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Posted on Sat, Mar. 22, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
N.C. farmers relate to man's grievance
The Associated Press

Some N.C. farmers say they understand the pressures that led a fellow farmer to drive his tractor into a pond on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., using an inverted American flag to signal his distress.

Watson surrendered Tuesday without incident.

"People here respect what [Dwight Watson] has done," said Jim Bradley, owner of a farm supply store in Watson's Nash County hometown of Whitakers. "People here understand that the land is in your blood like the blood is in your veins."

Farmers in North Carolina are struggling to rebound from a drought that all but destroyed many crops last year. That disaster came as farmers already reeling from low prices and a 50 percent cut in the amount of tobacco they could grow. Now, many are mired in debt and struggling to find banks willing to lend money for another crop this year.

"Many of these farmers have had their counties declared disaster areas three times in the past five years," said Scott Marlow of the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International, a nonprofit advocacy group. "I think people are just beginning to see the human cost, and this guy in a lake in Washington, D.C., is evidence of that."

For many, losing the family farm means more than losing their jobs. It means severing a family tradition that runs four, five or six generations deep. And it means humiliation when they can't pay creditors, some of whom are friends and neighbors.

Farming advocates say Watson's foray into the pond isn't the first sign of stress they have seen in the state's farm community.

Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps recently wrote a letter to sheriffs across the state, asking them to treat farmers with "respect and dignity" when they repossess equipment. The letter came in response to complaints from a Wake County farmer who said he was humiliated when deputies showed up en masse to take his tractors.

"When you wake up, you're just as tired as when you went to bed, and you're thinking about the same thing," said Fred Kirk, a Wake County farmer whose crops were seared by last year's drought. "How am I going to get some money to farm?"

Watson said during the standoff that he couldn't get the loan he needed to farm again this year.

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