Forrestal.
In Early as elsewhere in Iowa, there is a strong sense that no one in Washington knows or cares much about the Farm Belt's problems. "How many people there know what's going on here?" Grassley was asked. "Probably more than you think, but not enough," he said.