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Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie
May 29, 2005 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Sweeping out the Plains: "The great wave of population, which swept homesteaders onto the Northern Great Plains with the promise of free land and hope for a bright future around the turn of the last century, is sweeping back out again at the beginning of this one." This map of counties with 10% or more population loss in the last 20 years really highlights the phenomenon. A shorter version of this piece published in todays KC Star. (See also Endangered Historic Places: Prairie Churches.)
posted by LarryC (37 comments total)

 
I'm stunned at the correct use of the word "decimation".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:05 PM on May 29, 2005 [2 favorites]


true enough, EB.

I'm struck by the import that these states will retain their senatorial power, no matter their dwindling population trends.
posted by Busithoth at 1:19 PM on May 29, 2005


"The earth is an Indian thing."Jack Kerouac
The Indians are taking it back.
posted by JohnR at 1:20 PM on May 29, 2005


Heh. As the saying goes, eventually Wyoming will have only three residents left, all of them U.S. congressmen.
posted by electro at 1:30 PM on May 29, 2005


Busithoth:
I'm struck by the import that these states will retain their senatorial power, no matter their dwindling population trends.


Wasn't that the very justification for the creation of the senate?
posted by PenDevil at 2:04 PM on May 29, 2005


I wonder how much it would cost to take over a county in a place like that? You can, for example, buy a thousand acres for $848,000 in Stark County, North Dakota. A square mile = 640 acres. There are 1,332 square miles in Stark County. 852,480 acres. Of course it can't all be even close to that cheap, but you wouldn't need to buy every square inch. If you could get a thousand investors with a million dollars each, or one investor with an extra billion dollars...

Wouldn't a large organization (a large church, say, or Microsoft, or a bunch of people with the same political aims) be able to create its own government fairly easily in a place like that? If you did it right, so speculators didn't drive up the prices when they saw you coming, you could make a lesbian county or a black county or a no-tax county or a Chinese county or whatever you felt like. Maybe. And then create your own local culture, which would bring in more people like you (or friendly to you), especially if you advertised heavily among friends. You'd have to create jobs, but you could do that if you brought in the right people and advertised in the right places (sell back to your constituency living elsewhere).
posted by pracowity at 2:13 PM on May 29, 2005


The buffalo is coming back!
posted by bukvich at 2:19 PM on May 29, 2005


"More important for agriculture is our failure to recognize that farms are not factories and that the effort to impose these principles on farms has created an agriculture that is headed for collapse."

Fred Kirschenmann

A new science for a new agriculture

Being At Home
posted by drakepool at 2:51 PM on May 29, 2005 [1 favorite]


"People who own these farms know their land and treat it like a member of the family. You can’t buy that kind of stewardship. If the mid-sized farms disappear, we’ll lose all that social capital.”

Fred Kirschenmann addresses the disappearing mid-sized farm
posted by drakepool at 3:01 PM on May 29, 2005


The buffalo is coming back!

Hear hear!
posted by homunculus at 3:01 PM on May 29, 2005


You'd have to create jobs, but you could do that if you brought in the right people and advertised in the right places (sell back to your constituency living elsewhere).

Then you'd live in North Dakota, though.

I think the idea, within limits is good though. That people should be allowed to create communities that reflect their personal beliefs about governance and living as long as they don't attempt to inflict it on others.
posted by drezdn at 3:10 PM on May 29, 2005


"places that momentarily trap and illuminate this supernatural ability of humans to adapt, create, and recreate their surroundings."

What is Spiritual Geography?, by Martha L. Henderson
Geographical Review © 1993 American Geographical Society
posted by drakepool at 3:22 PM on May 29, 2005 [1 favorite]


Churches are cultural anchors on the Plains.

This is something that I see as part of the problem. That religion provides the cultural focus of a community. This is the sort of thing that keeps people out of small towns and out of the plains.

I will admit, at the same time I am fascinated by this "American outback."
posted by doublehelix at 3:27 PM on May 29, 2005


Sorry to bring in a political bent to this discussion, but I'm struck by the similarities of that map to this one.
posted by Freen at 3:33 PM on May 29, 2005


I wonder whose bright idea it was to move out to the plains in the first place.

I'm getting out as soon as I can.
posted by blacklite at 3:42 PM on May 29, 2005


I think the idea, within limits is good though. That people should be allowed to create communities that reflect their personal beliefs about governance and living as long as they don't attempt to inflict it on others.

Utah.
posted by saysthis at 3:53 PM on May 29, 2005


This subject resonates with me after a trip we took last summer. My family and I followed and camped along the Lewis and Clark Trail, from Missouri to Oregon. The trail takes you south to north across the Dakotas, a direction hardly anyone goes. Lots of tiny, poor, depressed communities with signs of having been much larger. Empty farmhouses and ghostly main streets and especially big empty churches.

On the other hand, to actually stand in front of one of those homesteads and look out at the flat featureless horizon, to imagine the isolation and boredom of actually living there, especially in winter, especially before electricity and radio . . . Damn, I would leave in a heartbeat. The depopulation of the prairies can be seen as a series of individual victories.
posted by LarryC at 4:21 PM on May 29, 2005


Another perspective on the situation. (You may have to watch a brief ad.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:22 PM on May 29, 2005


This is something that I see as part of the problem. That religion provides the cultural focus of a community. This is the sort of thing that keeps people out of small towns and out of the plains.

As someone who lived the first 18 years of my life in North Dakota, I see this as completely untrue. It isn't the churches that are driving people away, it's the extreme boredom, depression, and lack of opportunity. These aren't fire breathing fundamentalists railing against the gays and Democrats, they're soft spoken moderate Lutherans and Catholics telling you to be kind to your fellow man. In many towns the church is the only outlet for socialization and community other than the bars. The priests and ministers are the only sources of alcohol abuse, marriage, and every other kind of counseling for miles around. Without them people would just sink further into their isolated meth and alcohol addictions.
posted by TungstenChef at 4:29 PM on May 29, 2005


Tanja Wold, a registered nurse, lives with her husband, David, on a ranch 50 miles from the hospital at Watford City in far northwest North Dakota. The stress level, she said, "is very high" among the staff. "The facility is so short-handed that one day I made seven trips to Watford City" to help cope with one emergency after another. "I put more than 700 miles on the car."

To think that these places were settled before oil!

If big farms are the problem, let's end the exemption that farming has from environmental laws. That should reward the farms that are too small to have serious environmental impact (like the pig factories).
posted by Aknaton at 4:40 PM on May 29, 2005


Great post, thanks. I was struck by the comparison to global market issues in the developing world:

Fred Kirschenmann, an Iowa farmer who heads Iowa State University's Aldo Leopold Center at Ames is blunt about how federal policies have pushed people out of the Great Plains. "What's happening is not inevitable," said Kirschenmann. "We want them to produce raw materials for export as cheap as possible, with as little labor as possible. It's classic colonialism. The whole region can be seen as a Third World country."

Mike Korth, who operates a medium-sized farm at Randolph, Nebraska, also blames federal programs that send more than three-fourths of the $10-billion or more in annual subsidies to one-fifth of the nation's producers. Korth, who has been active in trying to restructure federal programs, agreed the bias toward bigness "is not happening by chance. It's happening by plan and design."


Killing local economies by forcing them to produce raw materials for export - it's not just for the Third World.

I'm struck by the similarities of that map to this one.

They don't seem that similar to me, really. "Purple America" is using much finer data; at the least you should use an out-migration map with different shades of red/blue representing varying degrees of out-migration.
posted by mediareport at 4:40 PM on May 29, 2005


Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs at Walthill, Nebraska, a member of the state board of regents asks, "Does it make sense that we have a national policy of emptying the plains, of wiping out a segment of American civilization, while at the same time we have traffic, crowding and sprawl as major concerns elsewhere?"

Yes. (Not that I necessarily agree that we have such a national policy.)

...more than twice as many people live in New York City than on all of the nation's farms combined.

From Mother Jones: if NYC were its own state, it would be 51st in energy usage. Which is a sustainable lifestyle that a national policy should be promoting?

I suppose it's rude of me to interpret

She grew up on a farm near Valley City, North Dakota, a member of the fourth generation to live on that farm. After graduating from North Dakota State University and marrying, she and her husband moved to the Twin Cities to find jobs. "Even when I'm not there, I'm thinking about it. We definitely want to go back," She says. "In order for me to be a happy person, I have to think I'm going back."

as something other than "I hate being around people", but it's hard for this NYC boy not to get his Irish up over equally bigoted quotes like

Sam Schumann, chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Morris in far western Minnesota, answered the question this way: "This is the area where the soul of America was forged. It is where the values were formed that distinguish this nation, such as hard work, fairness, honesty, openness to other people...

...not like those Godless communists in the original 13 states."
posted by Aknaton at 4:56 PM on May 29, 2005


Having lived in farm and ranch communities...although not in the Plains, there's other factors that are conspiring against the small farmer. Nature, bless her heart, hasn't been all that cooperative over the last few years, meaning that in a fair part of the country, only the farms and ranches that could afford to pay for water could keep crops going. The aquifer in a lot of the country is too low for wells in farmland to work at anything near capacity. Thus, farmers needed to pay for water to be piped to them. (Ironically, the water is that low *because* it's pumped out by cities that can then charge the farmers.)

Monsanto, or as they're known in the organic circles "Those Evil Bastards" and other commercial seed producers deliberately create strains of food that cannot reseed itself or reproduce. They have successfully sued landowners who had crops contaminated by Monsanto farmers and forced the small farmer to pay the license fee for have Monsanto crops, even when the farmer did everything to avoid contamination that he knew how to do.

Big agribusiness is the death knell of any area where it goes. You should drive through the ghost towns that used to be fully functional towns just twenty years ago. It's scary.

But that said, even "successful" agriculture is rarely a big money reward. It's a lot of work, insane hours and other than the reward of a job well done, being a farmer or a rancher really requires the love of doing it...and with so many other options, it's not surprising that people would want to see how the pampered people live. :)
posted by dejah420 at 5:06 PM on May 29, 2005


I used to work at a non-profit organization dedicated to trying to educate the future leaders of rural communities in Nebraska to stay afloat in these tough economic times.

The single biggest problem that faces the Great Plains is that they're losing young people (the average size of an incorporated city or town in Nebraska is less than 1000 people, for example). There are several extremely large secondary problems, however. The midwest is "cash-poor, land-rich," (just one county in Nebraska is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined), unfortunately large agro-business and foriegn competition is pummeling the small farmer, and most towns have had a hard time finding niche markets to sustain themselves.

One of the amazing things about the midwest is its ability to cope with extreme economic hardship (two of the poorest counties in the country are in central NE, near Loup, but you wouldn't think it driving through). One strategy we tried was convincing older people to donate some of their estates to community development funds, to try and attract young people. A lot do come back, by the way... That "small-town" feel can be comforting to new parents, older folks, etc. But it's absolute hell for teenagers.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:16 PM on May 29, 2005


Great Plains Resource Page
posted by drakepool at 5:36 PM on May 29, 2005


I'm struck by the import that these states will retain their senatorial power, no matter their dwindling population trends.

This is not unprecedented, nor necessarily irreversible. Most of the declines are at the county level; states themselves are remaining stable. People are migrating from rural to urban areas within a state.

> The 1990s marks the only decade in the 20th century without any state losses in population in the United States. Even the four states whose population declined in the 1980s — Iowa, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming — experienced modest positive growth in the 1990s.

I wonder how much it would cost to take over a county in a place like that?

It happens, in an effective sense. That Swami up in Oregon tried to get a slate of people elected to the county or municipal body, and Clearwater, FL is infamously practically run by Scientologists. Many rural communities have been held hostage by a major employer in one way or another; in the 19th and 20th centuries, many communities were founded as company towns.

I think the common shibboleth about "corporate farms", though, is so much hooey. I know some of thse "corporate farmers" and for the most part, they're family farmers who were lucky or made good investments and now own what a generation ago would have been several -- maybe three, maybe a dozen -- separately owned family farms. The individual farms still exist in a physical sense; they're run by contract workers who may live with their family in the original house, but don't own it. Many of these contractors are younger siblings or future farm owners waiting for their turn. Farm ownership has consolidated; farm labor itself has not fallen all that much. But whereas the same region would have employed thousands of people in the anciallary businesses supporting those farms, now one or two granaries, one or two supply companies do the entire job. The bit players that defined small communities -- a general store, a gas station, a tractor repair shop -- disappear, unable to compete with better-financed operations in the county seat. I grew up down the street -- about 10 blocks -- from a feed store that had existed in the same location for nearly 150 years. It's a laughably small brick building with a loading dock that required semi-trailers to block the city street and no parking. Its main competitor out on the edge of town has a new metal building the size of an airplane hangar. And this is an area that's not even part of the blood-red counties on that map.
posted by dhartung at 7:42 PM on May 29, 2005


I think the common shibboleth about "corporate farms", though, is so much hooey. I know some of thse "corporate farmers" and for the most part, they're family farmers who were lucky or made good investments and now own what a generation ago would have been several -- maybe three, maybe a dozen -- separately owned family farms.

I'm sure many such farmers exist, and more power to them. But alas, it is not hooey, as Googling for terms like "subsidies lagoons race.to.the.bottom factory.farms" demonstrates. Here's a collection of offenses by the Tyson corporation (which definitely doesn't fit the description above) that will curl your hair.

I can't remember (or successfully Google) whether they were the offenders in the articles I've read about Town A offering huge subsidies to a pig factory, who comes in for a short time and leaves the place an environmental disaster area when they move on to Town B making the same miscalculation.
posted by Aknaton at 8:49 PM on May 29, 2005


I'm with Aknaton. While I'm sure your description fits some cases, dhartung, it definitely does not fit hog farms in NC, which have gone from family to mega-corporate (with help from corrupt politicians who ignore the hog waste issues that more than balance any perceived economies of scale) in just a decade or two.
posted by mediareport at 10:43 PM on May 29, 2005


From Mother Jones: if NYC were its own state, it would be 51st in energy usage. Which is a sustainable lifestyle that a national policy should be promoting?

I'm a midwesterner and know little about NYC, but maybe you can inform me... As I picture NYC, it doesn't include a lot of manufacturing, which is where a very large portion of the energy consumption happens. Maybe NYC would be 51st in energy use if you didn't count what it took to make all the ikea end tables and whatnot that fill the apartments and offices and streets, and all the fuel it takes to get those things from the provences to the citizens of the world's capital, but I can't imagine how it could be true in any real sense when you take those things into account.

Then again, maybe millions of people living on top of eachother, supplied by sparsely populated ag and industrial regions really is the way to go...
posted by jaysus chris at 10:55 PM on May 29, 2005


My post sounds snarkier than I imagined it would. Maybe I feel a little stronger about this issue than I first thought. It's an honest question though, not meant to be loaded...
posted by jaysus chris at 10:57 PM on May 29, 2005


I live in a rural decimated county in Colorado.

"This is the area where the soul of America was forged. It is where the values were formed that distinguish this nation, such as hard work, fairness, honesty, openness to other people..."

Hard work indeed. Fairness, honesty, openness to other people NOT.
posted by tgyg at 11:04 PM on May 29, 2005


As I picture NYC, it doesn't include a lot of manufacturing, which is where a very large portion of the energy consumption happens.

That's a very interesting point. Do you have any numbers? (I admit that "51st state" is not the most informative number.)

My post sounds snarkier than I imagined it would. Maybe I feel a little stronger about this issue than I first thought.

Hey, I should have said this!
posted by Aknaton at 3:46 AM on May 30, 2005


dhartung writes "The individual farms still exist in a physical sense; they're run by contract workers who may live with their family in the original house, but don't own it."

You don't see a problem with this situation? If a person needs to plunk down a few million to buy a farm it means only the already wealthy can farm. In extreme cases you end up with sharecropping setups

Aknaton writes "That's a very interesting point. Do you have any numbers? (I admit that '51st state' is not the most informative number.)"

Well they don't make any cars, buses, boats, gas, lumber etc. etc in NYC. I don't know NYC but I doubt they make much in the way of pipe, light bulbs, paper, electricity, or concrete either. Big urban areas mostly consume material things and it's material stuff uses a lot of energy. Even the stuff they do make, like bread, has major inputs from outside their borders. Plus they have more effecient square footage than suburbs and rural areas do.

Now if you were to talk about embodied energies I'd bet that would shift the numbers a bit.
posted by Mitheral at 9:15 AM on May 30, 2005


Then they should give some of those empty counties back to the Native Americans, dammit. While they're at it they can seed it with a few bison ("buffalo").
posted by davy at 9:47 AM on May 30, 2005


Based on Census data, between 1990 and 2000 the city of Baltimore, MD lost 11.53% of its people.
Some explanations for shrinking Baltimore are here.

Note: Baltimore is in Maryland, nowhere near the midwest.
posted by davy at 10:22 AM on May 30, 2005


I spent time traveling solo in the Great Plains, its actually one of my fav places in the USA precisely because it is so freakin desolate and lonely. I loved pulling into small farming towns, finding the one single Cafe and talking to whoever is around. Every town is different and has its own character and history.

One trend I saw a lot of, and not to sound racist, but a lot of the towns are re-populated with Latino immigrants. I saw a lot of old white people, architecture from the turn of the century (more "survival" then "revival"), and Latino enclaves. Of course many of these towns were once ethnic European enclaves, you can often tell by the flag on the water tower pulling into town if its an Irish town, or a Slovakian town, or a Russian town, or a Dutch town, etc.. it's a lot like a big city with ethnic neighborhoods but much more spread out. I remember one Cafe gal somewhere in Nebraska told me as I was leaving "Come back and get yourself a nice Dutch girl". I never went back, but Rose had a dusty 4Sale sign on the Cafe window, she said the sign had been there for 10 years.
posted by stbalbach at 11:46 AM on May 30, 2005


I wonder how much it would cost to take over a county in a place like that? You can, for example, buy a thousand acres for $848,000 in Stark County, North Dakota. A square mile = 640 acres. There are 1,332 square miles in Stark County. 852,480 acres. Of course it can't all be even close to that cheap, but you wouldn't need to buy every square inch. If you could get a thousand investors with a million dollars each, or one investor with an extra billion dollars...

That property is far overpiced for the area. The land is more valuable for hunting than it would be for farming.

Then they should give some of those empty counties back to the Native Americans, dammit. While they're at it they can seed it with a few bison ("buffalo").

They are.
posted by peterbaer at 3:46 PM on May 30, 2005


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