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Notebook Lifestyle

Family before farm

(Handout)

Marriage

Family before farm

Financial pressures almost tore Mike and Pat Meierhenry’s marriage apart, but a counselor helped them see the need to prioritize each other

12th in a series on long marriages

Mike and Pat Meierhenry both grew up on farms. They met in college at a fraternity dance, where Pat asked her date why Mike was dancing with one hand in his pocket. Her date explained that Mike had lost the use of his left arm from polio—but he still went home to farm on the weekends. Pat wondered how he managed farm work with only one arm. Later, Pat and Mike double-dated, and in September 1960 they married, “between haying and corn-picking.”

The newlyweds moved to Mike’s family farm 2 1/2 hours north of Lincoln, Neb. “Farming isn’t a business,” says Pat. “It’s something you either have to love doing or get out.” They loved it. The couple’s early married life was not always smooth, but they managed to compromise and work together. With four children and several full- or part-time farm hands to help Mike, their life together was good. 

The counselor encouraged them to confess their sins and forgive each other, and told them, ‘Before we save this farm, we have to save this family.’

Then around 1980, the farm crisis hit Nebraska. Land values had steadily increased, and farmers across the country were taking massive loans, using their land as collateral. Farmers typically take out loans to cover the expenses of planting crops, then repay the loan after harvest. But during that crisis, banks encouraged farmers to take larger loans for more land, newer equipment, and additional livestock.

Meanwhile, interest rates rose. Pat said they initially paid about 5 percent interest, and by 1985 they were paying 15 percent or more. “No one can survive on borrowed money with that kind of interest,” said Pat. The financial pressure on the farmers became so severe that several of their neighbors went on to other jobs. The Meierhenrys had farm hands to pay and one child in college. The prospect of losing the farm—their lifestyle and their family heritage—put pressure on the couple’s marriage.

Mike and Pat both became depressed, and Mike was too stressed to sleep. Pat said her husband “became a person that I really didn’t recognize.” She worked as a nurse, and a divorced co-worker made singleness sound attractive to her. As Pat and Mike dealt with private stress, in public they pretended everything was fine, attending their kids’ sports games and working together on projects. But Mike at one point confessed to one of their sons, “I don’t even know if I’m going to stay married.” 

Finally, a turning point came in 1985 when Pat insisted Mike see a local pastor for counseling. After that meeting, Mike came home and felt enough relief to sleep through the night. Pat noticed and decided to meet with the counselor too. The counselor encouraged them to confess their sins and forgive each other, and told them, “Before we save this farm, we have to save this family.” 

After three counseling sessions and that simple advice, the couple’s marriage improved. Although they still fought sometimes, they worked to reconcile, prioritizing their relationship. Meanwhile, the situation with the farm gradually improved. Mike found and applied for a government loan program that guaranteed the bank some interest if it cooperated. He joined a farm business association and learned many farmers were having financial problems like his. After a while, he began counseling some of them.

The Meierhenrys worked to get out of debt and finally paid off their last loan 10 years ago. They invited their former neighbors to a small party to celebrate.

When farming with post-polio syndrome became too much for Mike, the couple moved near Lincoln, where they ran a bed-and-breakfast and worked side jobs. Mike, 89, now spends most of his time at their townhouse, reading newspapers, watching TV sports and news, and playing chess. Pat, 81, cares for Mike and keeps busy with friend dates and church activities.

The Meierhenrys nearly lost both their farm and their marriage, but today, they’ve been married 59 years. And the farm? They rent it out to tenants—and still try to visit a couple of times a year.