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Mona Lee Brock, ‘angel’ who counseled struggling farmers through crisis, dies at 87

Mona Lee Brock with Willie Nelson. She spoke to tens of thousands of farmers on an emergency counseling hotline for farmers. (Family photo)

In 1985, Mona Lee Brock and her husband lost their farm in Oklahoma. A combination of factors — low prices for cattle and grain, high interest rates on loans, falling land values — led to the most serious financial crisis in rural America since the Great Depression.

At one point in the 1980s, the country was losing more than 2,000 family farms a week, from California to Minnesota to the Carolinas. Loans that kept farmers afloat were foreclosed, costing them their land, their livelihood and their way of life.

In many cases, farmers were uprooted from land that generations of their forefathers had tilled. They looked on as their livestock and farm equipment were auctioned off.

Mrs. Brock and her husband, F.M. Brock, held meetings of farmers, bankers and business leaders at their farm in Lincoln County, Okla., for mutual support. In the end, however, the Brocks were not able to hold on to their land, where they had raised cattle and grown wheat, soybeans and cotton. Within a year, F.M. Brock died of a heart attack.

One unforeseen consequence of what became known as the “farm crisis” was that farmers began to take their own lives at a shocking rate. Mrs. Brock began to volunteer for the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, which operated a hotline for emergency counseling and suicide prevention. (It was later managed by other organizations.)

A longtime teacher and school principal, Mrs. Brock offered a sympathetic ear and a soothing, understanding presence to people who raised food to feed the world but could not afford to feed their own families. In some of the calls, she could hear despondent farmers putting shells into shotguns as they talked.

During her three decades as an advocate on behalf of farmers, Mrs. Brock spoke to tens of thousands of farmers, taking calls day and night. She was credited with keeping hundreds of farms from being liquidated and with saving an untold number of lives.

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Singer Willie Nelson — a founder of Farm Aid, which provides assistance to struggling small farmers — called her “the angel on the other end of the line.”

Mrs. Brock was 87 when she died March 19 at her home in Durant, Okla. She had congestive heart failure, said her son Ron Brock.

Farmers are traditionally raised to be stoic and self-reliant. Problems are kept private. In many rural areas, counseling services are not available, and there is frequently a stigma about seeking help for emotional or financial difficulties.

It was a culture that Mrs. Brock, who spent most of her life on farms in Oklahoma, understood from the ground up.

“Farming you don’t learn from the books,” she told the Oklahoman newspaper in 1988. “It’s not taught to you by a professor in a college. It’s taught by sitting in your father’s lap on a tractor. Or between your mother and father in a field. It’s from birth up and it’s a part of you.”

Over the years, as farmers’ expenses kept rising, the prices they received for their goods remained flat. In the 1980s, a bushel of wheat sold for the same amount as in 1919 — not adjusted for inflation, but in real dollars.

By the time farmers reached Mrs. Brock and a handful of other informal counselors on the phone, they were desperate.

“You can imagine the humiliation and the shame and the guilt and the denial,” Mrs. Brock said in 1988. “When they phone in, the one thing that I impose upon them is the fact that they aren’t failures. They have not failed.”

Mrs. Brock called her work her “ministry.” She helped establish local networks of counselors, religious leaders, lawyers and financial managers to offer pro bono help to farmers. With the establishment of Farm Aid in 1985, Mrs. Brock was soon receiving calls from all over the country, not just from Oklahoma.

“Mona Lee was the prow on the ship of advocates taking farmers’ calls,” Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid’s executive director, said in an interview. “She had an enormous capacity to handle the most extreme and horrific moments. She had a calmness that made people think they were being listened to. She saved a lot of farms.”

There were many times, though, when the calls came too late.

A 40-year-old Oklahoma farmer killed his wife and children and burned down the family house before killing himself. Police found a diary, where he had written, over and over, the word “responsible.”

One farmer found his wife’s body on a burning trash heap. She had been a childhood friend of Mrs. Brock’s.

"She was the living example of farm women, independent, staunch and upright," Mrs. Brock said in 1986. "She was a lovely, strong lady. But in the end the trauma of their financial problems was too much and her strength failed her."

On other occasions, Mrs. Brock was the first person to discover farmers slumped beside their trucks, under trees or behind their barns, with a gun nearby.

“She had tremendous courage,” Mugar said. “I would call her any time of the day or night, and often she would drive right to that person’s house, or she would get someone to drive her, so she could keep talking to the person.”

Statistics on suicide among farmers are hard to confirm, but from 1985 to 1988, Mrs. Brock counted 200 in Oklahoma alone. More than 400 farmers in Iowa were believed to have died by suicide in the 1980s, and an estimated 900 more took their lives in other states in the upper Midwest. According to published reports, nearly 100 farm children also died by suicide from 1980 to 1988.

“Mom was on the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Ron Brock said in “Homeplace Under Fire,” a 2015 documentary about the farm crisis. “She’d hang the phone up, put her face to her hands and just start crying. Lost another one, you know.”

Mona Lee Bruster was born Jan. 1, 1932, to a farm family in Madill, Okla.

She graduated in 1964 from what is now Southeastern Oklahoma State University and received a master’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma in 1967. She was a teacher and principal for many years in Moore, outside Oklahoma City.

Her husband died in 1986. A son, Gary Brock, died in 2003. In addition to her son Ron Brock, of Caddo, Okla., survivors include a sister, two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Brock became a friend of Nelson, who has helped raise more than $50 million for family farmers through Farm Aid.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Mrs. Brock said in 1992, “there’s only two kinds of heroes — farmers and Willie Nelson.”

Farm Aid now provides a hotline service for farmers, and Mrs. Brock continued to take calls well into her 80s. Farm Aid also provides support services and an emergency fund for farmers.

Conditions in rural America improved after the 1980s, but Mugar, Farm Aid’s executive director, said family farms are still disappearing in every part of the country. Suicide has again become a serious issue among farmers.

“Unfortunately, the situation in the countryside now is worse than in the mid-’80s,” she said.

After many years, Mrs. Brock’s family was able to reacquire the land that had been lost in the 1980s. She retired to southern Oklahoma, about 25 miles from her childhood home.

“To make a community go, we depend on each other,” Mrs. Brock said in “Homeplace Under Fire.” “We have to have each other, and unless you listen and help us, we’ll all go down.”

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