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Small towns suffer from decline in farming
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
July 9, 2001
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There was a time when small communities throughout the Great Plains flourished. But for years now, a host of powerful forces, including farm consolidation, are sparking an exodus from farm country. Critics say federal policies intended to support family
There was a time when North Dakota and much of America's interior was dotted with farmhouses. In 1940, there were more than six million farms nationwide and more than 30 million people living on or near farms. Now, 60 years and many technological advances later, the number of farms has dropped by two-thirds to two million, and the farm population is down to just one-fifth of its peak, at slightly over six million. See more images.
(MPR Photo/Andrew Haeg)
farms are partly responsible for the decline of these towns. The plight of Great Plains farming communities, and concern over whether agricultural subsidies are spurring the rise of large-scale farms, are lend new urgency to the debate in Washington and in the Midwest over how to stem the decline.

ON A RECENT MAY AFTERNOON, IN CAYUGA, N.D., in the far southeastern part of the state, several ex-farmers were holding a party for a recently divorced friend. Pastor Ed Langeliers paused to bemoan the decline of towns like Cayuga. The main street is overgrown with grass and weeds, and its only church holds services just once a month. Langeliers says as farm towns fade, so does a certain rural spirit that he cherishes.

"There's a connection that you don't have. You can't understand it unless you've experienced that connection," says Langeliers. "The farmers used to stick together. If you had a need, you'd go over there. There's nobody there, there's vacant farms now."

What's springing up instead are corporate-style farms like the one belonging to Dale Reimers. He lives in Jamestown, N.D. Together with his father, two brothers and his uncle, Reimers works an astonishing 20,000 acres of crops - well beyond North Dakota's average farm size of 1,000 acres. Reimers has bought some of the largest, most sophisticated machines available so he can sweep over the land in as few trips as possible.

"For most modern tillage drills, the maximum width is 60 feet, we operate several 60-foot units. For sprayers, the maximum is 90 feet, and we operate several 90-foot sprayers. You just kind of go to the maximum, and that's what you need," says Reimers.

This is high-tech, capital-intensive farming at its purest. Reimers says the farm is like a factory, and his family runs it like a corporation - paying strict attention to profit margins and prices to squeeze every last drop of profit from the land.

Reimers has built his farm up to its current size by buying and renting land from farmers leaving the business. While he's benefited from the easy availability of crop land, Reimers says his satisfaction is tempered by a sense of what's disappeared.

"In the '60s, when you pulled up to a grain elevator, it was a cultural experience. You'd get in line and you had to wait. And everybody would have to assist each other with preparing your truck to be unloaded, rolling the tarp, and get out and get in line," says Reimers. "And there'd be visits. There was always the guy that was the community anchor. He was wise and knowledgeable. And there was the guy that always exaggerated and always told a story that wasn't completely true. But you heard all these stories in a circle - it was your true connectivity to the community. And you didn't think it was all going to go away," he says.

There was a time when North Dakota and much of America's interior was dotted with farmhouses. In 1940, there were more than six million farms nationwide and more than 30 million people living on or near farms. Now, 60 years and many technological advances later, the number of farms has dropped by two-thirds to two million, and the farm population is down to just one-fifth of its peak, at slightly over six million.

Dale Reimers farms an astonishing 20,000 acres in Jamestown, N.D., with his brother, father and two uncles. Reimers' operation is indicative of a growing trend throughout the Plains states towards larger, corporate-style farming.
(MPR Photo/Andrew Haeg)
Nowhere is this trend more acute than on the plains. Between 1988 and 1997, 85 percent of counties in the nine states making up the Great Plains lost population. Dwight Aakre farms in Hawley, Minn., 40 miles from his other office at North Dakota State University in Fargo, where he's an agriculture economist.

"It gets to be a domino effect. One business folds, a few jobs disappear, a few families move out. Pretty soon you've got less business for the remaining businesses. And eventually it's the case where the last one out turns off the lights," he says.

Aakre says he believes farm subsidies from the federal government have helped farmers survive. But he and other critics of farm policy point out that bigger, highly-mechanized farms have flourished with the benefit of huge federal subsidies - nearly $390 billion since 1960, and $32 billion last year alone.

Ford Runge, professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, says roughly 10 percent of farmers receive about 90 percent of the subsidies. That's because most federal farm payments are tied to acreage - and have no real caps on the amount of money a farm can receive. So, the more land, the more money. And Runge says larger farms are using the subsidies to grow even bigger.

"We've sent too many subsidies to too few people. And we've created policies which have emiserised, or made rural areas poorer than they would otherwise have been, ironically," says Runge.

Consider for example Minnesota's seventh congressional district, which covers the state's northwestern counties. Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson's constituents reaped some $4 billion in subsidies between 1985 and 2000, according to numbers from the Department of Agriculture.

"That sounds like a lot of money. But even with that amount of money we've got producers under stress," says Peterson.

Peterson's district lost some 8,000 farm jobs from 1970 to 1998. Peterson says he and his allies have tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation, like per-farm subsidy payment limits, that would help smaller producers. He says his hands are tied, as many of the forces buffeting his constituents go far beyond the borders of his district, and the nation. He says bumper crops and the rise of the global agriculture trade are pushing prices down - forcing farmers to acquire more land, and ultimately depleting rural communities.

"It's really a bigger force than I think the government can impact. We can make some differences around the edges. But economics are driving producers all over the world to bigger farms," Peterson says.

Some analysts say it's time to change the way the government hands out subsidies.

Fred Kirschenmann, Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, is one of them. Kirschenmann, who also farms 3,500 acres of organic crops in North Dakota, says America needs to decide if it wants farms to keep growing larger and larger.

"So it's really a question of what kinds of values we hold, and what kind of future do we want. And if the kinds of values that we hold includes having vibrant rural communities in this country, then we can create the commercial rules and support the market opportunities that will do that," says Kirschenmann.

Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., co-sponsored the Conservation Security Act with Rep. Tom Harkin, D-IA. Their proposal would pay farmers to stay on the land and practice environmental stewardship.
(MPR Photo/Andrew Haeg)
Those charged with creating the commercial rules - namely, members of Congress - are currently shaping a new farm bill to replace the Freedom to Farm Act, which expires next year.

There's growing support on both sides of the aisle for measures that would better target federal subsidies. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, has co-authored a bill with Rep. John Thune, R-South Dakota, that would pay farmers to stay on the land. Under their plan, the government would pay farmers up to $50,000 per year to act as stewards of the land. That means doing such things as planting vegetative buffers to stop chemicals from leeching into streams and rivers. Or leaving plant stalks in the ground when it's tilled, to enrich the soil and reduce pests. Advocates say big, corporate style farms have less interest in adopting such methods.

"I think there's great value in having the land farmed by family farm operations, for a lot of reasons," says Rep. Thune. At Wall Drug in Wall, S.D., Thune talked about his support for a conservation bill targeted at small farmers.

"If we can keep more farmers on the land, provide them an incentive to do what they do best, and also accomplish a number of other objectives in the process - conservation, environmental benefits, and wildlife habitat - I think it's a win-win proposal all the way around," he says.

As a rural legislator, Thune wants to protect his constituency - which is declining. But like a growing number of those in Congress, Thune believes as long as the federal government supports agriculture, it ought to have something other than large farms and dying towns to show for it.

Next Story: Farm towns look for ways to survive