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

Friday, January 06, 2006

What if Rural Mattered?

What if Rural Mattered?

The question itself is presumptuous. And it depends on ones point of view, I guess. In pop culture, in New York City and Los Angeles, and on Wall Street, not many concern themselves with rural people. In Washington, the same is often true.

So, what if rural mattered? Would mega farms be allowed to use unlimited farm payments to drive beginning farmers and smaller operations out of business? Would rural development always be the last farm bill programs funded and the first cut? Would rural poverty and economic hardship be as enduring and persistent as they are now?

If you read what I have written in these pages, you know what I think. But what do you think? What is the value of rural America? What makes it worth fighting for? What would it look like, if rural mattered – not more than we deserve, not less – but if we just truly mattered?

Send me an e-mail, write me a letter or post a comment here - because I want to know, we all need to know, what it would look like if rural mattered.

John Crabtree
Center for Rural Affairs
Box 136
Lyons, NE 68038

Center for Rural Affairs
Values. Worth. Action.


  • At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You are absolutley correct in saying that urban areas think that rural America doesn't matter, but what I don't understand is why?
    The only suggestion I can personally come up with is that maybe rural America is just too passive? Perhaps we don't stand up for ourselves enough? Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that we already know we are hard working honest Americans and so why scream out about it?

    Well that right there is the problem. We don't stand up for ourselves because many rural Americans figure that we have enough problems to deal with in our daily lives and so then we leave the political issues to our elected officials.

    It amazes me how many people I've talked to that have never contacted their Senators or Congressmen! It is our duty as Americans to do just that, and if our elected officials don't know what we are thinking and what we want, they vote on what they think is best which in too many situations is influenced by lobbyists. Instead of sitting in the local coffee shops complaining about how this is cut and that is cut and how farmers are always on the verge of losing their farms, do something about it! Stand up for yourselves! If we don't no one else will and I think history has proven that.

    Rural America has so much to offer. We have outstanding schools, we are good, hardworking people, and without our farmers, we would have to depend on other countries for food.

    Is rural America worth fighting for? You bet it is! I think what we need to start doing is showing the rest of the country what we already know and I think that we might be surprised at what rural America would look like!

  • At 10:04 AM, Blogger caalatalo said…

    I live in Iowa City, Iowa. What used to be a very rural area is increasingly becoming more and more "urbanized". Area that used to be farms, with acres upon acres of crops are now strip malls or housing developments. It is sad to see.

  • At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The question is not whether rural America matters, it is how much does it matter?
    Today, the cities in rural America dominate the zones deemed as rural America. If there is money spent to improve rural zones, that money flows to the center. In the case of Iowa, more money is spent in the 10 miles surrounding the capital then in any part of the state. Who benefits from these improvements? It is not likely the people who live in northern Iowa. These are the zones that matter.
    The outlying zones are deemed as places to raise livestock and pollute the water. The outlying zones are also blamed for the pollution that places like Des Moines spends millions a year cleaning up so they can drink the water.
    I think it is obvious in Washington that rural America matters because most of the key talks in Washington deal with issues that are critical to rural areas.
    Check your history. Rural America matters, but it matters more if you have condos and arenas.

  • At 9:53 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    OK, so these are some of the best posts we have ever had on the Blog for Rural America. And there seems to be general agreement that rural America does matter, or should matter.

    Perhaps I can ask another question. We all seem to agree that Rural should matter. But imagine for a moment that Rural did matter as much as we all think it should. What would rural America look like if that were true?

    John Crabtree,
    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action.

  • At 7:07 AM, Blogger mevery said…

    Re-apportionment! That is the reason rural communities are struggling. Take a look in your own states and compare the swing from rural to urban in your state legislatures over the last ten years. The reason that rural is looking more and more like it doesnt matter is because to a majority of your legislators, it does not. In the next election, make sure that all of your neighbors know that their votes do matter now more than ever. If we do not want to "get the crap kicked out of us," then we had better pay closer attention to the effectiveness of our current legislators and how re-evaluate how we are voting. This blog will help to spread that message. Nice work John!

  • At 12:02 PM, Anonymous RuralPopulist said…

    It seems to me that the important question is not "What if rural mattered?" The answer to that is fairly straight forward.

    Rather we need to ask (and answer) the question "What can we do to make rural matter?"

  • At 5:57 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    In response to RuralPopulist. I agree, asking whether or not rural America matters seems silly. Of course it does. And we must continue to define what all Americans, rural Americans in particular, can do to ensure that we get the respect and consideration we are due.

    But I am also asking what it would look like if we reached that point. What is the vision that people have for the future of rural America? What is it about rural America that is worth fighting for?

    John Crabtree,
    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action.

  • At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sadly, these farms (mega farms) aren't going away. In a perverse logic that defies nature, a farm needs to get ever larger and more specialized to survive.

    The number of farms with annual sales of more than $500,000 has increased 23 percent from 1997 to 2002. American farm policy, with a dazzling menu of subsidies, will keep us on this path for the foreseeable future.

    The answer to this agricultural puzzle lies somewhere in the middle.

    Actually, it lies exactly in the middle, with the nation's 350,000 midsize farmers. These farmers, who are too big to sell directly to greenmarkets but too small to compete with highly subsidized industrial farms, cultivate more than 40 percent of our farmland.

    Such farmers tend to be highly effective stewards of the land, with intimate knowledge of their farms and their communities. They are small-business owners - not corporations - and have proven records of being interested in protecting not just the economic health of the land, but its ecological health as well.

    Unfortunately, these farmers are also on the way out. Midsize farms, with sales of $50,000 to $500,000, are declining rapidly. According to government figures, the number of these farms has declined 14 percent from 1997 to 2002, a net loss of nearly 65,000 farms.

    According to Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable
    Agriculture at Iowa State, it is no longer hard to imagine that most of the farms of the middle will be gone in another a decade.

    Why should we care? Because our ways of farming are intimately linked to the destructive ways we're eating. Think about your local supermarket.

    There's fresh produce on the perimeter; but venture into the middle aisles and you're surrounded by processed, canned, preserved and frozen foods.

    It may appear to be a world of variety, but look closer. The cookies, granola bars, crackers, chips, salad dressings and baby food all have one thing in common: they are made from derivations of corn, soy and sugar. About 70 percent of our agricultural land in the Midwest is devoted to producing these crops.

    The farms that produce these single commodities average about 14,000 acres, roughly the size of Manhattan. And the future? Thomas Dorr, under secretary of agriculture for rural affairs, has predicted that 250,000-acre behemoths will dominate agriculture. If they do, the number if farms in Mr. Dorr's home state, Iowa, would drop to about 120 from 89,000.

    That shouldn't come as a surprise. "Get big or get out" has been what farmers have been told for decades. And big farms have come with one big benefit: inexpensive food. Americans spend a smaller percentage of their disposable income for food than anyone else in the developed world. But these savings are illusory.

    A funny thing happened on the way to our cheap food system. The books were being cooked in a kind of shell game, Enron-style. The real cost of these monocultures were not being properly accounted for: those taxpayer-financed subsidies ($143 billion over the last decade), the unfairness that results when our excess production gets dumped on developing countries that then can't develop their own resources, the environmental effects of pesticide runoff - the list goes on.

    Midsize farms have the potential to be profitable without these hidden costs. After all, there's a large, existing market - school systems, hospitals, local grocery chains, food service distributors - for varied, healthier foods.

    These institutions, because of their size, cannot shop at the farmers' market. Even if they could, there would never be enough volume or consistency to meet their needs.

    Midsize farms can meet those needs. They may be caught up in the commodity game right now - trying to expand, trying to focus on single crops - but that's largely because that's where the incentives are. For many of these farms, racing to keep up will be their downfall.

    We need to encourage these farms to do what they do best: grow a variety of crops, raise a variety of animals, resist the temptation to grow too much.

    from an article by Dan Barber in the New York Times

  • At 11:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'll tell you one thing. If rural people mattered we would not be working for less than 80% of the wages (for the same work) that our urban cousins get. And rural towns would stop selling us down the river by always using economic development dollars to bring in low wage jobs. If "rural mattered" we make the same wages for the same work.

  • At 11:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    if rural America mattered the way that it should, people would bother to ask us what we want. I don't mean to ignore the fact that the Center for rural Affairs is asking this question John. But people rarely ask what rural people want, for our families, our kids, or our little towns. If rural people mattered we be talking about how to deal with population growth instead of depopulation.

  • At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I guess if rural mattered, don't you think the country would be a little more concerned that the "family farm" is becoming a thing of the past?

    ND Ag Commissioner Roger Johnson said that with the high costs of fuel and Anhydrous, that even more farmers are going to have to quit farming.

    When is our country going to start becoming a little more alarmed by this? When is our government going to start caring a little more that these endangered farms that are going under have been owned for generations, just as the some of the corporations and businesses that the government is always so worried about have?

    John asked what we think rural Americal would look like if we did matter.

    Well I think for one, you wouldn't see farmers losing their precious farms. I think you would see more of our food being produced right here in the Midwest where it ought to be, I think you would see higher paying jobs, I think that economically things would become a lot more stable and you would actually see businesses and families thrive financially. Its been said that good jobs aren't available in the Midwest because there aren't the people to fill those jobs. Well you could easily turn that question around and simply say that if there were better jobs...then you'd have more people in the workforce. Much of the Midwest if fortunate to have low unemployment, but that is mainly because each of us have to have 2 or 3 jobs just to survive!

    I think that you would once again see kids answer the question "What do you want to do when you grow up" with the once frequent response- "I want to be a farmer". When is the last time you have heard that?

    Keep up the great work John! This is one of the best discussions you've had on the board!

  • At 3:12 PM, Blogger Sara E Anderson said…

    This question prompted a really long response from me, so I dumped it on my blog. An excerpt:

    There is a certain segment of rural Americans who are demanding too much of the rest of the country. Taxpayers have no responsibility to subsidize your MaryJane Butters lifestyle. On the other hand, there are many more rural Americans who are not getting what the rest of the country has promised them. I should say again that I don't pretend to be able to authoritatively separate fact from fantasy on this issue, and I can't provide the crunchy economic and policy details that show what's what in rural economies. If we're going to be serious about fixing the real and heartbreaking problem of rural poverty, we have to separate the mythology from the reality.

    Rural isn't what matters, it's rural Americans.

    Check out the rest here.

    I'll definitely keep an eye on BfRA, though, this is a great find. Good conversation and great topic.

  • At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    All I can say about the previous post is "Oh my God".

    This sort of attitude is exactly what is killing rural America. Ignorance and uneducated.

    That family farm is not a "romantic lifestyle"! Is she high?

    Here is a thought Sara, maybe if the government wouldn't screw over the family farmer with cuts in the programs and low grain prices, the family farm would be more "economically feasible"

    I don't farm, I've been a so called city girl (if you can call someone that in North Dakota) but I take GREAT offense to Sara referring to farmers-who by the way are trying to make an effort to save their industry- as a MaryJaneButters Lifestyle. Who do you think you are exactly? Oh I remember...someone that lives in Idaho that needs to get a serious clue.

  • At 3:48 PM, Blogger Sara E Anderson said…

    Anon, while I don't think my post was ever going to make you happy, when I was referring to the MaryJane Butters lifestyle, I was referring to the well-educated commuters I was speaking about earlier in the post.

    I don't profess to know the ins and outs of any kind of economics, but if small family farms lose in the face of larger, more efficient operations, why do we need them? You wouldn't want to lend me that clue you think I need, would you?

  • At 3:56 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    Sara, what if smaller farm operations lose in the face of LESS efficient industrial operations that are subsidized on every acre and use that taxpayer money to bid up land costs and drive smaller operations out of business. That would not be efficiency or free enterprise - but rather government policy.

    If that were the case, which i would argue is the case right now, why would we need the large operations then?

    BTW, welcome, i read your full post. You make some very interesting points - not sure i agree with all of them, but interesting.

    I hope you will stick around.

  • At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Here is an example Sara,

    Do you shop at businesses such as Walmart or Target? I'm assuming you do as most Americans have at one time or another.

    While I'm not bashing the discount chain stores in any way, however wouldn't you agree that there is something nicer about shopping in a local business? A business that you know your money is going to stay in the community you live in. Money that is going to help your community thrive? A business that the owner of the store cares if you shop there and will do whatever it takes to have you return to their business?

    Think of that as the small family farm in a way.

    No need to return the clue, consider it a gift.

  • At 4:27 PM, Blogger Sara E Anderson said…

    CfRA, thanks for a bit of an example there. Our terms when we talk about "small family farms" and such obviously need some defining here, and I did walk into this conversation expecting to come out with changed views.

    The theme that I guess I'm taking issue with here is the all-or-nothing way that issues like this are presented. Mom and Pop's isn't the only alternative to Wal-Mart. (FYI I avoid Wal-Mart like the plague, but am by no means a perfectly socially-conscious consumer)

    It's not like the only choices we have are organic subsistence farming or feedlot wastelands. I shop at Costco because it's an employee-friendly business, even if it is a big business. I buy organic occasionally but not always. If most most Americans changed their shopping habits and 15% of the food they bought was organic (or if general mills used 15% organic grains in its products), the impact would be huge. For whatever reasons, most Americans don't care about good farm policy or organic farming. Apathy is difficult to combat, but it's even harder when you're asking people to spend more (often a lot more) of their money for something they don't care about. Policy can only make people do so much, and then there's the question of how much we want done anyway.

  • At 4:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    OK, I have wandered into the middle of a conversation so please let me say that if I miss some points made previously, I am sorry.

    I agree about Wal-Mart, evil place. And I guess I agree that "mom and pop" is not the only answer.

    But I think, Sara, that while to mention confronting myths about rural America - you also perpetuate some myths.

  • At 4:52 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    One argument for the Mom and Pops -- this probably counts as crunchy economic stuff - LOL.

    Since 1990, half of all the jobs created in the United States were created by firms with 5 or fewer employees - 50% - making microenterprise and self-employment the single most important engine in new job creation in the U.S.

    just my two cents - John

    John Crabtree,
    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action

  • At 5:04 PM, Blogger Sara E Anderson said…

    A couple of interesting links regarding small business


    The points there I think are pretty interesting are that small businesses are environments in which it's impossible for employees to oprganize, and there's nothing about small business that guarantees a good workplace environment. I'm reminded of the misplaced rage at Starbucks that you see so often, when Starbucks' wages and benefits (and stock options!) are better than what my barista friends could dream of getting at their independent businesses. Big business isn't The Answer, but I think we need to appreciate that big business isn't always bad and that it is a reality we can't wish away.

  • At 5:32 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    Sara, good and valid points, but let me challenge them anyway - LOL.

    I stand with you on the point that Big Business vs. small business need not be the only consideration here.

    Yes, small businesses are often difficult to organize. Two things in response - first, Wal-Mart is exceedingly difficult to organize as well as are many comparable transnational corporations (and the labor movement is not getting much help from the NLRB, the current administration, Congress, etc. these days). Having said that, I was the shop steward and negotiated a contract for a very small union shop (fewer than 10 employees) so it is not impossible (but that is anecdotal evidence that is specific to my experience).

    Moreover, I made the point about microenterprise development being a sound economic engine, not because I think these businesses are always or in every way better than their larger competitors, but because rural communities have the capacity to develop and be home to these businesses. Many small rural communities will never be able to recruit a large, Fortune 500 company to town even if they wanted to and even if it were good for their community (both debatable points).

    Yes, I agree, the choice is not subsistence farming vs. industrial feedlots. But, in most cases, organic farming is far from subsistence farming - this is a bit of a side point - organic farming is one of the most profitable sectors in agriculture. In large part because organic farmers are able to exchange what they have (skilled labor and management) for a premium in the market place (because consumers, some, not all but a growing number are willing to pay that premium). When farmers are able to break from a commodified market and realize a premium for their skilled labor and management, they are more profitable without direct government intervention.

    Policy is not the only answer, but it can and does favor an economic structure that does not benefit rural communities. Nor do these policies favor taxpayers, developing nations, those living in poverty, or small and mid-size farmers. They do favor large, transnational agribusiness and the nation's largest farms, however.

    To all of you, this has been a lively debate and I, for one, appreciate your participation. God knows we need to debate these issues. So, keep firing away.

    John Crabtree
    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action.

  • At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sorry, I had to leave in mid post. As I was saying, perpetuating myths. For example, the myth about large farms being more efficient than smaller operations.

    First, you mention the efficiency of very large farms. But there is a signficant body of evidence that large farms are not more efficient but rather depend on market power and federal subsidies to cash flow their operations - tools that are not available to smaller farms.

    One signficant piece of evidence is the growth of very small farm, micro-farms or as some like to dismissively call them "hobby farms" In fact, these small farms, often only a handful of acres and often growing food for human consumption instead of livestock consumption, represent the only sector in farming that is growing in number. And despite the misnomer of "hobby farm" many of these farms produce signficant income for their owners despite being almost totally ignored in many agricultural circles.

    Check out the post in the previous post on this blog by the North Dakotan with a one acre farm that he hopes to grow to 10 acres.

  • At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I don't want to discourage those who have posted in this dialogue already - I have enjoyed reading the posts and the arguments. So, with all due respect, I'll add my piece - what's wrong with having a little vision and with thinking that we don't have to give up every aspect of our lives to big corporations. Of course some big corporations are worse than others, just like people.

    But everything in our society, everything, is being dominated or domination is being pursued by corporations. Every sector.

    Mr. Crabtree, I don't all the answers to your question, but if rural places mattered, if rural people mattered, hell, if people anywhere mattered - then people would have some say - farms, ranches, businesses, newspapers, radio stations, banks, hospitals, grocery stores, drug stores - even the government - would be owned or controlled by people, not corporations.

  • At 1:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is indeed a fascinating topic. Thanks for your thoughtful post, and for the link to Blog for Rural America, which is new to me.

    As someone who has lived everywhere from New York City to several tiny towns in Idaho and Ohio, I have lived every perspective, but I'd be lying if I said I've figured out how to sustain rural America. Here are two thoughts, though:

    There seems to be a growing network of community-supported farms that operate on the outskirts of urban areas and offer fresh produce to subscribers, as well as at farmers' markets. (One here near Boise is Morning Owl Farms.) Establishing such enterprises may be one way for people who love working the land to continue doing so.

    There also seems to be continuing vitality in America's far-flung small towns: those remotely located but with enough critical mass in population to create a self-sustaining community. Have a look at this fascinating profile of the mayor of Prairie City, Oregon:

    http:// smartcommunities.typepad....amsher_may.html

    Be sure to follow the links about how he won his job and what he's doing now that he's in charge. It's worth noting that Prairie City will never be an exurb; it's way too far away from anywhere to be swallowed up by urban sprawl or become inundated with chain stores - two threats faced by rural American places closer to urban America.

  • At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Very interesting dialog John. The large corperate farms can feed the world, but not our local economy.

    In North Dakota, factory hog farms don't pay property taxes on their buildings. Because of that fact they externalize much of their "commons use" ie.(roads,schools,natural resources, etc.) onto the rest of the taxpayers in their communities without much benefit to those communities. They tend to buy most of their suppiles in volume from outside the community, pay poor wages, don't use the local sales barn, etc. while most of their profits go out of state or country....a drag on the community.

    On the other hand, the smaller farrow-to-finish operations buy and sell locally. Their dollars turn over 4-5 times before they leave the community.

    Since these large factory hog farms have taken over the indstry all over the nation and driving the family farms out of business, our community has lost millions of dollars in revenue in the last 10-12 years. Dean

  • At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    If rural mattered, we would all take a hard look at the connection, if any, between the government's farm subsidy program and the economic vitality of rural areas. Considering the economic decline of rural America the past few decades, I'd postulate there is no connection and it's time to do away with crop subsidies entirely.

  • At 2:41 AM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    Actually, there is some research from the Center for Rural Studies that shows that economic vitality of rural counties is inversly proportional to amount of commodity program support - the more commodity program subsidies, the worse off that county is likely to be. I'll find that tomorrow and post some information about that.

    John Crabtree
    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action.

  • At 5:02 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    In a previous post, a question was raised about the connection between farm subsidies (such as commodity programs) and rural economic vitality. An interesting report you should look at is the Center for the Study of Rural America's report "Do Farm Payments Promote Rural Economic Growth?

    In short, their answer is no. According to the report, "Farm payments are not providing a strong boost to the rural economy in those counties that most depend on them. Job gains are weak and population growth is actually negative in most of the counties where farm payments are the biggest share of income..."

    John Crabtree,

    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action.


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