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SF Special: Farmer Suicides Today vs. 1980s Farm Crisis

1985 (The Des Moines Register) - The hands that killed them are the hands that farmed the land, that fed the cattle, that raised the hogs.

Weathered hands. Strong hands. Their own hands.

Gordon Geiken drove a pickup truck down a dirt path near his Vinton farm, pointed a shotgun at his head, and died.

Marvin Reed walked into the garage of his riverside Iowa Falls home, and he, too, turned a gun on himself.

Steven Meeker went to an outbuilding on his Letts farm, strung rope around a beam, and laid a noose around his neck.

The three Iowa farmers all committed suicide in a single week – the seven days from September 20 to 26. None of them knew each other. Their deaths are related only because they show that, as years of affluence yield to years of anguish, these are desperate times on the world’s richest farmland.

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That excerpt is from The Des Moines Register on October 13, 1985. In a heart-wrenching article, writer Blair Kamin describes how three Iowa farmers took their own lives during the 1980s farm crisis.

Suicide on the farm is always a delicate subject but more important during times of financial struggle in agriculture. What’s most shocking about the article isn’t the fact that a wealthy farmer ended his life with a shotgun. Or that a young farmer, only 32 years old, ended his with a noose. Or the fact that three farmers in Iowa committed suicide in one week.

What’s shocking is this wasn’t the peak of farmer suicide rates. In fact, today’s suicide rates for male farmers are 50% higher than they were during the 1980s.

In 1982, the suicide rate among male farmers peaked at 58 suicides per 100,000 farmers, according to data by the National Farm Medicine Center. The most recent suicide data available for farmers, collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 and released in 2016, shows that suicide rates for male farmers have risen to 90.5 per 100,000.

As you read through the rest of the original article, remember your fellow farmers of yesterday – Gordon Geiken, Marvin Reed, and Steven Meeker. Remember your fellow farmers of today, who may be suffering and who may be too proud and too strong to ask for help. Remember your family and friends, who are there to support and love you. Remember, you are not alone.

This article is posted with permission by The Des Moines Register.

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1985 (The Des Moines Register) - Mental health experts say the farm crisis has moved beyond the stage when it was news that proud, self-reliant Iowa farmers were flocking to mental health sessions. Increasingly, the experts say, they are dealing with crisis prevention – trying to persuade desperate farmers from taking drastic action, including suicide – as the trouble drags on and farmers don’t have the financial and emotional reserves to cope.

“We’re finding that this isn’t a hump. This is a mountain. Folks just don’t have the energy to fight or hang on any longer,” says Joan Blundall, consultation and education coordinator at the Northwest Iowa Mental Health Center in Spencer.

Opportunities for collapse are multiplying beyond the typical example of the farmer who loses his land and livelihood to foreclosure.

Gordon Geiken, 45, a wealthy corn and soybean farmer, was in no such danger. But rumors that he was going bankrupt tormented him, even though he was in the top 10% of his local bank’s agricultural loan portfolio. So did information he obtained as a member of the bank’s board of directors: Some of his friends and neighbors really were about to be foreclosed on.

Marvin Reed, 52, a multimillionaire cattleman and farmer, lost millions of dollars when the bottom dropped out of the cattle market this year, friends say. They say Reed still had ample financial reserves, but that he couldn’t live with defeat.

Steven Meeker, 32, the son of a prominent hog farmer, watched helplessly as creditors demanded payment on the mortgage on his father’s land – and threatened the son’s prize group of Hampshire hogs. The father faced losing the land, but it was the son who killed himself.

Their deaths shocked their families and communities.

Hundreds of mourners packed churches in Vinton, Iowa Falls, and Wapello for their funerals. Days after Geiken’s death, friends met on the street, hugged each other, and cried. Cattleman from all over the Midwest came to honor Reed. Mourners streamed through the streets of tiny Letts to bury Meeker in a graveyard overlooking lush Iowa farmland.

Today, that landscape is the gentle amber of autumn, stretching to an open horizon that always has represented another chance, another opportunity. But the serene landscape is a mask. Behind it, the walls are closing in on farmers like Geiken, Reed, and Meeker.

***

“In everything he did, he wanted to be a giver and not a taker,” said Virginia Peters in an interview with The Guardian. Her husband, Matt Peters, farmed in Perry, Iowa, before taking his life in 2011.

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Gordon Geiken

1985 (The Des Moines Register) - The first thing you noticed was the smile.

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Gordon Geiken
The Des Moines Register
It was a 100-watt smile – the infectious expression that never failed to inspire former farm implement dealer Ivan Davis when he talked to Gordon Geiken.

“He must have been a good actor,” Davis said, sitting in the Brenton Bank & Trust Co.’s Vinton branch. “There must have been deeper concerns that he didn’t show.”

To most people in Benton County, Geiken was the golden boy who grew up without the benefit of a silver spoon.

From a modest beginning as a hired man, he crafted an honor roll of accomplishments:

  • Cedar Rapids Jaycees Outstanding Young Farmer
  • President of the board of directors of Farm Services Inc.
  • A member of the board of directors of the Brenton Bank & Trust Co. of Vinton
  • A member of the building committee of Trinity Lutheran Church in Vinton – the church where friends gathered to mourn Geiken after he shot himself early on September 20. A hired man found him.

He left behind a wife and two children. Family members declined to be interviewed for this story.

“It makes you mad,” said Brenda Happel of Vinton, a friend of Geiken’s, as she sat in the kitchen of her Vinton home, looking at an obituary containing that list of accomplishments. “Oh Gordon,” she exclaimed, slamming her hand down on an orange counter top.

Attack With Wits

Friends say Geiken liked nothing more than to buy old tractors and combines and fix them, attacking them with his wits and a set of tools, then selling them for profit.

And profit he did, farming about 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans in Benton County. He belonged to the Vinton Country Club. He owned three antique cars and half-interest in a private plane and a vacation home in Missouri.

On the day he died, according to Mike Cruzen, president of the Brenton bank in Vinton, Geiken’s credit rating put him in the top 10% of the bank’s farm borrowers.

So why did Gordon Geiken kill himself?

No one knows. Like Marvin Reed and Steven Meeker, Geiken left no suicide note. Friends, in fact, considered all three men highly unlikely candidates for suicide. They stress that the motives behind their deaths are puzzles that no one will ever completely piece together.

Any farmer in Iowa could tell you that Gordon Geiken suffered a huge drop in the value of his land – just as they did – in the last few years.

The medical examiner of Benton County, Dr. D.C. Weideman, said that Geiken had been admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids about 10 days before he died and had been in the care of a psychiatrist who gave him anti-depressant drugs.

Friends say Geiken was upset by rumors that he was going bankrupt. The rumors flared in June after he closed a lawn and garden shop he had opened two months earlier.

When Derold Happel of Vinton, a farmer and a friend of Geiken’s, saw him at the Vinton Country Club two months before he died, Geiken said: “How come they’re talking about me all the time, and what can we do to get it stopped?”

Worrying Continues

Happel saw Geiken again about a month before he died.

“He was worried,” Happel recalled. “’How are we gonna get them stopped? What are we gonna do?’” Geiken asked.

On the day Geiken killed himself, a friend had called Happel to give him the news of the death. Happel thought it was just one more rumor. “’How are we gonna get that rumor stopped?’ That was my first thought. ‘Another lousy rumor,’” Happel said.

“Where does gossip start? Where does rumor start? Some people are trying to pull themselves up by pulling somebody else down,” Brenda Happel said.

As one of 10 bank directors, Cruzen said Geiken knew that 10% of the bank’s farm borrowers are in financial trouble. Many of those people were friends and neighbors.

“I think he became concerned that what was happening to them would be happening to himself if conditions didn’t change,” Cruzen said.

That troubled the man who liked to tinker, because the farm crisis was beyond his control.

“If Gordon was anything, he was a fixer,” said his close friend, Marlin Jorgensen. “And this was one thing he couldn’t fix for people.”

Mental health specialist Blundall did not counsel Geiken, but she said farmers like him who serve on bank boards face increasing stress today.

Tough Decisions

“Being on a bank board in the past offered a great deal of status and of pride in self. Now,” she said, “it offers tough decisions that there are no easy answers to and maybe some answers of self-blame and maybe some feeling that you are being blamed by the community.

“That in itself is a kind of grief overload. You take on the grief of other people.

“We have a potential for even greater division in our communities where we become ‘them and us,’ and there are some people who are not going to be able to handle the stress of being a ‘them’ whereas they were once part of the ‘us’ in a community.

“Social activities are going to be cut; rumors will be put out to hurt you. And that’s the insidious part of the crisis.”

gordon-geiken-grave
Fields of corn surround Gordon Geiken’s flower-strewn grave south of Vinton. Photo: The Des Moines Register

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“When it comes to farming, I feel like I am digging my own grave to follow my dreams,” said Canadian farmer Megz Reynolds in 2017. Read her blog post: I am a farmer, I am struggling, and I’m not alone.

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Marvin Reed

1985 (The Des Moines Register) - Marvin Reed already had climbed the mountain of success – and fallen – when he shot himself on September 23. One of his sons found him in the garage at Reed’s home.

At his peak, friends estimate, Reed was worth at least $15 million. He farmed 3,000 to 4,000 acres in Hardin, Grundy, and Marshall counties, they remember. Glenn Grimes, a University of Missouri agricultural economist whom Reed had consulted, said he owned about 30,000 head of cattle in Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Reed also had owned the First National Bank of Fonda.

Marvin Reed made that fortune as a cattle feeder – buying cattle, paying feedlot owners to fatten them, then selling them to meatpackers.

Reed’s rural Iowa Falls office reflected his success. Plush carpeting. Reclining chairs. A ticker tape. A television screen that flashed commodity prices from the Chicago Board of Trade.

Friends describe Reed as a fierce competitor and a passionate organizer. A man who, if it was Monday, already had planned for Tuesday. A man who would confidently stride into a land auction even though he was 20 minutes late and then double the bids of his competitors because he had researched the property so thoroughly.

Bill Tietz, the Eldora veterinarian who treated Reed’s cattle, recalled that when he arrived late for an appointment with Reed, “He would sort of ‘needle’ me by glancing at his watch. But he never said a word. He didn’t have to.”

Missouri Analysis

Most farmers jawboned over market strategy at the local grain elevator. Reed drove to the University of Missouri for an analysis of the quarterly cattle-on-feed-report.

But the market that made Marvin Reed in the 1970s broke him in 1985. And it broke him harder than other cattleman because he had more cattle, more debt, and, as a result, friends say, more of his self-image tied to his business empire.

Experts expected the cattle market to rebound this year. Instead, the price of cattle fell $16 a hundredweight from January to September – the month in which Reed killed himself. He left a wife and three sons. The family declined to comment for this story.

Bill Dunn, an Eldora lawyer who represented clients who had land dealings with Reed, said that Reed suffered more than most cattlemen from the tremendous difference in what packers are paying for cattle and what it costs to produce them.

“The larger you operate, the bigger the losses. And Marv did operate on a relatively large scale,” said Grimes, the agricultural economist. Reed’s losses totaled millions of dollars, said his friend and fellow cattleman, Verner Eller of Hubbard.

Reed’s real estate transactions with his rural Iowa Falls neighbor, Carl Lettow, also show the extent of his losses.

‘Drop in the Bucket’

In August, Reed sold Lettow a 320-acre plot for $1,500 an acre. Reed had purchased the land for a price in excess of $3,100 an acre.

“The half-million that he lost on that 320 acres is a drop in the bucket,” said Dunn.

Yet no creditors list judgments against Reed in the Hardin County clerk of court’s office. And Hardin County records indicate that his company, Hillcrest Stock Farms Inc., still owns at least 900 acres, worth upward of $1.2 million.

Reed’s banker, David L. Klingland Sr., vice president of Northwest Bank Inc. in Mason City, said Reed’s company “has a loan with us at the present time, and it is not in default.”

What is clear, friends say, is that Marvin Reed’s self-esteem dived with his bank account – something that hadn’t happened before when he suffered financially.

Said Eller, “Once you’ve climbed that mountain and take a loss like that, it hurts.”

Experts say that Reed’s case is typical of older men who feel trapped and without alternatives at an age when their financial and emotional conditions are supposed to be stable.

“They can’t cope with a belief system that tells them their failure is their own – just as their success was,” said Blundall. She said that the self-image of someone like Reed would be changed drastically by the farm crisis.

“If you were the go-getter, the person that rises to the top, the person that has used all the techniques possible to make it not only big, but as big as possible, then you have a certain belief system that’s been working,” she said.

“Which is that if you work hard enough, if you get control, if you have enough information, if you use all of your technical skills then you’ll come out fine. And that belief system doesn’t fit in with the reality.”

***

“#Ag, we gotta do more…Farm stress is real. Suicide is real. Fellow farmers, retailers, input companies, grain buyers, lenders – this is on all of us. We fail each other when it comes to mental health,” tweeted Kim Keller in 2017. Keller is one of four founders of the Do More Agriculture foundation, which launched in January 2018. The mission of the foundation is to champion the mental wellbeing of all producers

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Steven Meeker

1985 (The Des Moines Register) - In rural Letts, at the intersection of two county roads, there’s a white sign picturing the black body of a Hampshire hog. The sign says: “Hampshires: More Meat for More Profit – Orville Meeker & Sons – ¾ Miles north ½ Mile west.”

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Steven Meeker
The Des Moines Register
The potholed gravel roads lead to the white farmhouse where Steven Meeker lived until four days before his 33rd birthday. Orville Meeker raised seven sons in the house. By this fall, Steven Meeker – tall, muscular, with a red beard, easy-going, level-headed – was the only one who made his living from farming.

According to the Muscatine County sheriff’s office, Orville Meeker found his son hanging by the neck in an outbuilding on the farm September 26.

“He was the one who was going to dedicate his life to breeding purebred hogs,” said Randy Marolf, 35, of rural Moscow, a close friend of Meeker’s.

Friends say Steven Meeker was able to eyeball a hog’s breeding without knowing its pedigree. He wanted to carry on the Meeker line of hog breeders on the family’s 800 acres in Muscatine and Louisa counties. According to Dennis Meeker, 30, who once had farmed alongside his brother, the land includes 700 acres of corn and 100 acres of soybeans.

Their skill at hog breeding enabled the Meekers to hold big hog auctions at the show ring at the shed on their farm.

Mortgage Home

Today, the Federal Land Bank is demanding payment on loans on Orville Meeker’s Louisa County land, Dennis Meeker said, and the Meekers had to mortgage their home farm to take out an operating loan this spring. Friends even say that bankers told the Meekers they had to sell their hogs to improve cash flow.

But it was Orville’s land, and they were Orville’s pigs. So why did the son kill himself?

William Warrick of Prairie City, a close friend of Steven Meeker’s, said: “It was crazy. It absolutely made no sense. For the life of us all, we don’t know why.”

Meeker received a $1,200 monthly wage from his father and was supposed to share year-end profits. But there were no profits in recent years.

Meeker also suffered, friends say, because the Meeker hogs got a disease called pseudorabies. That meant the hogs that once brought $300 now sold for only $100.

There were other pressures on Meeker, who had been divorced and remarried. He had three children from his first marriage. He was paying child support for them to his first wife. And he was trying to get custody of the children.

In the hog barn at the state fair last summer, Meeker told Warrick that a local business refused to let him buy a tire on credit even though he was a longtime customer. “He said when this gets all straightened out,” Warrick said, “they’ll have their day.”

Marolf said Meeker attended Iowa State University only briefly. “He was probably relatively inflexible as far as getting other employment – or at least he felt that way,” said Marolf.

“Everything just kept hitting him at once, and he couldn’t handle it,” said Dennis Meeker.

Considering such cases, Blundall said: “What you’re describing is a grief overload: How many losses have there been, and what does that mean to the person?”

Sons Feel Responsible

She said that sons farming with their fathers may feel responsible for their father’s troubles, thinking: “’Maybe if my dad hadn’t helped me farm, he’d be OK. Maybe my father is losing his birthright because of the burden I’ve placed on him,’” she said.

“All of that guilt becomes internalized and the person perceived himself being responsible rather than an agricultural system not being sustainable in the way it was before.

“It’s very common to hear the phrase ‘It’s just a piece of dirt but it’s a piece of me.’ How many pieces of yourself can you lose before you no longer believe in staying alive?”

***

“Be bold and ask, ‘I notice you aren’t being yourself lately. Have you thought about killing yourself or harming yourself?’” advised Jami Dellifield, an Ohio State University Extension Educator, in 2018. “Sometimes that’s enough to shock people into realizing they haven’t been acting like themselves.” In this article, Dellifield shares what to do if you're worried about a family member or friend who may have a mental health illness or be at risk for suicide or harm. The end of the article also has resources available for individuals who may need them.

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1985 (The Des Moines Register) - The aftermaths are similar: The families are trying to bring in the harvest. Men bring combines to help. Women bring cakes, pies, casseroles. For all of them, there are lingering doubts about their way of life.

Gordon Geiken’s friend, Marlin Jorgensen, sat in his pickup truck at 9 p.m., taking a break from harvesting beans.

“I suppose that everyone who knew Gordon has gone through an emotional roller coaster. Is this occupation worth it? Is the stress that it creates a necessary thing for anyone to put up with?” he said.

Zeke Johnson of rural Garrison, the man who got Gordon Geiken started in farming when he took him on as a hired hand, plunked himself down in a restaurant booth after bringing his crop in to the elevator.

“It makes me feel bad ‘cause I started him up in farming, and I carried him to his grave,” he said.

Sitting in his office near the Eldora courthouse square, Bill Dunn remembered Marvin Reed. “Agriculture is in a bad way and hopefully, we’ll come out of it,” Dunn said. “People like Marvin would be in the forefront of trying to get a better thing for the farmer.”

Dennis Meeker sat in a Holiday Inn lobby across from the factory where he works.

“I’m angry for farming being the way it is,” he said. “And I’m angry at Steve for doing what he did. I’m angry at myself for not tending to my own brother.”

Then Dennis broke down. As if to pray, he cupped his hands.

The hands that no longer farm the land and raise the hogs. The hands that now assemble electric fork trucks in a factory. The hands that carried his brother to his grave.

He bowed his head in those hands and wept.

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