When the farm crisis of the '80s forced Ralph Dixon to stop farming, he lost much more than his land and his home. He lost his identity.
"I was a fourth generation farmer and every generation had been successful, except me," remembers Dixon. "When I lost my farm, I lost not only my way of making a living, I lost my history and my culture. I may not be farming now, but I'm still a farmer."
Farmers Facing Tough Decisions
Because of Georgia's current farm crisis, many farmers are facing the same tough decisions Dixon faced more than a decade ago.
"We've come to a point where we have to face reality. There's not a lot we can do about the weather and the commodity prices, but we can help farmers deal with the situation," said Bill Lambert, associate dean for extension at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (UGA CAES).
Preparing to Help
Lambert was one of a host of speakers at a workshop called "Helping Georgia Farmers at Risk" Nov. 30 in Perry. The workshop was designed to train the state's county Extension Service agents and community teams to help Georgia farmers handle the effects of the farm crisis.
County agents attended the workshop with clergymen and farm lenders from their counties. These teams are preparing to serve as valuable resources for farmers facing the crisis in their counties.
"Georgia farmers are coming off of two years of bad weather conditions and low commodity prices," said Lambert. "We are looking at what we can do to help farmers deal with their emotional and financial problems."
Gale Buchanan, dean and director of the UGA CAES, said the current farm crisis will affect farmers and rural communities first, but will eventually affect everyone in the state. "There's a ripple affect when farming suffers," said Buchanan. "Everyone in Georgia will be affected."
Farm Bill, Drought, Prices to Blame
Buchanan said the farm crisis is also the result of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Bill. "The bill was designed to remove government control from farming and since then, 262 Georgia farmers have quit farming," said Buchanan. "Federal appropriations are helping the remaining farmers hold on. But, in my opinion, they are not the cure."
He said Georgia's farmers need agricultural research to help them succeed. "We at the university are always searching for new alternative crops that can help Georgia farmers," said Buchanan. "The new carrot industry is just one example."
The "Helping Georgia Farmers at Risk" workshop included financial training on family budgeting, evaluating financial status, debt management and federal farm aid. The county teams also received counseling training on stress management and depression.
Farmers Need Support from Family and Friends
As a former farmer, Dixon said he feels the most important thing farmers need during times of crisis is support from their friends and family. "When you are sick, people come to visit," he said. "But if you are going under financially, people stay away. They don't know what to say. I say, don't stay away."
Dixon said he never imagined he would fail at farming. "I was part of the world's oldest profession - agriculture," said Dixon. "After all, Adam and Eve were farmers."
The former farmer remembers feeling displaced and depressed after losing his farm.
"We came out of our life's work with $3,000 and an old Chevrolet with a bad transmission," he said. "I can tell you that seeing your name on a foreclosure notice in the newspaper is a very humbling experience."
Today, Dixon is a Methodist minister and his wife is a bank teller. "We paid everyone we owed and avoided bankruptcy, but we owed good people," said Dixon. "We still live in our hometown and I'm not ashamed to walk the streets of Sylvania, Georgia."
Dixon says his only regret is that he never sought impartial financial advice. "There are a lot of situations like mine happening all across Georgia today," he said. "I pray that everyone survives this crisis, but some may not."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)