The New Culture of Rural America

During the Roaring Twenties, President Calvin Coolidge had himself photographed in a Vermont hayfield, a fresh pair of overalls covering his dress shirt, his black shoes still gleaming from their morning shine. Despite the incongruity, no one laughed. In 1994, after the Republican take-over of Congress, Bill Clinton's pollsters devised the model American vacation for a president on the defensive: a hiking and horseback-riding expedition to the high country of Wyoming. A few years later, when candidate Al Gore recalled pitching manure during summers on his father's Tennessee farm, the political press hooted as delightedly as if the vice president had claimed as his birthplace a log cabin on K Street.

These incidents are minor landmarks in a cultural shift more than 100 years in the making. Although the idea was as much conceit as reality, America long thought of itself as essentially connected with farming and farm communities. According to this idea, landholding produced self-reliant, free-thinking citizens, unlike the immigrants of the cities who were dependent on their priests and party bosses. In a tradition famously identified with Jefferson, the man who worked the land was upright, reliable, uniquely able to serve his local village and defend his country.

That tradition was already in decline when Coolidge hurried through his sham photograph, and since then, it has steadily lost plausibility. It has given way to the ideal that President Clinton enacted uncomfortably against the backdrop of Wyoming's mountains. In this ideal, nature is not a site of hard and fruitful work, but a source of recreational challenge, aesthetic inspiration, and spiritual solace; America is the country of pristine nature and rugged outdoors enthusiasts, home to the North Face, Patagonia, ubiquitous hiking boots, and the Nature Store, with its upscale bestiary of wild things. This is John Muir's America, in search of the places where, as Muir wrote of his beloved Sierra Nevada, there is "[nothing] truly dead or dull, or any trace of what in manufactories is called rubbish or waste; everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons."

The transformation does not stop at photo opportunities or buying patterns. It shows itself in economics, politics, and demographics, and the concert of changes is reworking the American countryside. If the pattern holds, farming as a way of life will mainly disappear within the next 50 years, large swaths of the country will be virtually depopulated, and the two coasts will be balanced by a third cultural and economic center in the valleys and peaks of the mountain West.

Trouble in the Heartland

Halfway out the flat and arid Oklahoma panhandle, Texas County used to raise wheat, hay, cattle, and some—not many—hogs. In 1995 Seaboard Farms moved in to set up a giant pork slaughterhouse with more than $60 million in direct subsidies and tax breaks. To supply the plant, Seaboard set up hundreds of giant metal barns, each containing nearly 1,000 hogs. Texas County now raises more than a million hogs annually.

Seaboard produces as much sewage as the city of Philadelphia, and it sits in open-air lagoons, some as large as 14 acres and as deep as 25 feet. Neighbors complain of intolerable stench, and everybody worries about water pollution. Because processing plants and, to a lesser extent, giant barns employ mainly immigrant labor, Texas County has absorbed more than 2,000 Mexican-American workers and their families. Many live in company-owned trailer parks with rent and utilities deducted from their paychecks, and thanks to wages that start at $6.25 an hour and an annual turnover rate of 120 percent, many draw food stamps. Since 1995 criminal violence and property crime in the county have increased by more than half, while crime rates in surrounding counties have gone down.

Eight hundred miles north, in Lemmon, South Dakota, every other window on Main Street holds a sign announcing "America's Rural Crisis." Except for a few Jehovah's witnesses in the area for a conference, everybody knows which crisis. For three years, wheat and cattle have sold below break-even levels; so have hogs and soybeans in the state's eastern half. Almost all the local farmers and ranchers are in deep debt and are going deeper after each harvest. Farm families urge their children to find other work. Business has dropped by as much as a third in downtown shops, even though the regional Wal-Mart is still two hours away. Local social workers say that depression, domestic violence, and suicide are up markedly, and they expect more trouble if, in a year, the cautious local banks begin foreclosing again. This downturn follows decades of steady population loss across a band of the High Plains running from Texas through Montana, which has put the population density of many counties below two people per square mile and has left large regions barely able to support a single town for shopping and social gatherings.

Sixty years ago, the typical midwestern farm ran between 80 and 300 acres—half of today's average size—and produced several kinds of grain, livestock, and hay, and a garden's worth of vegetables. Until tractors replaced them between 1920 and 1950, draft horses provided heavy labor, entire families worked the farm, and there was work to do in every season. Contrary to myth, farming west of Pennsylvania was never an old or especially settled existence. Pedigrees reached back at most a century, and for every family that remained, more had moved on, forced out by hard times or bought out by an expanding neighbor.

So it was the latest of many changes when, after the Second World War, a farm economy that had been static since the beginning of the Depression opened up to big tractors, large amounts of chemical fertilizer, and herbicides and pesticides. Yields went up, competition stiffened, and vast numbers of farms disappeared during the 1950s. Within 20 years, almost every farm in the Midwest was on a two-crop rotation: corn and soybeans, the giant commodities of the heartland. In the early 1970s, a boom in grain exports brought a rush of wealth, farmers purchased a new generation of giant harvesting machinery, and ambitious operators again expanded their land. That bubble burst in the farm crisis of the 1980s, but when the upheaval shook out, the shape of agriculture was largely the same, minus several hundred thousand farmers.

In the past 10 years, however, farming has entered a dramatic new restructuring. The farmer is an anomalous link in a food-production chain that, on both sides of him, involves some of the world's most powerful and concentrated industries. It is as if auto production began with the manufacture of parts in great factories and ended with Ford and General Motors marketing cars and SUVs, but, in the middle, the parts were shipped out to several million small craftsmen who assembled them in their garages as best they could, then drove or shipped them to Detroit for painting, finishing, and quality checks. This odd arrangement has persisted partly because farmers have the land, partly because farming combines low returns with high risk—drought, flood, freeze, heat, or disease can wipe out a year's work in a day or a week—and corporate strategists have been content to leave the risk with farmers and let a sympathetic Congress provide bailouts when disaster strikes.

Now this is changing. The change began in poultry farming, long a part of family farm operations. In the 1960s, meat- processing companies began contracting with farmers to raise chickens in large metal barns, becoming an integrated step in a single production chain. The chickens were delivered to the farmer as chicks and were retrieved as broilers; they never left the company's ownership. By 1980, except for a few specialty products, there was no place for independent chicken farmers to sell their birds. The poultry industry has become notorious for the low pay and dangerous work conditions of the employees who manhandle the birds, and for stream-killing pollution.

In the early 1990s, new technology made the same kind of confinement possible for hogs. With antibiotic injections and climate control, raising animals suddenly required none of the skill and attention farmers had always maintained. As in poultry, tending pigs could become a low-wage job. Some meat-processing companies began contracting out hogs on the model of chickens, while others built their own massive barns. The pressure on small operators was intense. Between 1993 and 1998, more than 104,000 farmers raising 500 hogs or fewer gave up pigs or left farming altogether—a 55- percent reduction in six years. Meanwhile, the number raising more than 2,000 hogs increased by more than 2,300, or 53 percent, and the number with more than 5,000 hogs nearly doubled to just under 2,000. By 1998 the five largest pork companies raised about 19 million hogs, nearly a third of the number produced that year.

Market structure drives the new agriculture nearly as much as technology. The top six pork processors slaughter three- quarters of the country's hogs, up from one-third in 1989, and they want a steady supply of cheap pigs whose quality they can control. The top four beef processors control 80 percent of their industry. Between 1993 and 1998, the number of farmers and ranchers raising fewer than 100 cattle dropped by 89,000, while the number with more than 500 head grew by more than 1,500, both movements of about 10 percent. Small operators face low prices on the cash market partly because processors prefer to arrange purchases well in advance with large ranchers or else raise their own cattle, leaving small operators to fill in last-minute gaps.

Similar market concentration is half the reason that grain farming may be in for a reworking as well. In processing corn and soybeans and milling flour, the top four companies control between 57 and 80 percent of operations. Two companies, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill, are among the top four in all three areas and have been buying up smaller competitors for 20 years. (Cargill is also among the largest beef and pork packers and is the fifth-largest owner of feedlots, the stage of cattle raising between the ranch and the slaughterhouse.) The other half of the reason grain is ripe for a rehaul is biotechnology. Genetic engineering is just finding its feet in seed production, and already two-fifths of the nation's soybean crop is genetically modified and millions of acres of corn carry a gene that poisons the most common insect pest. These seeds carry patents, which mean 21-year monopolies on the best seed varieties, renewable with each new modification. Seeing the potential for profits, biotech companies have purchased seed companies and, seeking to ensure markets for their plant lines, have allied themselves with grain-processing companies.

Cargill, one of the largest seed firms in the world, sold its seed division to the chemical and biotech company Monsanto in 1998. The two then announced a joint venture, including acquiring control of the "terminator gene," which sterilizes second-generation seeds and so ensures that farmers must buy new seeds from the manufacturer each year. Although the terminator gene was shelved in the face of political pressure and scientific uncertainty about its ecological consequences, technological ways of ensuring that farmers buy more from the chemical and biotech industries develop apace. Monsanto also owns the predominant transgenic soybean "Roundup Ready," which is designed to survive applications of Monsanto's popular and deadly Roundup herbicide. ADM has developed several joint ventures with Novartis, a Swiss biotech firm that has been expanding rapidly. As in pork and poultry, farmers face increasingly concentrated and coordinated markets at both ends of their operations.

And so a long-running trend is reinforced: As agriculture becomes more expensive and more productive, its natural scale is less and less that of the small farm. This is true partly because of the sheer advantage of size, partly because of the shape of agricultural markets, and partly because as technology becomes more powerful, the individual farmer's knowledge of his animals and his land becomes more superfluous. In 1900 farmers received 21 cents out of every dollar spent on agriculture; today they get a nickel, with the difference going to fertilizer, seed, chemical, equipment, and processing companies. Farmers' portion has fallen 13 percent since 1979 alone. Sixty percent of the income that remains goes to the 6 percent of American farms that are genuinely large.

All of this came home with a vengeance after 1996, when Congress ended the price supports that had kept many small farmers on the right side of a tight margin. As technology makes size important and skill dispensable, the hog barns of Texas County look more like the future. It is becoming conventional wisdom in much of the Midwest and Great Plains that in the future a few large farmer-managers will grow grain on contract for seed-and-processing conglomerates, completing the same cycle that governs poultry and is reshaping pork farming. Where farming is the only economy, which it is in much of the already depopulating region east of the Rockies, the landscape would become little more than an empty plantation. It is a plausible prediction.

High Country Boom

The change in farming contributes to its decline as a cultural icon. Americans understand that their farmers are not rough-handed husbandmen, but investors, managers, and heavy-equipment operators who, when not planting or harvesting their one or two crops, have a lot of time on their hands. Giant hog barns and Roundup Ready soybeans resist romanticizing. Also, as the number of farmers has plummeted, so has the number of people with childhood memories of a father's or grandfather's farm or even a cousin still on the land. Finally, in a culture impatient with its crises, the eruption of concern, sympathetic films, and fundraising concerts that accompanied the farm crisis of the 1980s is unlikely to repeat itself; Americans, especially media programmers, are not attracted to two-time losers.

Instead, the defining American encounter with nature now expresses a delight in rugged scenery and equally rugged activity that, since its origin with aristocrats such as Teddy Roosevelt and popular adventurers like John Muir, has become a staple of middle-class taste. Visits to national parks have increased dramatically; the growth has been even greater in sales of outdoor gear, which announces a spirit of ruggedness even in the absence of opportunities to practice it. And more Americans are finding ways to live in the settings they have come to love.

Except for a few counties in Colorado and New Mexico, the mountain West grew little in the 1980s. Then, in the first six years of the 1990s, a thick band of the West, including much of Colorado, mountain New Mexico, western Montana, Idaho, northern Nevada, and parts of Utah grew more than 15 percent. Census estimates extending to 2005 project growth over 20 percent for only five states nationwide, all in the region, and over 15 percent for Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. (These states are divided between the declining Great Plains and the booming Rockies, and growth in the mountains is as great as in the five super-boom states.) Both population and economic growth have clustered around striking landscapes, especially federal lands: the Yellowstone region of Montana and Wyoming, where a condominium in one of many fast-growing developments costs at least $300,000; Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which recently tried to stem middle-income flight from high housing prices by offering subsidies to families with annual incomes near $80,000; and Boulder, Colorado, where a new tract house costs close to $200,000 and larger, well-situated homes press quickly into the millions.

Population figures do not reflect the full influx into the region. Tourism has also increased rapidly, and expensive second homes dot lake shores and mountain valleys in the most desired regions. All these shifts come because the nation's love of the outdoors has grown at the same time as enormous wealth on both coasts. That and growth in telecommuting have been enough to convince many that if they can have mountains in their backyards, they almost certainly should.

The new western economy has another side. Montana, whose mountain regions have grown quickly and have attracted the likes of Harrison Ford and Ted Turner, has seen its average wage fall to 49th in the nation as hotel and restaurant jobs have expanded to take in most of its low-skill work force. While the state's mining and timber industries—now devastated by mechanization and a much deserved two-thirds reduction in timbering on federal lands—were heavily unionized and paid high wages, organizers from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union estimate that less than 5 percent of workers in their industry hold a union card. Wages run near the federal minimum. Organizing is all the harder because local employees are leavened with a population of transient, young outdoors enthusiasts from affluent homes, who have come for the gorgeous landscape and have no interest in union politics. In regions with longer-standing tourism wealth, such as Vail, Colorado, trailer parks in valleys command views of the ridgetop homes whose owners the trailer residents serve.

n even more basic paradox haunts monied newcomers to the mountains. They come for open spaces, uncrowded hiking trails, uncluttered vistas, and, in many cases, intact communities of manageable size. Yet as they pour in, they threaten to undo the same qualities that have drawn them. Land is scarcer than maps suggest, with huge pieces of the Rockies in federal ownership and many slopes too steep for building. Views are many miles long, and a population density that could be invisible in the folded, forested East makes for a crowded western landscape. East of the continental divide, the region is arid, and pressure on water systems mounts rapidly. In some valleys, temperature inversions turn exhaust fumes and wood smoke into severe air pollution.

Unsurprisingly, then, some of the most adamant opponents of further growth are recent arrivals. Many come in an echo of Daniel Boone's apocryphal remark that he felt crowded enough to move westward when the first neighbor came into view. That attitude depends on the availability of open space, and it is threatened by the approaching close of the development frontier, a century after Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the closing of the first. There is a slightly alarmed quality in Montana's billing itself "the last best place." Moreover, many new residents not only chose the mountains but also rejected the cities they left, sometimes because of distaste for racial diversity and urban—usually Democratic—politics. A monied, edgy libertarianism affects western politics and has contributed to the election of far-right senators and representatives in a region once known for its progressive politicians [see Jonathan Tilove, "The New Map of American Politics," TAP, May-June 1999].

After the Frontier

American farming and American real-estate development share a debt to the frontier. Just as we are building up the West as if the valleys and vistas would not end, so we have never farmed in the manner of a people who expect to live in a place for a long time and have thought about what staying will require. Under Texas County, Oklahoma, and much of the Plains, the Ogalalla Aquifer is estimated to have perhaps 50 years of water left at current irrigation rates. When it is gone, a good deal of the region's farming will end as well. Already, spring-fed rivers have dried up as the water table has dropped. Throughout the country, we have turned an activity that is at once productive, nonpolluting, and self-renewing into one that is only productive. We do this by isolating the elements of agriculture: concentrating livestock so that manure turns from a fertilizer to a pollutant; sapping soil of its nutrients each year and rebuilding it with chemical fertilizer mined abroad (phosphorous) or blasted out of compressed, super-heated air (nitrogen) and which creates large pollution problems of its own; controlling weeds and pests with poisons whose effect on human health is often poorly documented; and permitting topsoil erosion at many times the natural rate of replenishment.

It seems to be the tendency of a frontier economy that has run out of room to create sacrifice zones, areas used badly or ruinously to support the comfort of neighboring regions. Our massive diversion of Western water to the irrigated fields of California's Central Valley fits this idea, as do the draining of the Ogalalla, the willing loss of topsoil, and the transformation of regions like Texas County into hard-luck rural industrial sites.

There are better ways of governing both farming and growth, but they require clarity about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Better planning of growth faces considerable cultural resistance in the West, but it will be necessary if the region's attractions are to be preserved, and that fact may move self-interest to impose restraints alien to both locals' and newcomers' sensibilities. There are more innovative approaches to preserving open space as well. Several private land-trust organizations in Montana have put more than half a million acres under permanent conservation easements. They buy or receive as gifts the development rights on both wild land and ranches, which they then permanently retire. On the latter, ranching continues, but subdivision will never come. There are similar organizations throughout the West. Farther afield, speculative policy thinkers have proposed taxing each new acre of development enough to buy and retire development rights on another acre of land. The proportion could be greater or smaller, but the central idea is exactly right: We will run out of open space, and we need to decide how much we want to preserve forever and set about doing so at a pace to match its disappearance.

Preserving open land always involves the question of who is to benefit from the land, and this issue is highlighted in the land politics of the West. It is a familiar and often deserved charge that growth controls benefit those whose houses are already built. More striking is that a great deal of the money behind Montana's land-conservation easements comes from the New York financial community, whose leaders have long enjoyed hunting and fishing in the state and would like to keep their favorite regions open—and free of lower-income interlopers. A system of tax-financed conservation easements would require deciding whether to create limited public access for preserved land, so that anyone could tramp through otherwise private woods or cut through a field while hiking. An economy based on sacrifice zones inspires compensation in beauty zones, the national parks being an especially noble example, and who shares in those is a question of first importance.

In farming, any improvement would mean first ending our politics' false piety toward the family farm. The elaborate and expensive price controls that ended in 1996 were never intended to stop the trend toward consolidation. Today the country's basic policy is to step aside as the market passes by. This year's frantic debate over a bailout package was a bit of costly backwash in a river running the other way.

A more serious approach to agricultural policy would begin with the environmental effects of today's agriculture. Although farming has long been one of the country's most regulated areas by virtue of its complex subsidies, it has substantially escaped environmental regulation. Farmers impose environmental harm on everyone else through the fertilizer runoff that chokes rivers and fouls groundwater, through haphazardly governed pesticides, and through topsoil erosion. Large-scale, consolidated agriculture often does more harm than the smaller sort: Huge fields lack brakes against erosion, standardized fertilizer and pesticide application often means applying too much to many sites, and large operations are less able than smaller ones to replace chemical inputs with on-farm substitutes like crop rotation and manure. North Carolina got an object lesson in the hazards of size this fall when Hurricane Floyd burst manure lagoons and left thousands of drowned pigs strewn across the state's river bottoms. When the rest of the country absorbs these costs, the result is a very large subsidy to farmers, one that is too large in proportion to each farmer's (or corporation's) environmental irresponsibility. If stricter rules required agriculture to pay its own way by preventing erosion and controlling pollution, the industry would be both less destructive and somewhat less inclined to corporate concentration.

It is possible to reward good environmental behavior as well as discourage harms. Already the federal government conditions some of its farm payments on farmers' protecting their wetlands and pays landowners to retire millions of acres of marginal land through the Conservation Reserve Program. Both programs have problems with enforcement, and the Conservation Reserve Program has attracted many opportunistic participants, but the model directs federal money more productively than traditional price supports. Denmark, an admittedly extreme case, now devotes a quarter of its national agriculture budget to converting farms from conventional to organic techniques. While that model is politically infeasible and perhaps economically inappropriate in this country, directing technical and financial support to farmers of moderate size who adopt environmentally sound techniques is a possibility. Some of these ideas might emerge from a courageous and environmentally minded White House. That would at least be a beginning.

Rural places have always had a double significance in American culture. While politicians and editorialists long praised their virtues and pleasures, those qualities have few literary expositors. Serious writers such as Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and Robert Frost have concentrated instead on a persistent darkness in country life: poverty, solitude, hidden violence, endless labor, and nature's arbitrary, indifferent thwarting of human ends. Yet the places they document are not blights on the landscape, not mistakes—or, at any rate, not reversible errors. They have a hold on those who inhabit them, and their satisfactions—community, labor and its temporary respites, sheer survival, and the nearness of living things—are real as well. Good farming has long been a demanding craft whose reward is knowing the meaning of a changing wind, the requirements of a calf's health, or the potential of a piece of land.

The current economy threatens to sever the burdens of the country from its satisfactions and to divide working landscapes geographically and economically from regions of beautiful playgrounds. This change would foster an often ignorant delight in Muir's nature, where God is everywhere and all welcoming, and it would sanction the disappearance of Frost's, which challenges the land's inhabitants to decide whether God is absent or only indifferent. It would also turn economic division yet again into geographic division, multiplying a new industrial poverty in the countryside that we have decided is not beautiful and settling a new affluence in the landscapes that we have found we love. We shall have to decide whether that is for the best. It is surely what is coming.

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