Declining Towns

Declining Farms = Declining Communities

While in some areas of the U.S. the number of farms is increasing, the most intensively-farmed areas are still experiencing fewer and fewer farmers farming more and more land and producing more and more food and fiber.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, “concentration of production in agriculture has increased in the last five years.”

  • In 2002, 144,000 farms produced 75% of the value of U.S. agricultural production. In 2007, it took only 125,000 of the largest farms to reach that same 75% level of production.
  • Looked at in another way, in 2002 farms with over a $1-million in sales produced 47% of all production; in 2007, million-dollar farms accounted for 59% of farm production.


So, in the most heavily agricultural regions of America, there are fewer farmers who can support nearby businesses, and rural communities are feeling the pinch. Large farmers will still buy fuel, fertilizer, feed, seed, livestock and tractors, but – because there are fewer farmers and they have smaller families – they won’t buy as many groceries, clothes, cars, haircuts, restaurant meals or health care services. Fewer farm children mean the rural schools are forced to consolidate to continue to offer a good education. As schools consolidate a valuable source of local pride and entertainment dries up. DVDs and satellite TV have produced the death of many movie rural movie theatres and drive-ins. Better transportation systems mean that rural residents are willing to drive farther to larger retail centers to shop or find entertainment opportunities.

The visible consequence of these factors is abandoned storefronts in rural communities across the country.

film_ratzlaff_RSuzanne Ratzlaff (left) was an urban California girl who followed her husband back to the farm outside of Henderson, Nebraska. She’s teaching school now and has seen the affect of the decline up close. “We’ve lost a lot of people,” she says. “We see it in the school. We see it in our churches. There just aren’t as many people there… If you don’t have jobs, people can’t stay. That’s the sad part.”

film_otte_LFor farmer Troy Otte (right), the fact that there are fewer people means that almost everyone becomes a leader of one sort or another. “I think that people become more involved with the rural communities just out of necessity,” he says. “Whether it be religion or fire departments or rural EMTs [Emergency Medical Technicians], there’s a lot of volunteerism that goes on that I don’t think is showing in the public eye as much. Pick the town of Grafton [Nebraska] where I’m from, or the farm is – several of those [farmers] are on the farm boards or the school boards, fire department board, our EMTs. Yeah, they’re busy every night of the week with a specific event.”

Many rural communities have decided if they are going to survive they need to diversify their employment base by attracting new industries to town. As we’ve seen, communities with nearby amenities like lakes or mountains can attract tourists, weekend and permanent residents. In fact, the USDA has asserted, “In some cases, simply having a small lake has been enough [for rural communities] to either stem or even reverse population decline.”

But even “low-amenity” rural areas can see significant growth when new industries build new rural plants.

  • For instance, meatpacking plants built close to rural cattle feedlots can significantly increase population in those counties, particularly with Hispanic immigrants arriving to take the new jobs. Perversely, in many of these instances, surrounding counties will see an increase, as well, as white residents move out in the face of Hispanic immigration.
  • Large industrial agricultural operations – like a big hog confinement operation or poultry plant – can increase populations.
  • Some rural counties with Native American populations have seen increases when the tribes open up casinos.
  • A few counties have seen increases when new jails or regional prisons are built.
  • One-of-a-kind innovations can also spur rural growth. For instance, the snowmobile was invented in 1954 in Roseau County, Minnesota, population 16,000. The county now has over 5,000 manufacturing jobs.
  • And in states like Nebraska, new ethanol plants can reverse population trends.

Todd Sneller is the administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board and helps local communities develop and build ethanol plants. He says a plant can dramatically change the economic future of rural communities. “We’ll see people who are hired to work at that plant that will include people who have an engineering background, microbiology background, corn merchandizing background, finance background… We’ve seen in our salary surveys that the counties that host these facilities have a significantly higher annual average salary than adjacent counties that don’t have an ethanol plant.”

The challenges facing rural communities can become unique opportunities if local leaders think creatively.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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