Farmers' Harvest of Pain

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

A crisis in American agriculture, coupled with a record drought, threatens the survival of Mississippi's family farmers. In 15 articles published from September 28 to October 1, 1986, Rebecca Hood-Adams of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger captured the "Harvest of Pain" that is tormenting farm families and testing their communities. 


Cleveland — Farmers used to congregate at the coffee shop to swap hunting stories and compare fertilizer prices. Now they discuss the relative merits of Librium and Valium. Men who five years ago shunned aspirin for a headache say they can't make it through the night without sleeping pills. 

"I didn't hardly sleep for two years," says George Fioranelli of Cleveland. His land was lost to the Farmers Home Administration, his marriage, to stress and financial problems. 

Yet Fioranelli finds some measure of relief in a prescription. His brother, Gary, practices deep, slow breathing for its tranquilizing effect. 

One county away, Glendora farmer Edgar E. Smith III wakes up at night "drenched in sweat from dreaming about falling." He says he's better now that he takes "anxiety pills." 

In Tunica County, Milton Boyd went for counseling when he found himself "depressed a lot of the time, my stomach eaten out." This spring his equipment was auctioned in partial payment of his million-dollar FmHA debt. 

Boyd has since dropped out of counseling. "It cost by the hour. When you're worried about grocery money, there's no cash for counseling," he says. "Now I try to talk things out with ministers, friends, anyone who'll listen. "

But people in the community don't know how to relate to me. Since the sale I've even had friends dodge me with their eyes. They don't know how to respond. Once they see we're not ashamed and that my family is handling it OK, it gets easier for people to talk." 

Farmers say that losing land is like a death in the family — only there's no funeral to exorcise the grief. Unaccustomed to verbalizing their emotions, many farmers suffer in silence, internalizing their loss until it manifests itself in chest pains, flirtations with suicide or bouts with the bottle. 

Charles Fioranelli remembers the night he came home from a Christmas party and sat in the driveway weeping. "I just got to where I didn't want to be around people any more," he says. "I looked at those men at the party and they were all so successful. I felt like a failure." 

Charles Fioranelli was Mississippi's Young Farmer of the Year in 1979. 

"That old adage 'misery loves company'? Don't pay any attention to that," he says. "When you're going through real hard times, you're alone, or at least you feel like you are." 

Charles Fioranelli says he realizes many men are uncomfortable discussing their emotions. But he's recently turned the comer on depression and wants to speak out to let fellow farmers know they are not alone. 

"It helped me when I read about men up in Iowa who had the same feelings I had," says Fount Ray Armstrong, a Gunnison farmer who faces the loss of third-generation land. "It's been awful hard. Lonely. You get to where you don't want to talk about it. You cringe when you hear the phone ring for fear it's somebody you owe money. My wife won't even answer the phone anymore. I won't pick up the mail." 

The trickle-down effect of the Delta's farm crisis has become a waterfall threatening to drown wives, children, families. 

"1985 was the lowest point of our married life," says Beverly Fioranelli, whose husband, Gary, lost the land he farmed with his brothers George and Charles. "I was more afraid than I've ever been in my life. Our home, everything we had, was on the line." 

Her sister-in-law, Vicki Fioranelli, calls it "the year we matured and grayed 10 years in 12 months." "Your wife wants to help, but there's nothing really she can do. And that increases her stress," says husband Charles. 

Wives have a right to be anxious. 

"My wife is as responsible for our loans as I am," says Wayne Fioranelli. "She needs to know what is going on because her name is on every piece of paper I sign. She even has to sign for my draw from FmHA. We take out enough life insurance to cover it if something happens to me." 

His wife, Debbie, "tries not to think about it," but quietly activated an insurance policy of her own. 

Schoolteacher Debbie Fioranelli says she's realized she will have to continue working to provide for their children. "That's why I've gone back to school to get my master's," she says. 

Her husband says he attempts to leave his farming in the field. Yet, Debbie Fioranelli says she sometimes feels like a widow. 

"He's gone from sunup until sundown," she says, "and I'm here alone trying to cope with the twins. But I do feel lucky that when he does come home, I know he wants to be here; he loves us." 

Farm couples try to protect their children, but Vicki Fioranelli says that she realizes farming offers little stability. 

"Our moods vacillate with the crops," she says. "One day we're up, hoping the harvest will be good. The next day, prices drop and our optimism is gone. The children see that." 

And the stress extends beyond the front door, from one generation to the next. "I've made sure my 16-year-old son, John, wouldn't want to go into farming. I've discouraged him at every turn. When I've talked to him, I've been honest about how hard it is," Armstrong says. 

"I started telling my boy the truth about farming the same day I told him there ain't no Santa Claus." 


This will be the last harvest for many Mississippi farmers. They are fighting shrinking world markets and low commodity prices. In addition, they are carrying back-breaking debt incurred at the decade's turn when the belief that land values would never fall prompted expansion with double-digit interest rates. 

"You can't make a living on $4.50 soybeans" has become the lament of farmers who say they need to make between $6.50 and $7.50 per bushel to break even. 

With typical optimism, farmers had hoped that this year would be the turnaround. One more good crop, farmed smarter, might just bring the payday that would balance the scales. 

The summer of 1986 brought the South one of its worst droughts in 25 years instead. 

Last week in Bolivar County, farmers were able to harvest an average of only 10 bushels per acre of soybeans, one-quarter to one-half a bale an acre of cotton and 115 to 135 bushels an acre of rice, says J.D. Mathis, vice president of Delta Rice Services of Cleveland. 

Average cotton yields are one to 1.5 bales per acre, soybeans average 20 to 30 bushels an acre, and rice yields are down 10 to 20 percent. 

With little hope of breaking even, farmers are facing a harvest of pain. Hardest hit has been the Delta, the spiritual center of Mississippi's heartland. It is an area where men who inherited third-generation land and a life-style born of planting for profit face the loss of their homes, fields and hopes. 

The Mississippi Delta is the South's cropland casino. With soil so rich that wind-blown seeds sprout by the side of the road, these lush flatlands called to farmers with dreams of success as expansive as the hundred-acre horizon. 

The Delta is a place where a man could start out after World War II with 80 acres and a mule and today harvest 10,000 acres of rice and soybeans. It's the home of high rollers, planters who once relished risking a million dollars on the probability of rain. Until this decade, a single profitable season could recoup losses in lean years. However, today the cost of farming — both financially and emotionally — is so high that men who have farmed for 40 years can't survive even one bad crop. And sharecroppers go broke on rented land. 

"It's not just the little man going bankrupt, but the big guy too, says Rogers Hall of Cleveland. "I know a fellow who's farmed all his life without ever borrowing. . . . Now he goes to the bank for grocery money." 

Hall came to the Delta in 1946 because farming looked like an appealing lifestyle. "It was good to me," he says. "I raised my family, educated my children. But I don't see any hope for agriculture today." 

"For a world of people in the Delta, this is their last crop," says 43-year old Don Counts of Schlater, who manages Hall's 1,700 acre farm. 

A Delta native, Counts farmed on his own for 13 years before low prices and low yields forced him off 600 rented acres. Counts learned that "you can't make it nowadays without irrigation." 

A pivot irrigation system for 120 acres costs between $40,000 and $60,000. Tractors carry $50,000 to $100,000 price tags. One after another, farmers are finding themselves priced out of employment. 

"I was more fortunate than most," Counts says. "I was able to find a job within three months. But then, I was relatively young. I don't know what a man does when he has to start over at 60 or 65."