The Economic Colonization of Rural America
The transformation of the American economy was supposed to usher in a new era of prosperity via a “rural renaissance.” Where has that dream gone and how do we bring it back?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from a paper presented by agriculture economist John Ikerd to the Wisconsin Farmers Union annual convention in Wisconsin Dells earlier this month. Ikerd is a University of Missouri professor emeritus who has written six books on sustainable agriculture and sustainable economics. He lives in Fairfield, Iowa, and has worked locally, nationally, and internationally to help focus agricultural development on restoring and building communities, rather than on maximizing shareholder profits for corporations.
When I was a kid growing up on a small farm in southwest Missouri, we still had strong farming communities. The community I grew up in was an interwoven network of people who knew each other—mainly out of necessity. Most farms in those days couldn’t actually be farmed by a single farmer or farm family. Farming was a community affair. There were crews who traveled from farm to farm to fill silos, harvest grain, or put up hay. Each farmer brought along with their share of farm equipment and labor. For my dad, it was mostly labor—as there were three growing boys in the family. The men and boys worked hard, but a lot of socializing—horsing around—also took place at these gatherings.
The “farm wives” also renewed relationships at time of harvest. Several women and girls would gather at the host farms on harvest days to help the host wife prepare the noon meal for the harvest crews. The farm women also had their individual groups who gathered periodically to make quilts to keep their families warm in winter and to help each other can fruit and make preserves or cut meat and make sausage on butchering days. The work was often tedious and tiresome but the conversations helped to pass the time.
These networks or “communities of necessity” were interconnected through local churches and schools. Everybody knew everybody in their own churches as well most folks as in the others churches nearby. The parents of kids who went to school together all knew each other. Visiting on Sunday wasn’t limited to kinfolks; it included neighbors. People also visited at the country store and at the barber shop, filling station, and farmers’ cooperative exchange in town.
“Giving someone a hand” wasn’t limited to helping out in emergencies, but was given anytime someone “needed a hand.” These communities, created out of necessity, were communities that not only helped rural people make a living but only gave them a common sense of purpose. Relationships are difficult and disagreements naturally arose. But, rural folks knew they needed to get along to get by in life. Furthermore, this strong sense of community also added a sense of meaning and quality to day-to-day rural life. Rural communities were considered good places to live, work, and raise a family. They were “livable communities.”
But “times changed” in Rural America. The industrialization of American agriculture, which began after World War II, removed the necessity for community-based farming. Individually owned field choppers eventually replaced the big silo crews, individual combines replaced big threshing crews, and inexpensive hay balers replaced big haying crews. Farmers were free to harvest their own crops whenever they choose, rather than wait for their turn to be helped by the big crews of neighbors. Modern kitchen conveniences and household appliances also eliminate the need for farm wives to share meal preparation and other “housework.”
Social circles in farming communities began to narrow and narrowed further as farms grew larger and surviving farmers became fewer. New people moved into rural areas—seeking low-paying jobs of factory farms or escaping high living costs in cities. Most people didn’t bother to get to know their new neighbors because they “didn’t need to.” Rural folks eventually became like “city folks”—not only not knowing but not really wanting to know their neighbors.
People tended to accept the changes in agriculture and the rural-urban migration of farm families as the inevitable consequences of economic progress. Agricultural production was increasing but industrial agriculture employed fewer farmers, creating negative impacts throughout rural communities. People were leaving rural areas for employment opportunities elsewhere. People were simply responding to the economic incentives of impersonal markets. It wasn’t until the “farm financial crisis of the 1980s” that many people, including myself, began to feel that something was fundamentally wrong with what was happening in rural America.
In 1993, I made a public presentation calling for a Rural Renaissance at a conference in rural Arkansas. My presentation paper later became a chapter in my book, Crisis and Opportunity; Sustainability in American Agriculture.[i] Many farming communities had been devastated by the economic recession of the 1980s. A dramatic drop in agricultural commodity prices caught many “good farmers” with large debt, at high interest rates, that they could not repay. A new wave of family farmers were driven off their farms through financial pressures, including foreclosures and bankruptcies. Other farm-related businesses also failed with the collapse of the farm economy. I wrote:
Over the past 50 years, many rural communities seem to have lost their purpose. The trend during this period has been toward fewer, larger, and more specialized farms. The result has been declining rural populations, declining demand for local markets and locally purchased inputs, and a resulting economic decay of many rural communities.
Some communities attempted to diversify their economy to reduce their dependence on agriculture, and others abandoned agriculture entirely as a source of economic development. Industry hunting became a preoccupation of many small town councils and chambers of commerce. Jobs, any kind at any cost, seemed to be the primary development objective in some declining rural communities. Any lack of a geographical foundation to support sustained development was given little, if any, consideration.
Many development activities, lacking a geographic foundation, were rooted in nothing more than short-run exploitation of undervalued human and natural resources in rural areas. The number of working poor – workers with full time jobs who live below the poverty line – in rural areas has continued to rise. In addition, many manufacturing companies and branch plants that initially relocated in rural areas eventually move to other countries where laborers are willing to work even harder for far less money.
Some new rural economic activities such as tourism, vacation homes, retirement communities, and rural residences can have strong geo-economic foundations in climate, landscapes, or proximity to urban employment. Such activities have helped some rural communities survive the harsh reality that they no longer had any important purpose, other than to facilitate the forced migration of rural people to the cities. However, most American rural communities continue to search for a new purpose for their existence.”
My assessment might have seemed a bit harsh at the time. However, I was still hopeful—if not optimistic—about the future of rural America. I pointed out that scientists had concluded that everything on earth tends to evolve in cycles—that trends never go on forever. [ii] At some point, the forces that drive trends in one direction run their course by creating the conditions that force the future to evolve in a fundamentally different direction. I cited anthropological evidence indicating that people have concentrated in large cities in centuries past, but later, for a variety of reasons, have abandoned those cities and dispersed themselves across the countryside. The flight from city centers to “suburbia” and then “urban sprawl” suggested that a reverse, urban-to-rural, migration had already begun.
At that time, some popular futurist also were suggesting that such a rural renaissance was possible, if not outright probable. Alvin Toffler was distinguished by frequently being quoted by both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. In his book, PowerShift, Toffler contended that the forces of industrialization had run their course and are already reversing.[iii] He wrote, “The most important economic development of our lifetime has been the rise of a new system of creating wealth, based no longer on muscle but on the mind.”[iv] “Because it reduces the need for raw material, labor, time, space, and capital, knowledge becomes the central resource of the advanced economy.”[v]
Peter Drucker, a noted business consultant, wrote of the coming “Post Business Society,” in his book, The New Realities. He states:
The biggest shift – bigger by far than the changes in politics, government or economics – is the shift to the knowledge society. The social center of gravity has shifted to the knowledge worker. All developed countries are becoming post-business, knowledge societies. Looked at one way, this is the logical result of a long evolution in which we moved from working by the sweat of our brow and by muscle to industrial work and finally to knowledge work.[vi]
Robert Reich, U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, addressed future trends in the global economy in his book, The Work of Nations.[vii] He identifies three emerging broad categories of work: routine production service, in-person service, and symbolic-analytic services. Symbolic-analysts are the mind workers in Reich’s classification. They include all the problem-solvers, problem-identifiers, and strategic-brokers—engineers, public relations executives, investment brokers, doctors, lawyers, writers and editors, musicians, and teachers. Reich pointed out that mind workers often work alone or in small teams, which are connected only informally and flexibly with larger organizations. In other words, mind workers could choose to live and work anywhere—including rural areas.
John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene in, Megatrends 2000, called the empowerment of individuals as the great unifying theme at the conclusion of the century.[viii] Their mind workers were called “individual entrepreneurs.” They wrote that empowered individuals, while working alone or in small groups, would choose not to face the world alone but would seek community. Many rural communities already were technologically linked to urban centers and many others would follow. The emergence of a new “electronic heartland” was one of the megatrends they identified for the new century. They wrote, “In many ways, if cities did not exist, it now would not be necessary to invent them.”[ix]“Free to live almost anywhere, more and more individuals are deciding to live in small cities and towns and rural areas.”[x]
Drucker added that the real-estate boom and the associated new skyscrapers in big cities in the 1970s and 1980s were signals of the beginning of the end of the central city. He wrote,
The city might become an information center rather than a center of work – a place from which information (news, data, music) radiates. It might resemble the medieval cathedral where the peasants from the surrounding countryside congregated once or twice a year at the great feast days; in between it stood empty except for the learned clerics and its cathedral school.[xi]
People had already abandoned the cities for the suburbs for quality of life reasons: lower crime rates, better housing, and recreational opportunities. Many people were now free to abandon the suburbs for rural area for additional quality of life reasons: more space for living, a cleaner more pleasant living environment, and perhaps most important, to regain a sense of community—a sense of belonging. The new challenge of rural economic development was to create places where mind workers could be productive, raise families, and grow, where both immigrant and homegrown mind workers would choose to relocate or stay. Community livability would give rural communities a new purpose for being.
Each community obviously is different, but I would sum up the common characteristics of livable rural communities as clean water, clean air, good food, affordable housing, pleasant landscapes, a sense of place, and people who care about each other, know how to have fun, and are willing to invest in the future of their community. [xii] In livable communities, money is simply one means of affording a livable lifestyle—not the purpose for living. Economic development is simply a means of acquiring the material essentials for a meaningful life in the complex, impersonal environments of modern societies.
So what happened to the rural renaissance envisioned by the futurists at the turn of the century? Like many other economists, I had simply accepted the economic ups and downs of rural economies as the natural consequences of an inevitably cyclical economic evolution. Farming communities had served their initial purpose by supporting family farms and were now in the process of finding new purposes as livable communities. While there was an element of truth in this conclusion, I have since come to realize that rural areas were and still are suffering the consequences of prolonged “economic colonization.”
Historically, political colonialism was defended by the ethnocentric belief that the moral values of the colonizer were superior to those of the colonized – that those colonized ultimately would benefit from the process of civilization. Today, rural economic colonialization is defended by the urban-centric belief that rural people are incapable of developing their own economies and must rely on outside investment for rural economic development. That corporate investments will bring badly needed jobs and local income and will expand local tax bases. That economically depressed rural communities will be afforded the opportunity for better schools, better health care, and expanded social services, and will attract a greater variety of retail businesses. These are the same basic promises made to previous political colonies.
Many people in rural America are led to believe they have been left behind by the rest of society, and accepting outside corporate investments are the only means by which they can hope to catch up. In cases where such promises of prosperity have failed to persuade the people, corporations have resorted to economic favors promised to local leaders or outright “bribery.” If all else fails, they simply use interstate commerce or free trade laws to claim the economic right to force their way into communities where they are unwanted. These are the same basic strategies colonial empires have used with the indigenous peoples of their colonies throughout history. As with political and economic colonies of the past, the promises of economic development are soon replaced with the reality of economic extraction and exploitation.
Whether intentional or coincidental, industrial agriculture has been a primary means of colonizing rural America. As with other industries, the industrial practices of large-scale, corporate agriculture are extractive and exploitation. Industrial farming operations erode the fertility of the soil and pollute the air and water with chemical and biological wastes—more like mining operations than traditional farming. Comprehensive corporate contractual arrangement have replaced thinking, caring family farmers with far fewer “farm workers.” Communities are supported by people, not simply production. It takes people not only to buy farm supplies and equipment at local dealers but also to shop for clothes, cars, and haircuts on Main Street, to fill desks in local schools, pews in local churches, and seats on town councils and school boards.
Most rural kids today grow up, leave, and don’t come back. Those who choose to “stay home” are labeled as not being among the “best or brightest.” Some are “bribed” by parents who help them get long term loans they must stay to repay. New rural residents are more likely to be immigrants desperate for work or people fleeing the cities for cheaper places to live. The sense of community is lost. When the sense of community is lost, the sense of common commitment and shared hope for the future is lost. A recent Wall Street Journal article calls “Rural America the New Inner City.” [xiii] The article documents that levels of unemployment, chronic illness, teen pregnancy, crime, and drug abuse in many rural areas now exceed those of inner cities.
Wendell Berry summarized the current plight of rural America in a recent letter to the book editor of the New York Times:
The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.”[xiv]
The economic colonization of rural America has turned the hope for a rural renaissance of livable rural communities into the reality of rural ghettos.
The quest for livability in rural America has been replaced by a quest for economic, social, and cultural survival. What went wrong? I think the futurists failed to realize the economic and political power of the corporate defenders of the economic status quo. The industrial economy was not going to voluntarily reverse course to make way for a new sustainable economy—simply because economic growth was creating more environmental and societal problems than economic benefits. Industrialization had evolved from a means of manufacturing to become the conventional “way of thinking.” The industrial mindset of specialization, standardization, and consolidation of control now permeates virtually all aspects of American society.
Corporate consolidation has allowed economic power to be transformed into political power. In today’s large, publicly-traded corporations corporate profits take priority over the well-being of people—within or outside the corporation. The few livable communities that have escaped colonization are being acquired and reserved as havens for the “rich and famous,” not places for ordinary people to work and live. Wealth has become synonymous with quality of life. Economic growth has replaced the pursuit of happiness.
Corporate agriculture has used its political power and the hard-won reputation for integrity of family farmers to transform the “right to farm” into a “right to harm.” A corporate strategy to turn rural areas into “agricultural sacrifice zones” is revealed in a progression of laws protecting factory farms from public scrutiny and exempting industrial agriculture from environmental and public health regulations. In vast rural areas zoned for “agriculture,” corporate agriculture will be free to pollute and plunder as it pleases.[xv] The quality of life of rural and town residents alike is threatened by the relentless, unbridled corporate colonization of American agriculture. Against such powerful economic and political forces, what can people in rural communities do?
Rural people must again join together, as communities of necessity to restore the fading hope of a rural renaissance and secure their future as livable communities. This is a not a farm-versus-town or rural-versus-urban issue. This is a matter of community necessity for those who care about the future of their communities. Margaret Wheatley, a leading thinker on institutional and cultural change recently identified three major trends in American society:
1) “A growing sense of impotence and dread about the state of the nation.”
2) “The realization that information doesn’t change minds anymore.”
3) “The clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action—that there is no greater power for change than a community taking its future into its own hands.”
I agree with Wheatley. First, as I have suggested, I believe the prevailing mood in rural America today is one of “impotence and dread.” Second, I agree that information no longer changes minds. We now have more than 50 years of “sound science” and the real-world experience of people in rural communities confirming the negative environmental, social, and economic impact of industrial agriculture. The agribusiness corporations have responded with a multimillion dollar a year public relations campaign to “greenwash” industrial agriculture by creating a set of “alternative facts.” Many public officials continue to promote CAFOs. The general public doesn’t know who to believe.
So where is the hope for the future of rural America? The hope is in the clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action. People in rural America should use every legal means available to protect themselves. But, they also must also find ways to change our laws—including changing those who make our laws, if necessary. People must come together—farm and non-farm, rural and urban—as communities of necessity with a common interest and commitment to stopping the economic colonization of their communities.
Many communities in rural America are still livable communities, with clean water, clean air, scenic landscapes, and people who care for the land and care about each other and are willing to invest their time and money to secure the future of their communities. The things of nature and society they are protecting and sustaining belong to all of us—rural and urban, farm and non-farm. We know how to produce plenty of agricultural products without destroying the natural environment or quality of life in these places. Family farms and rural communities of the future will be different from those of the past, but they must be rooted in the values of traditional family farms and rural communities of necessity.
Perhaps the family farms and livable communities are “ideals” or myths—that never existed in reality. But if so, no more so that than the “ideal” of the American Democracy. Regardless, these are “ideals” we must continue to strive to achieve. Our democratic ideal is embodied in our unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” In individual liberties tempered by equity justice for all. The 9th and 10th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution give “the people” the authority and the power to protect their unalienable rights when the federal and state governments fail to do so.
What can possibly be more essential to our unalienable “rights to life and the pursuit of happiness” than clean air, clean water, and safe, nutritious food? We simply cannot allow the economic rights of corporations to take priority of the democratic rights of rural people. Information may not change minds, but “ideals” can change minds. It may not be quick or easy, but together, we have the power to reject economic colonization. If we each find our unique purpose and do our part, together, we can reclaim a sense of purpose of rural communities and can create a new and better future for rural America. “There is no greater power for change than a community taking its future into its own hands.” There is no power greater than the power of the people—in community.