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More Kansas farm families struggling to pay loans, bills

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ For years, Helen Holcomb watched her husband drag himself out of the house each morning to work on his farm. She listened to him complain about the low commodity prices and high cost of tractors. She saw his health deteriorate.

``I don't sleep as well at night. My blood pressure is higher. I guess mentally I just don't have the fire that I used to have,'' said Chuck Holcomb, who farms in Pratt and Kingman counties.

Helen Holcomb finally got tired of all the complaining and told her 50-year-old husband it was time they did something. They called their farming neighbors in five counties and formed the Agricultural Task Force of Southcentral Kansas.

The group's first seminar, scheduled for Saturday, will include workshops on agricultural law, mediation services, financial planning, career choices, restructuring, stress reduction and legislative issues. They're calling it the Farm Crisis Seminar.

``We are all pretty much in financial trouble _ one way or the other,'' Chuck Holcomb said. ``We need to get some help from some experts, especially stress reduction. My wife has told me, no matter what else, you will be at that workshop.''

The Holcombs probably won't be alone.

After years of low commodity prices _ made worse by last summer's drought _ many Kansas farm families are struggling to pay their operating loans and household bills.

The number of cases at Kansas Ag Mediation Service, which helps farmers deal with financial problems, has increased 25 to 35 percent compared to the same time last year, agency attorney Forrest Buhler said.

Many are farmers dealing with years of money troubles, while others come from drought-stricken areas. Last summer's drought hit hard in parts of south central and western Kansas.

But initial farm loan delinquency figures show farmers are in better shape than many expected: 15.7 percent of loans were past due, compared to 18 percent at the same time last year.

Arlyn Stiebe, farm loan chief for the Farm Service Agency, said supplemental payments from the federal government kept some borrowers from going broke.

Another difference between the farm economy now and the farm crisis of the 1980s is that farmland values are still relatively high and interest rates are lower.

``Nobody wants to be the ultimate pessimist,'' Stiebe said. ``I think we are awful close to a similar situation that we had in the 1980s.''

Duane Hund, a farm analyst for Kansas State University who works with struggling farm families, said many were hammered by big losses in their milo crops because of last summer's drought. Others had big losses when the cattle market dropped in the last few months.

Chuck Holcomb said he and other farmers are keeping their farm loans current in part because of the lessons learned from the farm crisis of the 1980s.

``The first thing you do is make sure that loan is paid,'' said Chuck Holcomb. ``You put off updating that tractor, you put off everything else _ because if that loan is not paid and they foreclose on it, you are done.''
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