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Farm towns look for ways to survive
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
July 10, 2001
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The continuing decline of small agricultural communities in the Great Plains is fueling a search for ways to keep people from moving away. Increasingly, rather than looking to federal or state governments for aid, townspeople are trying to save themselves.

In 1930, more than 30 million people lived on farms. But as productivity increased, so did the exodus. This chart shows the rate of decline in 447 Great Plains' counties. See more data.
IT'S A HOT MAY DAY IN MCCOOK, NEB. in the far south-central part of the state. McCook, population 8,000, has a town square and a brick cobbled main street. Inside the town's Fox Theater, a band called the Buffalo Gals entertains an audience of about 400 people.

The Buffalo Gals are here with several storytellers for the seventh annual Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival. To understand the significance of the name, and the festival, some local history helps.

McCook first sprouted in the 1930s and '40s alongside a burgeoning agricultural economy. But McCook is losing population slowly and many of the towns around it are dying. McCook lies just south of Nebraska's Sandhills region, which according to the IRS contains two of the country's 10 poorest counties.

About 10 years ago, two Rutgers University demographers, Frank and Deborah Popper, came to McCook and told its residents that much of the Great Plains, especially their immediate environs, was simply not meant for civilization. They said the plains should return to what they called a "buffalo commons" - a restored grass prairie where buffalo roam, and tourists come from miles around to hunt and play.

McCookites took exception to the Poppers' thesis. So seven years ago, as a kind of jab at the academic couple, town leaders started the Buffalo Commons storytelling and music Festival.

"In an age now where communication defies distance, there are great opportunities for small communities to continue," says Jane Hood, who works with the Nebraska Humanities Council.

Hood helped start the festival as a way to highlight the assets of the region and the state - namely, the stories of the people who helped settle this hardscrabble landscape. The idea seems to be catching on. Organizers say this year more than 2,000 people attended the festival. Hood says the event is just part of a broader effort, in McCook and across Nebraska, to lure visitors and encourage residents to stay.

"If a small community is going to continue, it has to have something there for the people who live in that community. So Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival is a wonderful way to draw that history and that culture and the community together, and make this a much more livable place," Hood says.

It's doubtful that a storytelling festival by itself will guarantee McCook's survival. But it's a start. Townspeople and policy-makers in Nebraska and throughout the plains are searching for ways to build a future for small farm towns. Rural residents and activists say the federal government needs to find new methods to slow this exodus, and save the small towns of the Great Plains in the process.

"If they have to look to the federal government for economic vitality, that's a long-run losing proposition. It won't work," says Bruce Babcock, director of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State University. He points out that despite record federal subsidies, small towns continue to decline. He says it's up to rural towns to prove their worth at a time when their reason for being is becoming less clear.

"Smaller communities that want to save themselves, protect themselves, have got to figure out why they are there other than their own narrow interests that they want to be there," says Babcock. "What can they offer the world at large? Is it food production? Is it recreation?"

Some analysts say if farmers want to stay on the land, they should stop producing bulk commodities, and start growing crops for niche markets.
Bruce Babcock, director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University, says the decline of small towns is an unfortunate sidebar to the otherwise stunning story of America's agricultural success.
Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, says the growing popularity of organic food shows consumers are willing to pay more for food produced without chemicals, on smaller farms.

"What we're suggesting is that we test market something like hogs produced in Iowa in a way that consumers want to support, and see whether or not that's profitable for everybody. We think it can be," says Kirschenmann.

For now, the opportunities for producing and marketing specialty crops is limited. Those communities that want to become less dependent on agriculture are looking for other alternatives to revitalize their towns.

John Allen, director of the Center for Rural Innovation at the University of Nebraska, helps small towns understand what it takes to survive. He says a recent meeting with students from the Nebraska Youth Development Network convinced him there are plenty of good ideas out there.

"The first idea was an international road race that would go around the edge of rural Nebraska, and the millionaires from Europe and Asia would bring their car," Allen recalled. "The second one was to build the largest wooden roller coaster in the world, and have it situated in the sandhills. The idea was, that if they built that, other young people would come then these young people would have other young people to interact with, and therefore they would stay, and they'd create businesses."

Allen says he's found that the people who live in small towns do so because of the quality of life. He says he's realized that if small towns were simply seen as little economic engines, rural residents would rather live in the city, where they can make more money. So, whereas he usually thinks of economic development as jobs first, social life second, perhaps for small towns, it's the reverse.

"I've been told over and over that one of the things we've lost in rural areas is the get-togethers, the social stuff. It used to be that they would go to the grange, and you would have young people and old people, and they would dance. We don't have that now," says Allen. "People are saying, 'This is a boring place. It wasn't as boring when you guys were young, but now it's boring.' So they're arguing that if we're going to do anything here, we've got to make it fun."

But ultimately, some wonder if attempts to make the Great Plains a recreational destination will actually stanch the decline of the small towns. Jack Zaleski, editorial page director of the Fargo Forum Newspaper, says over the last decade, he's watched rural residents leave the countryside for the city. Between 1990 and 2000, Fargo's population grew by 22 percent. He doesn't see that trend reversing.

"The changes in agriculture are so profound that there doesn't appear hope that things will return to a point where previously healthy and vital small towns, schools full of kids - where that kind of thing will be back. I just don't see it happening," Zaleski says.

The decline of the Great Plains may be a tragedy, or a slow-moving disaster. But not everyone sees it that way. Iowa State's Bruce Babcock says traditional farming is increasingly an unprofitable venture. And, he says, the decline of rural America is an unfortunate sidebar to the otherwise amazing story of American agriculture.

"It's been utterly phenomenal. That has been the biggest success story for the American economy. Why should we devote tremendous amounts of our scarcest resource - labor, good smart labor - to growing something that we can do more automatically with fewer workers?" says Babcock.

When explorers first crossed the Great Plains, they found it forbidding, semi-arid and completely unfit for habitation. Only with great ingenuity and persistence did people make it farmland. Those who love the plains and want to stay on the land their forebears homesteaded may need an even greater stroke of genius to stay there much longer.

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