“We’re Not Dead Yet”
By Mary Fund
The above slightly altered quote from the 1975 Monty Python “bring out your dead” comic sketch kept coming to my mind as I listened to fellow Kansans react to a recent news story. (I apologize up front for my dark rather warped sense of humor). The news story was “Rural Kansas is Dying: I drove 1800 miles to find out why.” (See link below) But the Kansans I heard from were not laughing.
The story appeared online in the New Food Economy April 26. The author, former Kansan and now California based journalist, Corie Brown, described her 1800 mile journey around rural Kansas earlier this year to interview farmers, business owners, economic development and other professionals, academics and more. Brown wanted to understand how rural Kansas is faring and why it is in decline. In the spirit of past journalists (William Allen White in 1896 and Thomas Frank a hundred years later) Brown asked her version of the basic question: “What’s the matter with Kansas?”
She pointed to the steady population decline, the exodus of 25 to 29 year olds, lack of rural jobs and housing, empty storefronts, the poor commodity farming economy, the dependence of farming on expensive inputs, and how today’s farms and technology simply don’t need as many people. You name it. All the negatives are there. Many readers were disheartened; others just beginning work on community issues like keeping a grocery store, or keeping school enrollment up, and housing issues, wondered “why bother?”
Many of the people quoted in Brown’s story felt betrayed. They thought they were being interviewed for a story on the resistance to this decline to point out the positive energy and efforts going on all around the state to combat the seemingly inevitable forces of a larger economy hell bent on squeezing the last drop out of rural America. They were and are understandably angry as they fight this negativity on a daily basis and are using every inch and pound of creativity and energy they have to turn the tide.
The story barely touched on the positive examples and models that are happening all over the state — farmers adapting away from conventional commodity agriculture to start new enterprises, such as fruits and vegetables or organic farming, rural entrepreneurs using internet connections to create national or global businesses, cooperative marketing efforts to reach population centers, young professionals and others who have returned by choice to start businesses and raise families because this is a place they love with people worth caring about. There is another story to be told, and if nothing else, the Brown story has acted as a catalyst for those of us doing the telling.
But I do not want the main point of the story to get lost in our indignation at the story’s spin. Brown’s basic conclusion is true: the commodity agriculture system (the mainstream capital intensive industrial agriculture model) is destroying rural Kansas. And it is not just Kansas, but rural communities across the country from Connecticut to California.
“Blind faith in outdated agricultural orthodoxy and a failure to imagine a new way forward for farmers still dominates rural policy” according to Brown. Recognizing this truth is a big step forward in imagining and building a new way forward.
Some of us have spent the past 40 years working to tell that very story and to encourage a different system of agriculture— one where people and communities matter, where our technological choices consider all costs and benefits, and the profits flow to the people who do the work in the communities where they live. KRC has stressed over and over that the prevailing system is not inevitable; it is the result of policy and political choices– choices that we can change for the kind of farm, food, and community future we want.
The status quo system in agriculture assumes some kind of sustainability. Nowhere in the story does Brown discuss the environmental or natural resource problems associated with this model. That is another story, but it is absolutely critical as there are increasing reasons to question the sustainability of this system. Conventional commodity agriculture with its dependence on expensive pesticides that no longer work, the declining nature of soil health – a problem created by years of chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, and year after year of the same one or two crops, and its inability to assure a new generation of farmers—is not sustainable. For the future viability of food production and food security, we need to shift to a more agro-ecological approach to food production, which requires more people, more diversity, and appropriate technology choices.
To rebuild rural communities and to feed both rural and urban communities, we need nothing short of a new economy, and it needs to be based on an agricultural system that protects and regenerates our natural resources, and brings the next generation of farmers and rural leaders into the system.
Kansas farmers are recognizing the challenges, as are “rural by choice” advocates the challenges. Many farmers are responding with cover crop adoption and other soil health building measures that diversify their cropping systems. Some are pondering specialty crop production, transition to organic farming, and cooperative marketing ventures. Consumers are asking for more local or regionally produced food, and rural advocates and entrepreneurs are building businesses to support this. “Rural by choice” advocates are creating their own opportunities. These are the fiercely independent, self-reliant, and creative Kansans that Brown claimed to be looking for.
That innovative, thoughtful farmers and rural entrepreneurs are looking for alternatives and ways to adapt to new realities is no surprise. That their solutions are closer to home, involve partnering with other producers, and serving real needs in their communities is no surprise either.
Yes, rural Kansas—and a large swath of rural America may appear to be dying—but we are not dead yet. The infrastructure for a new food economy, or a new economy, is not here yet. But we are building it one farm, one business, and one community at a time.
“Rural Kansas is Dying: I Drove 1800 miles to find out why.” – https://newfoodeconomy.org/rural-kansas-depopulation-commodity-agriculture/.
For more information, contact Mary Fund, email@example.com.