American Times Wichita, Kansas: Kansas hurts as trouble brews on the Great Plains pain

THE HARVEY FAMILY has farmed wheat for four generations on more than 2,000 acres in western Kansas. But when Donald Harvey's youngest son left a good job in Texas to take over his father's farm two years ago, the elder Harvey admits he had mixed feelings.

He tells me of a 29-year-old farmer in their county who committed suicide in July because he was under so much financial pressure.

Independent farming, once the way of life on the Kansas plains, is dying here, a victim of the forces of globalisation. No longer can many independent farmers afford the feed, seeds and equipment needed to raise hogs, cattle, wheat and corn for the low prices those commodities now fetch from the ever-consolidating agriculture-processing industry.

And so Mr Harvey and hundreds of other Kansas farmers, a notoriously independent, unpolitical lot, gathered last month in the ballroom of the Red Carriage hotel in Wichita, off Interstate 35, to try to organise. I have not often felt as much hopelessness as at that convention of Kansas farmers in Wichita.

I ended up at the meeting because I grew up three hours north-east of there, in the suburbs of Kansas City, and had returned to report on the decision of the Kansas State Board of Education on 11 August to remove the teaching of evolution from the state's science standards. The decision surprised me, because periodic visits back to Kansas City over the past decade have exposed me to its increasing cosmopolitanism and the state's growing ethnic diversity.

Interstate 35, the highway that runs north from the Mexico-Texas border, through Oklahoma and Kansas and all the way to Canada has now been dubbed the "Nafta" highway, after the North American free trade agreement, which is bringing more immigrants to the state, to do low-wage, dangerous jobs in massive meat-packing plants in rural western Kansas.

But the agreements that have meant hope for the new immigrant families have been hard on some groups, including farmers.

Nafta, for instance, has enabled corporations to buy their wheat, cattle and other commodities more cheaply from abroad, with no import tariffs. Companies can also hire immigrant workers for low-wage jobs at processing plants that not many non-immigrants will take.

After the meeting in Wichita a huddle of farmers gathered in the hotel foyer. One woman, whose family had just rented out their land after farming it for generations, told me that despair among farmers was leading to gambling, alcoholism and other maladies. She predicted a real crisis when farmers' loans are due, on 1 December. Because commodity prices are so low, farmers won't be able to pay back the loans. Many will lose their farms.

Sitting back in his chair, the tall, elderly Mr Harvey suddenly interrupted his silence to say that every year, when he started to smell spring in the air, he couldn't wait to get out on his land and start planting. His son stood silently among the group of mostly older farmers, listening. Before he left he asked me for the Internet address of my publication. Each of the farmers I spoke to that day used computers and the Internet - a small irony in that they seemed the victims of the same phenomenon that the Internet was a part of.

Driving back from Wichita, I missed an exit and ended up on smaller, rural highways as a hazy, orange full harvest moon rose. Later, after it was dark, stunning lightning lit up the sky, and tornado warnings broke on the FM radio stations.

The old white farmhouses, the grain silos, the hundreds of miles of growing land would never look the same.

The farms of rural Kansas had always seemed an essential part of our country's life, a sign of its health and prosperity.

But now I felt that they formed a landscape of pain.