Shared Experiences

Farming Takes Center Stage

By Jerret Barker

The 1980s were a defining period for the United States agriculture industry. A combination of dire events would cause farms to encounter the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Midwestern small-town life was forever changed as the region lost banks, stores, and schools. While the Midwest struggled as a whole during the Farm Crisis, states in the Upper Midwest--Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota--were devastated. In 1985, the Los Angeles Times dubbed farm policy one of the "toughest issues confronting Congress." Farm Aid started the same year to provide assistance to Midwestern farmers.

The 1970s were a period of prosperity for farmers. Post-WWII machinery 

advancements had continued to make farming more efficient.

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Photo by Paul Natkin.​

In 1972, the United States made an agreement with the Soviet Union to export American grain. This opened a large market to Midwestern farmers. Production soared. In fact, in 1972, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously stated, “go big or get out.” Many Midwestern farmers took Butz’s advice. Low interest rates allowed farmers to buy land and equipment to expand their farming operations. With the market becoming more profitable, land prices soared. Between 1969 and 1978, the value of farmland increased 73 percent.

These good times would not last into the 1980s. In an effort to curb rising inflation, interest rates were increased. Overproduction of agriculture and livestock caused prices to fall. A retaliatory grain embargo was placed on the Soviet Union after their invasion of Afghanistan. Prices collapsed. Property values plunged and the loans that helped expand farms were due. 

This combination of events crippled the American farmer. In Iowa, a quarter of the farms disappeared. The value of farmland in Minnesota decreased by 40 percent. Farms owned for generations were forced to sell or be foreclosed. The number of suicides among male farmers in the Upper Midwest reached double the national average, according to a study by the National Farm Medicine Center. By 1984 farm debt had reached $215 billion, double the amount in 1978. To make matters worse, droughts across the region in the later ‘80s stressed financial situations even worse. Farmers were in trouble. 

Largely ignored in Washington D.C. and with little media attention, farmers struggled to gain awareness for their problems. Farmers would become known on a national level during 1985’s Farm Aid.

Farm Aid actually has its roots in another 1985 benefit concert, Live Aid. Live Aid was a music-oriented fundraising event for famine relief in Ethiopia. While on stage, Bob Dylan said “I hope that some of the money that's raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it, maybe one or two million, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms." Bob Geldof, Live Aid’s organizer, called Dylan’s comments “crass, stupid, and nationalistic.” However, other performers agreed with Dylan.

 

Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and John Mellencamp organized Farm Aid to bring awareness and assistance to struggling American farmers. Farm Aid was organized in six weeks and took place at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois on a rainy September 22 day in 1985. Dozens of performers, without pay, took the stage to support Midwestern farmers. The list of performers included Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, The Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Charley Pride, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bon Jovi, John Denver, Foreigner, Merle Haggard, Billy Joel, Carole King, Huey Lewis, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. 80,000 rain-soaked people were in attendance. Some performers chose songs that were salient to farming struggles. Neil Young’s “This Old House” describes a farmer’s dreams being taken away by businessmen and the bank. John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” is an anthem to a community’s lost farms. John Conlee took the stage to sing about a farmer that cannot pay his bills in “Busted.” Bob Dylan sang “Maggie’s Farm.” George Jones changed the words of “Tennessee Whiskey” to include Champaign, Illinois. Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” took on a new meaning for the agricultural audience. Perhaps the feeling of hopelessness was captured best by Kris Kristofferson’s “Shipwrecked in the ‘80s.”

The 14-hour concert and telethon raised $9 million for relief, including a farming hot line service, counseling, and assistance for struggling farmers. "If nothing else,” John Mellencamp stated, “forget the money. We are here for awareness." Rhonda Perry, owner of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Patchwork Family Farms, remarked “the concert was one of those moments where farmers walked in and had this feeling of elation and you just almost wanted to cry. It made us at least know that people are watching." Over thirty years later, Farm Aid continues to hold annual concerts to support independent family farms. In the years since the original, concerts have been held all over the Midwest, with dates in Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. Dave Mathews joined Young, Nelson, and Mellencamp on the Farm Aid Board of Directors in 2001, and Margo Price was added in 2021.

Explore more about Farm Aid:

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Photo by David Peterson

Industry to Artistry

By Becca Clanton & Sarah Morrow

Deindustrialization in the Midwest brought with it abandoned buildings and a sense of decline that can be found in communities all over the region. It is within these post-industrial communities that artists are coming together to breathe life back into these blighted and disused spaces. Cincinnati’s ArtWorks Mural Program is an award-winning Greater Cincinnati-area nonprofit that seeks to do this very same thing. Launched in 2007, ArtWorks’ mission is to create murals in each of its fifty-two neighborhoods. Working closely together with both communities and businesses they take underappreciated spaces and transform them into gathering spots that revitalize the community. 

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This program employs hundreds of professional artists and youth apprentices, providing them with valuable real-world career preparation. The give and take that occurs between Artworks staff and community leaders creates many opportunities for design input and feedback as well as a chance for the youth apprentices (who often range from 14-21 years of age) to practice their public speaking skills. In its twenty-five years of operation the teams at ArtWorks have completed more than 200 lifelong outdoor murals. Through their many years of hard work, they have brought neighbors together and allowed communities to collaborate and plan the story their murals would tell. 

All over the Midwest, teams similar to ArtWorks are coming together to reclaim their communities. Here in Muncie, a collaborative project from “We’re Trying Collective” worked to transform an empty space into something meaningful and astonishing.  Located at 306 S. Walnut Street the collective worked with the community to create a beautiful mural in a once desolate space. Following the tragedy that occurred at the Orlando Pulse Nightclub, this mural was created to illustrate both the city’s acceptance and support of people from all backgrounds. 

Additionally, in downtown Rensselaer, Indiana the Rensselaer Art Walk was created. Artists from all over the country came leave their mark on this city. The Art Walk is a collection of twenty-seven murals painted by established artists like PAWN and Ricky Watts to locals like Trenton Musch. The Art Walk brings the community together, creating new gathering spots and hosting memories to last a lifetime.

In the heart of downtown Muncie, Indiana, stands a building that has been reclaimed by the community. The former CINTAS warehouse is now known as Madjax, a place where makers of many different crafts work alongside each other. The makerspace holds many different creators, from a book press and printmaking shop to individuals who create pottery, art, woodworking, and even a taxidermist. Watch this documentary about Madjax, created by students in Dr. Laura Romano's Virginia Ball Center Immersive course. 

Made in the Midwest

The Midwest is full of stories highlighting the experiences of hardworking and innovative people in agriculture and manufacturing. 

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Langdons and draft horses, image courtesy of Matt Langdon

Langdon Brothers Seed Company has deep roots in Hartford City, Indiana. The original eighty-acre farm was purchased by George Washington Langdon when he came home from the Civil War. His son Rolvin inherited the farm and specialized in training Belgian draft horses for pulling farm equipment. Rolvin’s son Bob was a senior in high school when, in 1936, he planted the first hybrid seed corn and raised it for use on their farm. When his brother Ted got out of the army, the brothers joined forces to create Langdon Brothers Seed Company, which sells agricultural seed (seed corn, seed soybeans, wheat, oats, alfafas, etc.) Today, Bob and Ted’s sons continue to employ members of the Langdon family. Ted’s grandson Matt Langdon says of companies like his, “These are still family farms, whether it’s a father and son or a father and employee, it’s still looked at as a family. Even as farms have gotten bigger, we’re still tied to the land. In the Midwest the farmer lives in the middle of his work and we take care of the land because that’s where we’re raising our families and future generations.”

In 1979, Brian Jennerjahn built his first paper slitter-rewinder machine in a rented machine shop inside a tomato canning factory. Today, Jennerjahn Machine, located in Matthews, Indiana, employs forty-eight people and has machines in twenty-one countries. Formerly an engineer in 3M’s carbonless paper plant, Brian was motivated to start his own company by his fascination with machines. His son Chris Jennerjahn says, “My dad loved tinkering. I don’t think he started Jennerjahn Machine to make a ton of money, but moreso to be fulfilled. And maybe that’s true of a lot of successful entrepreneurs. He liked working with machines and liked the idea of making them better.” In the early days, Brian and his wife Ruth ran the company out of their garage. The company’s breakout moment came in 1984 when it sold its first machine to National Cash Register, which was the largest supplier of cash register rolls in the country. Brian’s son, Chris, came on board as a mechanical engineer in 1993 and ultimately took over as president. Chris and his wife Kristie bought the company in 2011. Chris says, “When I reflect on the growth of the company, what I am most grateful for is the talent and work ethic of the people we’ve had over the years. I think there is a Midwestern work ethic that has made us successful.”
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Jennerjahn early days, image courtesy of Chris Jennerjahn