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Emptying a place for bigness

By Robert A. Creighton
Prairie Writers Circle

(Monday, Dec. 16, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- When I came to northwestern Kansasí Rawlins County in 1960, fresh out of law school with my bride from a big East Coast city, the population exceeded 5,000. Four hundred more people lived on farms and ranches than in the three incorporated towns.

Like me, many other young lawyers came west to the high plains in the early 1960s because there was economic opportunity. My wife and I liked the community so much that we stayed. Ours was a good decision. Our aspirations and our dreams were fulfilled.

Today, 42 years later, Rawlins Countyís population is less than 3,000. Only a trickle of young lawyers come, and the professionís average age in the twelve northwest Kansas counties has increased to 54 -- just a couple of years younger than the average for the farmers.

Meanwhile, the farms and ranches have gotten bigger, and today 300 fewer people live on them than in town. Our rural population has dropped from 2,700 to 1,300, leaving 1,400 fewer people to buy goods and services.

When you ask those of us left in northwest Kansas if it remains a good place to live, you will get a resounding "yes" from nearly everyone. Over the years our county seats built impressive infrastructure. We have hospitals, churches, splendid schools, police protection, fire protection, high speed Internet, grocery stores, restaurants, banks, newspapers, television, radio, retail stores, professional services, golf courses, parks, fishing, hunting, clubs and other recreational facilities.

Yet people here, unlike many of our friends, relatives and children now in the new, look-alike homes sprawling around our nationís cities, still enjoy the satisfaction of living in a community where we know each other, and without city traffic and tension.

We worry that this way of life is at risk. If our population decline continues at its current pace, we will not have enough people to maintain our infrastructure beyond this generation.

For seventy years, we accepted that farms must enlarge to be efficient and profitable. However, as farms enlarge, fewer people live on the land. We thought the only solution to our population decline was job creation through industrialization, or, more recently, the Internet. We have had some success, but not enough. Until we start working for the day when the size of a profitable farm is not larger, but smaller, our population will continue to decline.

If there is a solution to our population decline, we have less than a generation to find it.

Our current agriculture policy and strategy is depleting our soil, using up our aquifer water, jeopardizing our environment and producing products with possible health risks. This is not sustainable. And we all know it. If there is a strategy to repopulate our farms and ranches, it canít be with chemicals, high water use, confined livestock factories -- and probably not with biotechnology.

Farm commodity buyers, those who convert farm products into the groceries we eat, might need to pay a higher price to the farmer and rancher. And the consumer might have to pay more for food. But if farm product sales go up and input expenses go down, there will be more farmers on the same number of acres, and the communities that serve these farmers will survive.

In the long run, everyone will benefit, because there will be a sustainable and safe food supply. If we wait too long to act, our opportunity will pass. The high plains will be deserted for the return of the bison, and our graves will be far from our living descendents. Is that what we want?

Robert Creighton is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He is a l awyer with Brown, Creighton and Peckham in Atwood, Kan., and has served as mayor, county attorney and chairman of the state Board of Regents.