Tom Gish, our editor at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, would always say that “news is what the editor puts on the front page.”
Today, the AP ran a story on declining populations in rural America, and the story appeared everywhere. (Here is one publication, from the Washington Post.)
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t news. The report says that the people living in nonmetro America now constitute 16% of the nation’s total population. That’s been known for several years, as new population figures have come in. It’s news today because AP put it on the front page.
Not that the story isn’t true. It is. The nation’s rural population has been dropping forever. Rural America in 1910 had 72% of the nation’s population.
This story was spurred by a new report from the Population Reference Bureau. (The big PDF version is here.) The PRB notes that rural areas have been losing population for years, both because people have moved to the city AND because cities have expanded into areas that were formerly rural. People can become urban overnight without moving an inch, just because of a change in the definition of a place from nonmetro to metro. Still, as the PRB explains, metro areas grew by 11 percent in the early 2000s while rural areas overall grew by half that rate.
The decline in the percentage of rural Americans is prone to hyperbole. The headline in the Austin, Texas, newspaper this morning asked, “Could rural communities become virtually extinct?” We are at a loss to know what “virtually extinct” might mean. And while, yes, there are parts of rural American that are losing population at a disturbing rate, the overall population is growing. Just not as fast as in the metros.
And while 16% of the population (rural’s share now) is lower than the 20% in 2000, it is still a sizable number. Rural’s proportion of the total population is about the same as that of Hispanics and is more than for African-Americans. Is anybody saying African Americans are about to become “virtually extinct”?
“Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out,” said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, a research group in Washington, D.C. “Many rural areas can’t attract workers because there aren’t any jobs, and businesses won’t relocate there because there aren’t enough qualified workers. So they are caught in a downward spiral.”
True enough. But at the same time, people want a small town feel and Baby Boomers are moving back to more rural communities. Things change, and rural communities have a special advantage — a way of life that is non-urban.
• Look here for DTN’s Chris Clayton’s three part series on agriculture and immigrant labor. It just won a first place award at the American Agricultural Editors’ Association.
• We will have a correspondent at the annual meeting of the Organization for Competitive Markets, just as we have the past several years. The OCM meeting is one of the best we’ve been to — a good combination of information and spirit. Look here for details and sign-up.
OCM is nonpartisan in politics, but very partisan in making sure markets work fairly for agricultural producers and workers. The Daily Yonder doesn’t have many editorial policies, but it’s safe to say we’re in favor of fair, competitive markets.
This year’s meeting will have a session on ag check-off programs — the producer funded programs meant to promote specific commodities. There will be sessions on who controls the seed and fertilizer businesses. Best, the main dinner will feature steaks from Kansas beef producer Mike Callicrate.
• The Atlantic magazine wrote this week about a “pilgrimage” of 1,700 “farmers, foodies and families from across the U.S.” to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, “home of his iconic model of local, sustainable agriculture.”
It was a field day, in other words. But these were the right kind of fields for Prof. Andrea Gabor of the City University of New York. She writes about the “thick, soft pastures” and anti-industrial agriculture.
It’s all great and the farm sounds wonderful. But, where were The Atlantic and Prof. Gabor when over 2,000 ranchers and ag workers made their pilgrimage to Fort Collins, Colorado, last summer in support of government action that would make the beef markets fairer for producers?
The Atlantic and other national magazines are all over the “food story” when it’s about gentle, saintly local providers, but they ignore the rough and tumble business that is putting thousands of ranchers and hog producers out of business every month.
The story isn’t just about how individuals can find a way around the system. It’s also about how producers are trying to change the way the system works. This story is not as idyllic as the Polyface Farm, but it’s a lot more important.
The magazine might want to consider sending a correspondent to the Organization for Competitive Markets meeting in Kansas City. See the item above.