Farming ‘get big or get out’ has left Kansas cities struggling for survival

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DIGHTON, Kansas – A billboard along Interstate 70 touting the productivity of Kansas farmers may say more about what’s going on in farming than those who put it there think.

The message sounds simple and straightforward: “1 Kansas farmer feeds 155 people + you!”

A closer look reveals that it has been grossly updated – an indication that the count is changing with some frequency.

The steady increase in the number of people fed by a single Kansas farmer – from 73 in the 1970s to 155 today – reveals how many small farmers have been replaced by large farmers eager to grow even bigger.

This trend threatens dozens of small towns that sprouted on the prairie in another era when more small farmers depended on it.

Many small towns in Kansas appear weathered, worn and neglected after more than a century of exodus. Most rose up over a century ago to meet the basic needs of farmers. They established banks and churches. Grocery stores and tool dealers flourished.

Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service

This sign is located along Interstate 70 between Topeka and Manhattan.

Consider Atwood, the childhood home of former Governor Mike Hayden.

The Atwood that Hayden knew growing up in the 1950s was a bustling town of about 2,000 people nestled in the northwest corner of the state. Tidy shops lined the main street. Hayden remembers six grocery stores, five car dealerships, at least one drugstore, and a successful local newspaper.

“It was,” he said, “the America of Norman Rockwell.

The city has since lost almost half of its population. Most of those foundational businesses, Hayden said, “have eroded” and taken with them the core of civic leaders in the community.

As governor in the late 1980s, Hayden spoke on the defensive of the decline of rural Kansas. A pair of East Coast academics – Frank and Deborah Popper – have offered to return the bison to rural expanses of Kansas and other Great Plains states as part of a huge nature preserve.

Hayden ridiculed the idea.

“I came out of blazing guns,” Hayden said. “I thought the Poppers weren’t on base and maybe they should go back east and we would be fine here.”

He now says he was wrong.

“They were right about the emigration they observed,” said Hayden. “In fact, this is happening faster than they predicted.”

Several factors are responsible for the decline, said Hayden, including the consolidation of the agricultural economy. He cited his family farm as an example.

In 1960, said Hayden, this farm supported 17 people. Most of them lived in and around Atwood. Today, he only supports three.

Today, this farm is bigger and produces more grain than ever. But only one of the three people who look after the land works there full time.

“My brother can do it all on his own,” said Hayden.

A report released last year by the US Department of Agriculture said that in 1987, medium-sized farms between 100 and 1,000 acres covered nearly 60% of the country’s cropland. By 2012, these mid-sized farms had lost about half of their acreage to larger farms, those of 2,000 acres or more.

Don Hineman’s western Kansas farm, located just south of Dighton, covered 3,000 acres when he returned from college in 1973 to help manage it.

It’s now 14,000 acres, or nearly 22 square miles, and still growing.

State Representative and farmer Don Hineman has continually expanded the scale of his operation to keep pace with agricultural trends.

Credit Chris Neal / For the Kansas News Service

State Representative and farmer Don Hineman has continually expanded the scale of his operation to keep pace with agricultural trends.

“When you have opportunities for growth, you had better seize them,” said Hineman, a state representative who chairs the House committee on rural revitalization.

Growing up, Hineman said, made him a more efficient farmer and a better steward of the land. He can afford the sophisticated equipment needed for the latest precision farming.

These systems map fields in great detail and analyze nutrient levels in different soil plots so that satellite-guided planters and sprayers can deliver the smallest amount of seed and fertilizer to grow the most abundant crops.

“It bothers me to some extent that what we do on our farm is in some way contributing to the decline of the local community,” Hineman said. “But it’s a matter of self-preservation. Either you get fat or you get out.

Gail Fuller maintains that this is simply not true.

“We were sold a merchandise invoice,” Fuller said.

He owns a small farm near Emporia and challenges the idea behind much of American agricultural policy that American farmers need to feed the world with staple crops.

“We are doing it at the expense of the climate, the environment,” Fuller said.

Large-scale staple farming, he argues, puts farmers at the mercy of markets that often fail to balance prices and put them in debt.

Fuller drastically downsized his farm several years ago after a long dispute over a crop insurance payment pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy.

“We’re a very diverse company,” Fuller said, explaining that he grazes his cattle on perennial grasses and produces only enough grain to feed his pigs and chickens.

Fuller markets grass-fed beef and other expensive products direct to consumers and said he’s just starting to turn a profit after years of debt.

Gail Fuller has turned away from basic farming.

Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service

Gail Fuller has turned away from basic farming.

“Most people hate paying income taxes,” he said. “Actually, I can’t wait to be there after being beaten for 10 or 15 years.”

Even with the increase in farm bankruptcies, most farm economists say a significant number of Kansas farmers are unlikely to follow Fuller’s lead, despite evidence that maintaining the status quo means digging. of rural communities.

“We’ve seen these trends of demographic and economic decline continue for about a century now,” said John Leatherman, agricultural economist at Kansas State University.

These trends, Leatherman said, are driven by major economic forces beyond the control of Kansas farmers, community leaders, or state policymakers.

Given that trajectory, Hineman, state lawmaker and large-scale farmer, said he hopes taxpayers in urban and suburban Kansas will not tire of subsidizing rural communities as they struggle to their survival.

“We are all in the same boat,” he said. “It’s unrealistic and unthinkable for urban Kansas to say, ‘Solve your own problems in rural Kansas. We are done with you.

This is the second in a series of stories investigating rural Kansas’ decline and efforts to reverse it. The following story examines how communities can shrink, and where, find ways to thrive with a smaller population.

Support for this season of “My Fellow Kansans” has been provided by the United Methodist Department of Health Fund, which has worked to improve the health and integrity of Kansans since 1986 by funding innovative ideas and sparking conversations in the health community. Learn more about fondssante.org.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or send an email to jim (at) kcur (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be reposted by media at no cost with appropriate attribution and link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3

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