Sustaining Rural Communities through Sustainable Agriculture
University of Missouri
Presented at Southern Rural Sociology Association Annual Meeting, Fort Worth, TX, January 29, 2001.
The roots of most American rural communities are in agriculture. When the Europeans first arrived in North America, they found a land of great natural wealth. Some of that wealth was in minerals and timber, but most of it lay in vast plains and winding valleys of fertile farmland. However, it took people to transform this potential wealth into economic wellbeing. People had to clear the land and till the soil to bring forth the bounty of food and fiber from the fertile fields. It took people to care for the cattle and sheep that grazed the vast plains. And as these people – these farmers and ranchers – achieved surpluses beyond their own needs, they began to need other people in towns and rural communities with whom they could trade their surpluses for the things they couldn't produce. They needed blacksmiths, dry goods stores, livery stables, banks, and salons. But they also needed schools, churches, and medical care if they were to move beyond economic survival to achieve a desirable quality of life.
Some of the early American communities were built around timber and mining towns, but most were farming and ranching towns. And in places where more farmers or ranchers were needed to care for the land, more people were needed in town to support those farms and ranches. It's probably true that distances between many towns were determined by a day's round trip by horse and wagon. But, the number of people in those towns was determined in large part by the nature of agriculture in the surrounding area. For example, lands well suited for vegetables and row crops could be farmed more intensively – supporting more families per acre or section. Lands suited only for small grains or pasture were farmed less intensively – supporting fewer families per section or township. Of course, town folks also had mouths to feed with locally grown foods – greens, milk, eggs, and bacon. But, the density of population in most rural places reflected the nature of their agriculture.
At the turn of the 20th century, America still was an agrarian country – about 40 percent of its people were farmers and well over half lived in very rural areas. But, then came the second phase of the industrial revolution and the need to collect large numbers of people into cities to “man” the large factories and offices of a growing manufacturing economy. The simultaneous industrialization of agriculture – mechanization, specialization, routinization, standardization – made it possible for fewer farmers to feed more people better -- “freeing” farmers and other rural people to work in the new factories springing up in the cities.
The same technologies that “pulled” rural people toward the cities “pushed” them off the farms and out of rural communities. These technologies increased production per person by substituting capital and generic technology for labor and individual management skills. As successful new farming technologies were developed, they invariably reduced production costs – per bushel or per pound of production -- but only if each farmer produced more. Thus, the incentive to realize greater profits by reducing costs was inherently an incentive to buy bigger equipment and more commercial inputs in order to farm more land and produce more output. As farmers individually responded to these incentives, production in total invariably expanded, market prices fell, and the promise of continuing profits vanished. The new technologies now were necessary – no longer for profits but now for survival. Those who adopted and expanded too little too late were unable to compete. They were “freed” from their farms to find a job in the city.
Farms were forced to get larger and larger just to survive. In fact, with a limited population to feed and a limited amount of land to farm, some farmers had to fail so others could survive. In addition, large specialized farms often had to bypass the local community in purchasing inputs and marketing their products in order to remain competitive with other large farms. Their competitors were not down the road or across the country, but might be half way around the world.
Fewer farmers buying less locally meant less need for farm related businesses in small towns. Fewer farmers also meant fewer farm families to buy groceries, clothes, and haircuts in small towns. Fewer families also meant fewer people to fill the desks in rural schools, pews in rural churches, and the waiting rooms of rural doctors. Fewer people with a purpose for being in rural areas meant that many rural communities too were losing their purpose for being. As farms have grown larger and fewer, many rural communities have been left in decline and decay.
Today, America is no longer an agrarian nation. Less that 2 percent of Americans call themselves farmers and even those earn about 90 percent of their household incomes off the farm. Somewhere around 25 percent of the people live in non-metropolitan areas – but many, if not most, commute to a city to work. There are few people left in farming communities to move to town and no longer any social benefit in moving them. The old industries are “downsizing” and “outsourcing” -- laying off workers by the thousands. As consumers we spend on the average a little over a dime out of each dollar for food and the farmer only gets a penny of that dime. The rest goes to pay for commercial inputs and marketing services – packaging, advertising, transportation, etc. Society no longer has anything to gain from further industrialization of agriculture, but yet it continues. And rural communities in farming areas continue to wither and die. They have become places without a purpose.
The conventional wisdom in economic and community development circles is that rural communities must look to something other than agriculture for survival and future prosperity. Feeling the stress of an industrializing society, many small towns have turned to industrial recruitment – trying to become a city rather than a town – as a means of survival. But the only industrial development strategies that many rural communities are offered are prisons, landfills, toxic waste dumps, or factory livestock operations. Once prosperous agricultural communities have become the dumping grounds for the rest of society. Those that succeed in luring “clean” industries, typically end up with companies who are only looking for cheap labor. Such companies invariably move on when they find some place else, either in the US or abroad, where people are even more desperate for work and will work harder for even less money.
Others communities have tried to capture natural advantages in climate or landscapes to become destinations for tourists from the cities. Those near the growing industrial centers have “rented out their communities” as bedrooms for those who are willing to commute to the city. But, most rural communities in agricultural areas have not been successful in their efforts to regain prosperity – or even to survive. Most rural communities remain places in search of a purpose.
In August of 1995, the Missouri, Michigan State, and Nebraska Universities began a five-year collaboration on a project funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Our objective was to “challenge the conventional wisdom concerning the future of rural communities… to demonstrate the proposition that a fundamental shift in the foundation of economic development from land and capital to knowledge and information, and increased public concern for the natural environment, provides new opportunities for a sustainable agriculture,” which in turn provides new opportunities for sustaining rural community development through agriculture.
We recruited communities in each of the three states who were willing to make a commitment to work with us for the duration of the project. Our commitment was to help them find and develop a foundation for their future through sustainable development of their “geographically fixed” resources -- including landscapes, climate, clean air, clean water, and forests, but with an emphasis on agricultural land. The basic premise was that for development to be sustained in a particular community, there must be reason for the activity to be carried out in that particular location. There must be purpose for development in that particular place. In addition, since people must carry out the process of development, and since the purpose of development is to enhance the lives of people, there must also be a purpose for people to be in a particular place. Thus, the first principle of our Sustainable Communities project was: “A linking of people, purpose, and place.”
The project was to be carried out by a process of “community self-development.” Our role was to be that of facilitators – not leaders. We would provide information concerning opportunities and alternatives. We would help the people get organized, help them develop a shared vision, and facilitate their collaborative efforts. But it would be up to the people of the communities to decide what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. We had funds in the project to facilitate their collaborative activities, and a few dollars to fund demonstration projects of their choosing, but the project provided no funds for investment in actual development projects. The success or failure of the project in any particular community would be in the hands of the people of that community. Thus, our second principle was: “Local organization, local investment, and local control.”
Another basic premise was that everyone in a community should be considered in every decision that affected the community. Our working hypothesis was that one reason for the demise of many rural communities was that community leaders had lost touch with the real wants and needs of their community members. They had become so preoccupied with replacing jobs and rebuilding the tax base that they were sacrificing the quality of life of many for the economic benefit of a few. Many of the new “economic development” strategies for these rural communities were based on little more than exploitation of rural people who were desperate for jobs and exploitation of the natural environment. If the development of these communities was to be sustainable, all community members needed to be involved, or at least considered, in the decision making process, and all needed to be able to share in the benefits. Thus, our third principle was: “Shared leadership, shared responsibilities, and shared rewards.”
Our final working principle was based on the concept of sustainable development – that communities must find ways to meet the needs of all in the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of the future. Sustainable development must be socially responsible, economically viable, and ecologically sound. Many rural communities have become so preoccupied with raising economic capital that they have allowed the social and ecological capital of their communities to become depleted. Economic development is rooted in social and ecological resources. Thus, economic development cannot be sustainable without social and ecological development. Our fourth principle was: “Building community while creating wealth and caring for the land.”
To carry out the project effectively, we knew that we couldn't follow the traditional technology development and transfer model typically used by the Land Grant University system. This project was not to be technology-based, but instead had to be people-based. Our goal was to empower people to be productive by using innate human abilities to think, not to provide technology that would reduce the need to think. Thus, one of our objectives was: “to develop and demonstrate a new research and extension model which relies on participatory research and information sharing rather than technology development and transfer.”
We believed that the problems of communities in agricultural areas was not so much that they had relied on agriculture and other natural resource development, but that they had relied on unsustainable systems of agriculture and natural resource development. They had relied on an industrial development paradigm or model – specialization, standardization, and centralization of control. The industrial system of agriculture didn't require as many farmers, and thus didn't support rural communities, or at least not as many people in as many rural communities. This type of agriculture moved more of the processes involved in food and fiber production off farms and out of rural communities. The ninety percent of the consumer's food dollar going to pay for marketing services and commercial inputs has little positive effect on rural economics.
Even by mid-1990s, a new model or paradigm of agriculture clearly was emerging under the conceptual umbrella of sustainable agriculture. And that new way of farming was supportive of rural communities. A sustainable agriculture, like sustainable development, must meet the needs of all in the present, while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of the future. It must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. The industrial model of agriculture is failing on all three fronts. The specialized, standardized, large-scale systems of farming are polluting the environment with pesticides, fertilizers, and manure from confinement animal feeding operations. Industrialization is driving independent farmers out of business and replacing them with corporate contractors – who turn out to be little more than tractor drivers or livestock building supervisors. And industrial agriculture is ripping the social fabric of rural areas by destroying family farms and rural communities. An industrial agriculture quite simply is not sustainable.
Sustainable agriculture became a public policy issue during the decade of the 1980s. It was first promoted by organic farmers who went to Washington DC in the early 80s and demanded recognition as a legitimate alternative to the industrial farms that were polluting the environment with pesticides and fertilizers. The movement was joined by farmers concerned with the economic viability of family farms as thousands were forced out of business during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s. The necessity for a socially responsible agriculture became apparent when rural communities felt the full impact of the agricultural crisis. By the mid-1990s sustainable agriculture was emerging as a viable alternative to industrial agriculture. Although the proportion of farmers currently following the principles of sustainability – including organic, holistic, biodynamic, permaculture, low-input, grass-based, etc. – is small, their numbers were growing.
This new paradigm for agriculture provided a new paradigm for rural community development. Sustainable farming was more management intensive. It takes more people on the land to maintain the natural fertility and health of the land, and thereby, to reduce reliance on pesticides and fertilizers. It takes more farmers to produce a given quantity of output on a diversified livestock/crop farm that produces food without polluting the environment. It takes more people to market direct and to begin to rebuild local food systems, which not only re-link farmers and local people but return more of the food dollar to the farm. Sustainable agriculture reverses the industrialization process by substituting labor and management for land and capital. A sustainable agriculture would support more people on farms and more people in rural communities.
In the Sustainable Communities project, we weren't claiming that rural communities could once again depend entirely on agriculture, only that a sustainable agriculture could provide a solid foundation upon which a sustainable rural economy could be built. In the post-industrial, new knowledge-based era of the future, people would be seeking out places to live that provide open-spaces, scenic landscapes, clean air and water, and friendly people. Sustainable agriculture would make rural areas ideal residences for those people who, in the new era, would be able to carry out their work from anywhere they choose to live. Sustainable agriculture would be compatible with other forms of economic development that rely on the unique creativity and productivity of the human mind, rather than on exploitation. Sustainable agriculture would provide the link between people, purpose, and place.