In this week’s Strong Towns Podcast, Chuck Marohn interviews Corie Brown, the co-founder of Zester Media. Brown writes about food and the food system, and is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Premiere Magazine, and BusinessWeek.
Earlier this year, Brown wrote a story for The New Food Economy entitled “Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to find out why.” Brown is from Kansas originally, and was aware of the state’s long, steady depopulation, but was struck by a report that rural Kansas had become a food desert: an area in which residents do not have adequate access to affordable and healthy food.
“How can this breadbasket be a food desert?” she asks: Kansas, after all, is a state that devotes an overwhelming percentage of its land to agriculture. And yet much of the state is dotted with towns that have lost one-third, half, or more of their population in the last generation. It’s to the point that basic amenities like fresh groceries can be hard to come by. “There are no people here. Not enough to justify a delivery truck.”
The apparent paradox, Brown says, reflects the fact that Kansas has always had a commodity-based agricultural economy, not a subsistence one. The origins of Kansas’s settlement are not in family farms serving an immediate household and community, but in export agriculture, originally promoted by the federal government through grants of free land under the 19th century Homestead Acts. The carving up of the semi-arid Great Plains for intensive agriculture led to a slow-rolling environmental disaster that culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
The problem with commodity agriculture is that small farmers cannot compete with industrial-scale operations by making a higher-quality product. Says Brown, “A thousand-acre farmer in Ellis County, Kansas, is very specifically, directly competing with the government of China. Or the government of Brazil.” And the price that farmer can sell their wheat for is the price that the global commodity wheat market will bear. The result has been a relentless pressure to mechanize agriculture and improve efficiency, using less and less labor over time. Modern technology allows one farmer to manage a vast number of acres. The cost, however, is depopulation: fewer classmates for your children at school, and less access to culture and amenities.
Thirty years ago, Brown reflects, she was at a wedding in Downs, and it was a “quintessential small Kansas town”—there were people on the street, stocked shelves in the stores, a local newspaper. It was small, but active. “When I came back, it had lost a third of its population in 30 years. A lot of the store windows were blank.” Those business owners who were still around had moved their businesses out of store fronts and into their homes.
Compounding rural Kansas’s suffering, says Brown, is that the state has a culture of bootstrapping—Kansas attracted people with nothing to lose. In a great game of musical chairs, “they all believe they won’t be the one left without a chair,” and pride can prevent people from acknowledging that they need help. Resistance is still strong in Kansas’s shrinking towns to the idea of dependence on government subsidies and assistance, or to the notion that the $1 billion a year that Kansas farmers already receive in federal farm aid even constitutes a subsidy. People work long, hard hours—“They’ve never worked harder”—and farmers who help feed the world don’t even grow vegetable gardens at home anymore, because they don’t have time.
Marohn muses on the commonalities between this situation and inner city poverty: the food desert aspect, the long work for little income just to stay afloat, the isolation and lack of opportunity, and often the inability to leave if you wanted to—how can you sell your house in a place in the process of being abandoned? Who would buy it? And yet, most rural Kansans, both Marohn and Brown agree, would not see themselves as having anything in common with the urban poor. And while wealthier urban residents often look at the urban poor with empathy, they may not have the same degree of empathy for those left behind in depopulating small towns.
Playing into this is Kansas’s own rural-urban political divide, in which the residents of the Kansas City suburbs who make up a large share of the state’s population are less attuned to rural priorities and needs, and may see rural Kansas’s politics as holding the state back. There are also the politics of immigration to consider. The only rural areas in Kansas to be gaining population are in the state’s southwest, where the meatpacking and food processing industries produce a lot of demand for low-wage labor, much of it provided by immigrants.
What can Kansas do? There are no easy answers. Marohn asks Brown about the possibility of getting out of the commodity-wheat game and into something like organic produce. But this not only requires learning to do something new, but entails high up-front costs in equipment and infrastructure, and proximity to a major market for such produce. “It’s not that they’re unwilling to task a risk,” Brown says of Kansas farmers who might go organic; it’s that they can’t afford to take that risk.
Given the lack of an economic raison d’etre for many of these small towns, perhaps the question that remains is whether they should continue to exist. Do we try to pour in outside resources, Marohn wonders, to save places that can’t be saved? Or do we do the economic-development equivalent of hospice care for a dying town—make the quality of life a little better for those who are still there?
Brown says that in areas where the towns are too small to provide services, the people living there need to regionalize their local economies. Where five towns are no longer viable, one larger town might be: it might have the critical mass to provide a school, a pharmacy, and other basic amenities. But there’s a huge amount of work and cooperation and sacrifice involved in doing this.
“In a lot of these towns where people have left,” says Brown, “the people that remain mow the lawns of the abandoned houses and maintain the look, because they have pride in their town and they don’t want people to know.” This pride of place can be a uniquely human strength, but in the end, it may also be a uniquely human failing.