Charles Mottley's family has been living on a farm near Boonville, Ind., since before the Civil War, but not for much longer. He lost the title last year because he couldn't pay a $300,000 debt, the remnant of a 25-year-old loan he hasn't been able to repay. He lost his home in earlier bankruptcies and now lives in a trailer.
Mottley is waiting for an appraisal of the farm, hoping it is low enough so that he or his two sons can buy a bit of family history. A high estimate is as good as an eviction notice for the 71-year-old farmer. "If we don't get to buy a piece of it, I'll just have to leave here," he said. "That's a hell of a feeling, not knowing where you're going or when you're going."
Census figures released this month paint a bleak picture across the nation's rural breadbasket: Young people moved away in droves during the 1990s, but so did many farmers, worn down by low prices, high costs and drought.
North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana grew a combined 8.1 percent during the last decade, well below the national average of 13.2 percent.
More significant was the movement from rural areas to cities.
Taking the biggest hit was North Dakota, which had the nation's slowest growth rate at just 0.5 percent; 47 of its 53 counties most of them rural lost residents. In Nebraska, it was 53 out of 93, most of them in the sprawling west.
Howard Person, who works with farmers in northwest Minnesota as a University of Minnesota extension agent, said farmers are leaving even if situation is not desperate.
"The goal today is to sell out, minimize your losses and go do something else," Person said. "It's a totally different attitude" from the 1980s, when farmers wanted to restructure debt and stay on the farm."