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Restoring Rural Roots

by Steph Larsen

In a recent trip through the small town of Walthill, Nebraska, the phrase “rural revitalization” took on a whole new meaning. In this case, it was the lack of any kind of prosperity that made it obvious to me why rural communities are in need of revitalization. Main Street looked painfully deserted, with two recent arsons adding fresh scars to the once-active storefronts. As we drove around the residential area, most houses looked to be in some state of disrepair—so much so that it was difficult to really tell which were homes and which had already been abandoned. If ever there was a town that needed some life breathed back into it, this was it.

About the same time, I read an article about the aging farmer population and the simultaneous difficulty of young and beginning farmers breaking into farming. This from John Seewer from the Associated Press:

So many American farmers are working longer than ever before that one in four is at least 65 years old. [snip] Within the next decade those older farmers will be looking for someone to take over their operations and selling millions of acres of land.

Much of that land will be merged into bigger farms with fewer people working on them. Rural communities will lose even more young people, and a few will struggle for survival. [snip]

“Some of those communities will survive, but the nature of the community will change,” said Lori Garkovich, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. “Studies have shown that industrial farms change communities in many ways.

Todd Stewart, who raises hogs and cattle near Meadow Grove, Neb., and at 47 is among the youngest farmers in the area, said it’s hard to find volunteers who will coach ball teams or help out at church anymore.

“Towns are hurting,” he said. “The school is usually the first to go, then it’s the churches and then the town. There’s going to be a lot of towns that will wither up and go away.”

Communities need people, of course, but vibrant, sustainable rural communities need people of all ages so that the infrastructure that makes a town strong—schools, churches, local businesses—are able to thrive. Farmers are a significant part of this equation, and being able to recruit young people into farming will only help to strengthen the communities in which they live.

In my last post, I talked about local ownership as a key component if rural communities will see any substantial benefit from the ethanol boom. It is clear, however, that it takes more than money to reinvigorate a community. Another component to this push for revitalization is to renew demand for the institutions that have been weakened as farms consolidated. The aspiring farmers I know are typically energetic folks who choose to come back to the land, and will greatly add to any community if only they can access the things they need to start farming.

Not coincidentally, I think about this as legislators in Washington, DC are writing the next Farm Bill. There is a lot of debate about the future of the commodity title and the need to increase money for nutrition and conservation, but often rural development seems to be thrown in as an afterthought—as if legislators know that it’s a good thing to say but think there isn’t enough political will to put their money where there mouths are.

Why aren’t rural voices demanding more from their legislators?

There clearly have been some voices, though I would argue not nearly enough. The 2002 Farm Bill included some promising provisions that help rural communities, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development and the Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG). The former was in the 2002 Farm Bill but did not receive funding from 2002-2007, while the later usually received between $15 million and $20 million dollars annually, or about one-third to one-half of the money it was slated to receive.

The draft of the 2007 Farm Bill was just released in the House by Chairman Collin Peterson, and while these two programs are funded at $15 million for Beginning Farmer and Rancher and $20 million for VAPG, legislators will need to hear from their constituents in order for these numbers to remain strong.

A welcome addition to the 2007 draft is the Rural Entrepreneurs and Microenterprise Development program, which would provide technical assistance and loans for starting a rural business. However, unlike the other two programs I mention, a slight technical difference in the language for the Microenterprise program means there’s no guarantee it will see a dime.

Rural communities aren’t receiving fair treatment in federal legislation, which is slightly ironic considering that it’s the Farm Bill, and most farming occurs in rural areas. This bill is a great opportunity to push for the rural revitalization that legislators keep promising—not with haphazard handouts but with strategic investments that assist new, resourceful, innovative farmers establish new roots and bring young people back to rural communities.

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