The year was 1985: Madonna was topping the charts; high school angst filled the Big Screen with ‘The Breakfast Club’; and Americans got their first glimpse of mobile phones in the hit TV show, ‘Miami Vice’ . But, it was not all ‘high times’ in rural Iowa. Before the Farm Crisis, Iowa was home to 121,000 family farms. Nearly 20,000 went under when the 80’s ended.
Emmet county farmer, Jim Boyer, remembers it well. His family farm in Minnesota didn’t make it through the Farm Crisis. As a University of Minnesota agronomy student, he was encouraged to change his major to horticulture, and he graduated to a landscaping job in Los Angeles. He remembers the toll that the Farm Crisis took on his town. “On visits home, I noticed the small town stores had closed. We lost banks and so much more. I remember a lot of people left rural Minnesota and Iowa back then, and weren’t able to ever come back,” said Boyer. But, he was lucky. As fate had it, that farm kid work ethic paid off, and he bought the landscaping business, sold it for a profit, and returned. He knew all along that Los Angeles wasn’t for him, and he was ready to settle down. “I got into trucking back home, and was hauling grain products. On the route, I guess you could say I re-met a gal I first knew back when we were kids.” Fate lent a hand, and they fell in love. “When my wife and I got married, we took over her Dad’s hogs, and grew the farm from there,” says Boyer.
Jasper County farmer, Roger Zylstra, remembers the toll that the times took on family and friends. “In 1982, my dad said, “You know, this thing is chewing me up and I just don’t know what to do anymore. I’m going to move off and let you farm; you have more ambition than I do.” My dad was 54 at the time, still young really, so he found a job in town, and I took over the farming operation. Our farm was pretty modest back then, 350 or 400 acres, and we had around 900 pigs and 75 cows.” Zylstra’s family farm survived the Farm Crisis, although it wasn’t easy. “There were weather challenges—one year we had green snap which devastated our corn. There were marketing challenges and changes in commodity prices. It was really difficult. It occurred to me that you have to be better than average to be able to survive what’s going on.” Although Zylstra’s farm has grown, and he now farms with his son, he knew neighbors and friends who didn’t make it.
University of Iowa’s respected football coach at the time, Hayden Fry, a farm kid from Texas, was also troubled by all those shuttered store fronts, broken families and generations of farming, going under. Farmers needed to know that someone was on their side, on their team. So, he came up with a symbol of solidarity with Iowa farmers: a simple yellow ‘ANF’ sticker on football helmets, which stood for America Needs Farmers. When the little ANF sticker debuted on the national stage in the game against Ohio State, it reminded the nation that farmers and farm families are integral to America’s way of life.
Much has changed since 1985, and not just hairstyles, TV shows and cell phones. The growth of technology and innovation have allowed farmers to produce better crops and healthy livestock, while reducing their environmental footprint. Farming practices have changed, but, the men and women who grow our food, have not changed. They still raise their children, save for college and hope they have a reason and a job to come home to, after graduation. The need for farmers, rural Iowa families and food diversity goes on. Yes, ‘America Needs Farmers’, still.
By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Iowa Farm Bureau's Public Relations Manager.
Remembering 1985 and the roots of ANF