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Farm Crisis, 1979–1987

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Foreclosure auction poster

Poster announcing the foreclosure of family farms, ca. 1984.

Minnesota’s farmers enjoyed an economic boom in the 1970s. Land values soared, United States exports of agricultural products grew, and farmers gained access to easy credit to expand their operations. When the 1980s brought a sharp decline in exports and land values, rising production costs, and higher interest rates on loans, many farmers found themselves in serious financial trouble. The farm crisis of the 1980s caused many farm foreclosures and bankruptcies—the worst economic conditions the agricultural sector had seen since the Great Depression.

Several factors contributed to the farm crisis of the 1980s. Minnesota’s net farm income rose to nearly $2.25 billion in 1973, a more than 130 percent increase over the previous year. Land values in Minnesota grew nearly 30 percent from $898 per acre in 1978 to $1,165 by 1982, making many farmers millionaires on paper. A weak US dollar, combined with severe drought conditions around the world, caused a large increase in US exports of agricultural products. The federal government encouraged farmers to increase production to meet the demand.

Expecting the booming economy to continue, farmers flocked to banks to accept offers of easy credit to buy more land and equipment. As a result, many found themselves overextended when the economy went into recession at the end of the decade.

In the early 1980s, exports flagged due to a strengthening US dollar, recovering agriculture abroad, and a grain embargo imposed against the Soviet Union. Land values and prices for farm products fell, while production costs continued to rise. The average value of farmland per acre in Minnesota fell nearly 40 percent from $1,165 in 1982 to $700 in 1987. Jackson County farmers experienced the sharpest decrease in land values in Minnesota during this period, with prices falling nearly 54 percent, from $1,991 to $921 per acre. The average value of machinery and equipment on all Minnesota farms increased nearly 25 percent from 1978 to 1982. Farmers also faced increasing fuel, fertilizer, and other input costs.

By 1984, Minnesota farms carried nearly $12 billion in debt. Interest payments added another $1.5 billion. By 1987, Commodity Credit Corporation loans alone totaled more than $810 million.

Prices for commodities and net farm income fell as farmers received a smaller percentage of what consumers paid for their products. Minnesota’s total net farm income fell 58 percent, from just over $1.2 billion in 1981 to less than $500 million in 1983. By 1986, in spite of government programs providing price supports and income subsidies, farm prices had fallen to just 51 percent of parity (the purchasing power of a commodity compared to its purchasing power during America's "Golden Age" of agriculture, 1909–1914). It was the lowest percentage since the Great Depression. In an attempt to offset bad debt, some lenders raised interest rates by more than 20 percent by 1982. Farmers’ lower net incomes couldn’t keep pace with the rising cost of debt repayment, causing many to fail.

Government subsidies to farmers helped somewhat to offset losses in net income. In 1987 nearly 49,000 Minnesota farms received payments totaling $712.8 million. Government payments increasingly depended on compliance with new conservation measures for farmland use.

Some farmers resorted to selling off land or machinery to pay down the principal so the lender would extend the loan or lower the interest rate. Selling assets, however, could impact neighboring farms by lowering adjacent land values. Even with these options, thousands of farmers defaulted on their loans and faced bankruptcy or foreclosure.

By 1982, 49 percent of the 11,000 farmers in Minnesota with Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) loans were in delinquency, and more than 300 farms faced foreclosure. In 1983, in response to high unemployment and the poor farm economy, the state legislature passed a moratorium on mortgage foreclosure and contracts for deed termination similar to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, then extended it in 1984. The law required sixty days’ notice of a contract for deed or default on a mortgage, and eight weeks’ notice on foreclosures to give the mortgage holder time to remedy the situation. The following November, 250,000 farmers nationwide brought a class-action suit against the FmHA resulting in a suspension of farm foreclosures until a loan deferment program could be approved. This granted farmers the right to mediation in liquidation proceedings.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture launched the Farm Advocate Program in the spring of 1984. The program offers free financial and legal counseling to farmers dealing with debt and provides emotional support to families in crisis. In the first six weeks, thirty-five advocates assisted 550 farm families.

Farm protests gained momentum. A 1984 bank protest in Paynesville supported by Citizens Organized Acting Together (COACT) prompted the start of Groundswell, a grassroots farm movement. On January 21, 1985, organizers held a rally that brought an estimated 10,000 people to the state capitol to call attention to the farm crisis. Demands included state-guaranteed operating loans, a 120-day moratorium on farm foreclosures, and fair prices for farm products. As a result, the legislature ordered a report on farm finances and appropriated money for farm business education and other assistance programs.

In 1986, Congress passed the Family Farmer Bankruptcy Act (Chapter 12 bankruptcy) as a way to keep families on their farms. The act provided the options of reducing debt and interest rates, and lengthening the repayment period. That same year, the state's Agricultural Extension Service began to provide mediation to assist farmers in meetings with creditors, which saved some farms. Nationwide, 9,556 farmers filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy in the 1980s. Minnesota bankruptcies totaled more than 600 in 1987, but dropped to 230 the following year as the economy began to improve.

The number of farms in Minnesota decreased from 98,671 in 1978 to 85,079 in 1987. While some fell victim to poor financial management, others were lost due to a lack of good jobs available off the farm to subsidize household income, and to the retirement of an aging generation of farmers.

For families losing their farms, it meant not only the loss of their livelihood, but of their preferred way of life. For those with a long history on the farm, it ended the tradition of passing the farm on to the next generation. The emotional toll led to depression and, in severe cases, suicide.

As farms were lost, the average size of surviving farms grew. Owners of corporate farms began to take over more acreage. In spite of state laws designed to protect family farms, non-farmers owned 28 percent of all Minnesota farms by 1982. Farmers and local lenders resented outside investors, many of whom were absentee landlords.

The farm crisis of the 1980s claimed other victims. Small town bankers faced the difficulty of having to call in loans, go through debt mediation, and foreclose on friends and neighbors. Agricultural suppliers lost customers. Main street businesses in rural communities suffered as farm families had less expendable income. Rural communities were faced with the challenge of luring non-agricultural industries to town to bolster their sagging economies.

Although the farm economy began to recover in the late 1980s, the number of Minnesota farms is still in decline (down from 85,079 farms in 1987 to 74,542 reported in 2012), and farmers continue to face serious economic challenges in the twenty-first century.

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Amundson, Roland C., and Lewis J. Rotman. "Depression Jurisprudence Revisited: Minnesota's Moratorium on Mortgage Foreclosure." William Mitchell Law Review 10, no. 4 (1984): 805–850.

Associated Press. "FmHA Foreclosures Down Sharply, but Future is Uncertain." Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 15, 1985.

Associated Press. “Minnesota Schools, Businesses to Close for Farmers' Protest.” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1985.

Bayles, Fred. “America's Farmers: Hard Times Turning Farmers Into Activists.” AP News, March 8, 1985.

Boehlje, Michael. "Farm Crisis Will Cost Public, Now or Later." Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 11, 1985.

Brandt, Steve. "Farm Woes May Require Extreme Remedies." Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 17, 1985.

Brandt, Steve. "Foreclosures of Farm Mortgages by State Banks Triple in Two Years." Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 14, 1985.

Calomiris, Charles W., R. Glenn Hubbard, and James H. Stock. "The Farm Debt Crisis and Public Policy." Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2 (1986): 441–479.

Downs, Donna, Matthew G. Smith, and Philip M. Raup. "The Minnesota Rural Real Estate Market in 1983." Minnesota Agricultural Economist, no. 645 (January 1984).

Dudley, Kathryn Marie. Debt and Dispossession: Farm Loss in America's Heartland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Franklin, Robert. "Fulda Couple Bet the Farm, Eventually Won Some of It." Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 23, 1989.

Groundswell organization records, 1984–1993
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Minutes and agenda packets, correspondence, newsletters, brochures, and other materials reflecting the activity of a nonpartisan organization of rural Minnesotans dedicated to ensuring the survival of the family farm.

Iowa Public Television. 1980s Farm Crisis.

Klauda, Paul. "Advocates Lend Advice, Sympathy to Troubled Farmers." Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 29, 1984.

Levy, Paul. "Foreclosures on Minnesota Farms Still Remain Uncommon Happenings.”
Minneapolis Tribune, March 27, 1983.

Lucier, Gary, Agnes Chesley, and Mary Ahearn. “Farm Income Data: A Historical Perspective.” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Statistical Bulletin Number 740. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, [1985?].

Mangum, Kathy. "Project Support Tackles Rural Problems in Minnesota." From: "Farm Crisis Response: Extension and Research Activities in the North Central Region." Ames, IA: North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, [1987?].

McGrath, Dennis J. "Farmers Get Sympathy, But No Foreclosure Guarantee." Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 27, 1982.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “About the Minnesota Ethanol Program.”

Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “Agriculture…Biennium: A Report to the Legislature.” St. Paul: The Department, 1976–1978, 1979–1980, 1981–1982, 1982–1983, 1984–1986.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Minnesota Farm Advocates.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Minnesota's Corporate Farm Report.

Minnesota Legislature. 2017 Minnesota Statutes: Property and Property Interests, Chapter 500, Section 500.24, Farming by Business Organizations.

Minnesota Legislature. Laws of Minnesota 1983, Chapter 215.

Minnesota Legislature. Laws of Minnesota 1984, Chapter 474.

Minnesota Legislature. Laws of Minnesota 1985, Chapter 19, Senate File No. 546.

Minnesota Legislature. Laws of Minnesota 1986, Chapter 398.

Minnesota Tax Study Commission. "Property Taxation of Agriculture in Minnesota."
Mold, Doris E. and Glen D. Pederson. "Minnesota's Farmer-Lender Mediation Program: Case Characteristics and Results." Staff paper P89–39, University of Minnesota, October 1989.

Olson, Allen H. “Federal Farm Programs—Past, Present and Future—Will We Learn from our Mistakes?” National Agricultural Law Center, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Originally published in Great Plaines Natural Resources Journal, 2001.

Roby, Marguerite. “Tractorcade.” Smithsonian Institution Archives blog, February 21, 2012.

Robbins, William. “Economic Troubles Spawn Fear, Despair in Rural United States." New York Times, February 17, 1985.

Rural Storm: Minnesota's Farm Crisis. Minneapolis: School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota, 1985.

Stam, Jerome M., and Bruce L. Dixon. Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. “Farmer Bankruptcies and Farm Exits in the United States, 1899–2002.” Agriculture Information Bulletin 788 (March 2004): 1–36.

Wilson, Betty, and Associated Press. "Foreclosure Freeze Boosted in State Senate." Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 20, 1982.

Related Images

Foreclosure auction poster
Foreclosure auction poster
Farm equipment auction poster
Farm equipment auction poster
Farmers demonstrating at the State Capitol
Farmers demonstrating at the State Capitol
Minnesota House of Representatives Agriculture Committee meeting
Minnesota House of Representatives Agriculture Committee meeting
Groundswell button
Groundswell button
Groundswell farmer's rally, January 1985
Groundswell farmer's rally, January 1985

Turning Point

By June 1982, crop prices drop to their lowest level since the Great Depression, prompting the United States Department of Agriculture to implement acreage reduction programs for wheat and other key crops.



Corporate Farm Registration Act requires corporations farming in Minnesota or with an interest in agricultural land to file reports with the state.


A severe drought destroys more than 40 percent of the state's crop potential.


The Family Farm Security Program is established to help new farmers obtain credit for land purchases. Minnesota is the first state to create this type of program as a way to protect and promote family farms.


The American Agriculture Movement (AAM) is established in response to farm prices remaining below the cost of production for four straight years.


Farm production costs increase by 18 percent over the previous year, $98 million over receipts from farm products sold. From 1970 to 1977, total farm production costs rose 123 percent.


An estimated one-third of total state farm production is sold to global markets in 1979, which helps to raise average gross farm income to $60,000. Higher production costs, however, leave a net income of just $12,812 per farm.


Farm debt increases by more than 57 percent during the 1978-79 biennium, from an average of $50,868 per farm in 1978 to $80,000 per farm, due largely to increased production costs.


Transport issues, including a truckers' strike, the grain handlers' walkout at the port of Duluth, and delayed barge shipments on the Mississippi in Illinois, impact marketing of commodities. Rail and farm cooperatives step up to improve service.


In January, President Jimmy Carter implements a grain embargo against the Soviet Union in response to its invasion of Afghanistan, sending US exports of agricultural commodities plummeting.


On May 23, the Minnesota state legislature passes a landmark bill approving a moratorium on mortgage foreclosure and contracts for deed termination, based on a similar measure passed in 1933.


250,000 farmers nationwide bring a class-action suit against the FmHA that results in suspension of foreclosure action until a program permitting deferment of loan payments is approved in November.


The Farm Advocate Program begins to assist farmers in Minnesota with advice on budgeting and their legal rights. Representatives accompany farmers to meetings with lenders and provide emotional support.


Farm prices have fallen to 51 percent of parity, comparable to the Great Depression.


The Family Farmer Bankruptcy Act of 1986 (Chapter 12 of the bankruptcy code) is created to help financially troubled farmers.


Congress passes the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, providing $4 billion in assistance to financially troubled banks of the Farm Credit System.