(Editor's note: The names in this story have been changed to protect the family's privacy.)


Kathy never thought she would need government assistance to feed her farm family. Even before this year's weather and economic problems, her family of five was struggling to pay bills.

Kathy and her husband, Dave, who farm in southwest Nebraska, are the parents of two teen-agers and a toddler. Two years ago, after their youngest child was born, Kathy's doctor recommended she sign up for the federal Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program that helps pregnant women and mothers of children up to age five pay for food staples such as milk, juice and bread. Under WIC guidelines, families of five can earn up to $35,613 and be eligible for limited assistance.

At the time, Kathy balked at the idea.

"It was a hard decision for me to make," she recalled. "I thought it was charity, but now I do not see it quite that way."

Nancy Frecks, a University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension educator in Red Willow, Frontier, Furnas and Hitchcock counties, said asking for help is a common obstacle among Nebraskans, especially farmers. But getting help to buy food may be just what they need to boost their family's nutrition and expand their food dollars, she said.

Kathy and Dave used to operate a farrow-to-finish swine operation on their farm, but dropped it after hog prices reached depression-era lows. They still keep some cattle and hogs on their farm for meat.

The extra $55 per month the family receives under the WIC program to buy food "helps me stretch my food dollars," especially toward the end of the month, Kathy said. They are better able to afford other necessities such as shoes for the older children.

When their youngest child was born, the family decided that Kathy would trade her full-time job as a veterinary technician for full-time motherhood and household managing. Dave took a full-time job working for a nearby city. His job provides the family with health benefits.

They continued raising irrigated corn, soybeans, wheat and ecofallow corn, and added sunflowers this year for extra money on the 500-acre farm owned by Dave's parents. Their farm income has not been enough to support the extended family for awhile. With this year's drought and continued low commodity prices, financial times will be even harder.

Weather has taken its toll on their crops: the soybeans were hailed out, the irrigated corn suffered about 66% damage and the ecofallow corn did not survive.

"We will be lucky if we get about 100 bushels of corn per acre," Kathy said. "We usually average 155 to 180 per acre."

The family received some federal disaster aid and private crop insurance, but not enough to cover losses, she said.

"People say government gives farmers too much money, but those people do not understand," she said. "Our costs keep going up for producing, but the price we get for selling does not--it goes down."

The combination of this year's drought and continued low prices has worsened financial problems for them and for others they know.

"There are many farm families in our same situation that have younger children," Kathy said.

Kathy remembers when times were better, not long ago.

When her teen-agers were toddlers, "farming was tough, but we were able to pay our bills," she said.

On bill-paying days, Kathy said she still sometimes feels angry that their farm cannot support itself.

"There are times we think it would be better to have a farm sale and sell out," she said.

Those thoughts do not usually last long. Even though they probably could earn more working in a city, the family wants to stay on the farm. They want their youngest child to learn responsibility by growing up on a farm and becoming active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) as their older children have.

"People help each other here," Kathy said. "In a big city, I do not think you get that."

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