Blog for Rural America

The Center for Rural Affairs, a private, non-profit organization, is working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities. Permission to reprint items from this web log is hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, please let us know by sending an email to

Monday, December 26, 2005

If Rural Mattered - What It Might Look Like

Of course rural matters and today is a good example with the transit strike in New York City. As I was watching TV this morning sipping on a cup of fresh ground organic Kona Blend coffee that was purchased in a rural grocery store, I thought, "I'm sure glad we don't have that problem here." In fact, I can sometimes drive for 60 miles on a main highway and not see another car. But I can drive the speed I want, not what the rest of the traffic dictates and, I can think.

For many years we've seen the rural to urban trend, not only in the Great Plains, but in the Canadian prairies as well. Most of us who live out here understand the cities are getting larger, that's just a fact. Winnipeg, Fargo, Sioux Falls, Omaha, Kansas City; they've all grown at the expense of the outlying rural areas. But the rural areas are worth fighting for. There's peace and tranquility, the night sky, trust in each other, you know where your food is coming from, and you know the difference between a cow and a steer.

Addressing your point about Washington; there are far too many people in Washington who believe if it is outside the beltway, it doesn't matter. Unfortunately for them, it does matter. Think for a moment if you took away the canola from North Dakota, the beef from Nebraska and the wheat from Kansas, where would we get those products, China, Argentina, Australia?

Now, lets assume that mega farms were allowed to operate. In my opinion that would eventually turn into corporate chaos. It may be good initially because people would be euphoric about new jobs and all that, but the control of corporate America we've seen so many times would take over the farm sector as well.

In the past couple of years I've done some research about organic farming. As you know the stereotype is for farms to get bigger and bigger to continue with a profit margin. Some farms, privately owned that I'm aware of, are in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 14,000 acres. To me, it's just ludicrous because they continue getting bigger and they continue farming for the bank.

Now, most of the organic farms in California are much smaller. In fact, more than half the organic vegetable farms are less than 100 acres. Some are as small as 10 and 14 acres. And they're making it. They are making profit. How can that be possible? Well, it is. They're land, machinery, taxes and labor is paid for, thus the product they produce, be it lettuce or garlic, is profit. Thus California organic farmers can afford to remain on the farm and make a living.

I am a beginning farmer. This past year, 2005, was my first growing season and I made a profit growing vegetables on one acre, yes, one acre, about 40 miles from the Canadian border. Last spring, before I purchased equipment, I was hoping to get a loan to buy a good garden tractor, seed and some other items to jump start production. USDA and the banks said one acre doesn't constitute a farm, but I ended up making more money than some of the small farms that grow wheat and barley. So, I made a promise to myself. I will not borrow money under any circumstances.

I will operate in the black, just like organic farmers do in California and when I make enough money selling cantaloupes, I will buy more riverbottom farmland and get bigger and all the time I will control the spending, not the bank. To me, bigger is 10 acres, not 10,000 acres.

Bigger isn't always better and the day is going to come when these little podunk towns in the panhandle of Nebraska, or near the international boundary in North Dakota are going to become pretty important. Have you ever heard of Kilgore or Albion, Nebraska, Leola or Presho, South Dakota, Hazelton or Noonan, North Dakota or Blue Rapids or Scott City, Kansas? I'll bet everyone in all those communities knows where Washington is?

Those small towns that are hanging on will come back. Too many people are going to get sick of the big city transit strikes and homicides and drug deals and political corruption, that they'll return to the "Buffalo Commons" that we call home. We like it here. We know there are four seasons and we know the difference between North and South Dakota.

Thanks from someone in rural America who is concerned about where his food is coming from. By the way, tonight my wife and I will be enjoying Grade AA Montana beef that we basically hand picked and paid about a third of what people in the big city grocery stores pay for it. Then, after dinner, we'll go out on the deck with a glass of organic red wine and watch the northern lights.

from a North Dakota reader,

post a question or comment here or contact John Crabtree,

Center for Rural Affairs
Values. Worth. Action.


  • At 7:20 PM, Anonymous Nancy G said…

    Those people from the urban areas are coming back, North Dakota. At least here in northwest Washington state (the other Washington). But when they come, they are bringing their urban lifestyle with them--strip malls, Wal-Mart, freeways, expectations that you can have the rural lifestyle you describe without giving up any of their urban "conveniences".

    Those "returning" people need our help. They often arrive, unbeknownst to themselves, with something "viral" that spreads (or rather "sprawls") and destroys the very lifestyle they are seeking.

    We who understand rural life and community and connection with the earth need to find a way to provide "health care" when our urban neighbors realize what they are missing and arrive to join us.

    First we need to innoculate ourselves against the "virus": against seeing the earth only as a resource with a price instead of as a living being, against the desire for the kind of money that can be made from subdivided land, against "taking care of number one" at the expense of long-term relationships. We need to put zoning laws and growth plans in place to control how growth will be allowed to happen. We need to insist that cities grow first within themselves (infill) and don't sprawl into rural areas.

    We also need to ensure that enough rural arable land is preserved to guarantee a sufficient food and clean public water supply for both the urban and rural dwellers of an area to survive sustainably. In our county, which looks pretty rural to most people and produces a huge quantity and variety of foods, we're already just passed the tipping point where we have more people than our arable land could comfortably sustain.

    After protecting our rural area itself, we need to find ways to help our urban newcomers to "recover" with regard to lifestyles. We need to help them understand the interconnectedness of rural life, and how respect and politeness are necessary to allow people who need each other to coexist for many years. We need to help them understand that a 3000 sq. ft. home is not usually required for a working couple with no children and that more undisturbed land might be of greater value than impeccable chemically treated landscaping. We need to help them understand that rural living involves more than just "owning" a piece of land. We need to convey the rural experience of community and point out what feeds and nurtures that experience.

    Here's an example of what I mean from my own circumstances. I live on a tiny island. We have a small ferry boat service that carries a dozen or so cars at a time between the mainland and our island. People who live on the island and commute to work in town (about 15 miles away on the mainland) often have to wait in the ferry line an hour or so to get back to the island in the evening, since there are more cars to cross than our little ferry can carry. In the summer and on weekends, lines can be even longer when people with island vacation homes come to visit.

    Also, when our ferry goes to drydock for a couple of weeks every fall to get maintaince work done, there is only a passenger ferry. Islanders have to organize their lives around that annual time period.

    Newcomers (and land developers) are frustrated by all this and are trying to persuade the county to invest in a larger ferry. What they don't realize is that more than a wait and their inconvenience is involved. That ferry line wait, and the ferry ride itself, acts kind of like a decompression chamber for a diver. During the wait, people have time to read, to think, to get out and visit with friends who are also in line--they have time to "decompress" and relax. By the time they arrive on the island, the stress from their work has had time to dissipate. They've had time to become calmer. They're more inclined to drive slower and enjoy the scenery. They wave at people they pass. They congenially give lots of room to bicyclists. That relaxation time in the ferry line and the short gently rocking ferry ride are integral foundations to the island lifestyle we all love so much. They buffer us from the frantic urban pace on the other side.

    Drydock time also is important in ways that are not obvious. It gives us something in common, an experience we all share that is unique to living on our island. When the passenger-only ferry is running, we sit together around tables in the passenger compartment and get reacquainted with friends we haven't seen recently, or become acquainted with newcomers we haven't met yet. People with nothing else in common talk to each other during those drydock weeks. We learn about our own diversity. The experience is priceless. Plans for a larger ferry include using the existing car ferry during drydock, and will eliminate the community opportunities that the passenger-only ferry provides.

    In short, when urban people decide to move to a rural lifestyle, they need to be prepared to give up some "conveniences" and we rural folk need to be prepared to protect our valuable "inconveniences". This requires planning and effort from all of us. We have to decide what is important to us and identify the foundations that support it. We have to fine ways to articulate what we value to new neighbors.

    Thank you for your article, North Dakota. It's so important for these discussions to be happening.


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