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Geographically speaking: The gains in pain come mainly in the Plains

by Wylie Harris

(Friday, Aug. 27, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Lately the rural formerly agricultural United States keeps popping up in the news. The attention is appropriate. The last time the Great Plains got this much coverage was also the last time it hemorrhaged so many people, in the dark days at the pit of the Great Depression. Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 700 U.S. counties lost 10 percent or more of their residents. Color them in on a map of the nation, and you get a broad band from Texas to North Dakota, straight up the middle of the Plains, with smaller pockets of color in other rural places, like Appalachia and the Missisippi Delta. That population loss is what most of the media buzz is about, along with the economic decline that plays either chicken or egg depending on how you pluck it. Political pundits have been buzzing lately over the chance that the rural vote, in a turn against the incumbent, might throw this year's presidential election to the challenger. To Harpers magazine, this makes sense; Thomas Franks wondered, in a recent article there, why Loup County, Nebraska, with the lowest per capita income of any county in the country, handed a 75 percent landslide to G.W. Bush in 2000. But when Clinton took office, Loup County wasn't the poorest; its per-capita income dropped by over 40 percent after that while the national average was rising by the same amount. During those same 8 years, only 24 U.S. counties saw their per capita incomes decrease. Six of them were in Nebraska; Texas was in second place with five. Sixteen of the 24 were in the Plains. With a record like that, there's not much to back up Democrat's claims that the rural Plains vote Republican against their own best interests. It's not that the GOP is free from blame for the Plains' economic misery rather, they can only claim partnership in it.

Harpers isn't the only publication missing the larger picture behind the decline of the rural U.S. National Geographic recently offered its own take on the changing Plains. The article depicts disappearing family farms and rural communities as a tragic but inevitable sacrifice on the altar of progress, but finds bright spots in the comeback of the native grasses and buffalo, and the fact that Native American populations on the reservations are increasing again for the first time in a long while. Taking a longer view, a devilishly circular irony pops up in that portrayal namely, that the cowboys and the Indians have traded places. When the U.S. Army was busily clearing the Indians out of the farmers' way, the same rhetoric of progress and sacrififice was invoked, with about as much truth, to salve the national conscience. As Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have written, rural folk are the new "redskins" "surplus people" in the way of progress. (See 'Redskins, rednecks, and ragheads: Thoughts on apophenia and inevitability' at http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=2676)

Berry's objections to National Geographic's presentation of farming and farmers go back decades. In his book The Unsettling of America, Berry took exception to a 1970 Geographic article featuring "The Farm of the Future." Feeding its cattle mechanically in "multilevel pens" to "conserve ground space," that future farm's present-day incarnation is an environmental and social disaster known as a feedlot. The 1970 article eagerly anticipated the arrival of such an arrangement, predicting only the best of outcomes. Three decades on, the current one chronicles the less-rosy realities giant feedlots seem to pop up in advance of declining per capita incomes as faithfully as GOP presidential vote majorities followed them in 2000 but refrains from acknowledging the irony of the contrast between them and the warm welcome that the same publication gave factory farms back in 1970.

For his part, Wes Jackson actually appears in the current Geographic article, describing his Land Institute's efforts to breed a mixture of perennial crop plants whose permanent roots will hold soil the way the current mix of annual ones can't. The story presents other visions for the Plains' future, like Frank and Deborah Popper's Buffalo Commons, which would send herds of bison grazing over abandoned farmsteads. The article may wear blinders for its gaze into history, but its eyes for the future are, as in 1970, wide open and full of roses. A Plains full of perennial grainfields and grazing bison is an enchanting vision, one worth the striving. But it will be realized on a longer timeline, if ever; Jackson himself sees the Land Institute beginning to attain its goals on a quarter- to half-century horizon.

Meanwhile, neither Geographic nor Harpers pays any mind to practical alternatives that are working, and keeping their practitioners in place on the land, in the here and now. Promising legislation crops up here and there, and Geographic does mention the so-called New Homestead Act, introduced in 2002 and again in 2003 by a bipartisan covey of rural senators. The Act would offer incentives, including college financing, home loans, tax breaks, and venture capital, to individuals and small businesses willing to stay in, or move to, rural counties with dwindling populations but it's sat firmly in committee since its introduction. At the state level, Nebraska balances its dubious honor as the state with the highest number of declining-income counties in the country, against the fact that it also has more farmers under the age of 35 than its neighbors. For that, many credit Measure I-300, which, like similar laws in a handful of other states, prohibits corporate ownership of farmland. Meanwhile, in a time-honored tradition, enterprising farmers are figuring out ways to help themselves when the government drags its feet.

Organic farming, typically perceived as the province of small fruit and vegetable growers close to upscale urban markets, also works for commodities like corn and soybeans. In fact, it works so well that as often as not, organic commodity farms are more profitable than their conventional counterparts even without price premiums. This is partly due to lower production costs, with no money spent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and partly due to greater drought resistance stemming from the higher organic matter content, (and thus water-holding capacity) of organically-farmed soils. Organic ranchers commonly see similar profit increases, for similar reasons, to those of organic farmers. Those who fatten their animals on pasture, rather than feeding them grain, can also end up creating more favorable wildlife habitat almost as a side effect of their practices.

The growth of organic farming is rivaled by that of direct marketing. Selling locally often carries similar economic advantages, enabling farmers to capture all the value of their product rather than passing it along to wholesalers and retailers. Direct marketing can also offer a sorely-needed shot in the arm for rural communities' flagging economies, keeping cash circulating locally. They can even be seen as a form of insurance, creating means of getting people and their food together when the oil, at the end of a process that truly is inevitable, finally runs out.

Examples like these clearly convey the message that the decline of rural communities isn't inevitable just profitable for those calling the shots, whichever side of the aisle they occupy. They're also a powerful illustration of how the various "securities" national, "homeland," economic, and food that so preoccupy the national debate, all are fundamentally advanced by the simple expedient of people growing people's food closer to where they eat it.

About the Author - Wylie Harris ranches with his family on their fifth generation cow-calf operation in Texas. At Texas A &M, he is working on range ecology. He is also a member of the 2003-2005 class of Food and Society Policy Fellows, a national program funded in part by the Kellogg Foundation, administered by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute and the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.