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.
Rural communities – Places without a purpose
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.