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How to Kill Rural Arkansas

Jared M. Phillips, PhD, is teaching assistant professor, International & Global Studies, University of Arkansas.

Often lost in the haze of debates about cow farts and how farmers are ruining everything is a deeper story about the hollowing out of rural America — and by this I mean the agricultural spaces that have historically anchored small towns and provided caretaking for thousands of miles of country roads, thousands of acres of private forests, grasslands, and more.

Earlier this fall two news stories grabbed my attention thanks to their local and national implications. The first was a piece by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where the finance officers in Washington and Benton Counties detailed the coming problems the population boom in the region’s cities were making for county budgets and the maintenance of an already overburdened rural system.

This type of thing shouldn’t have been a surprise to them. For years, groups like the American Farmland Trust have been talking about how the loss of farmland to urban development and the rapid growth of urban spaces often spells economic doom and more for rural areas. Similar to climate change, it seems no one was paying attention to decades of warning.

The second story, a few weeks later from the Washington Post, detailed Sonny Perdue’s thoughts on the future of farming. In it, echoing past Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, Perdue proclaimed that “in America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” effectively abandoning even rhetorical support from Washington for small farms across the country. While some no doubt think this is a problem only for dairy farms up north or small-size hobby farms; rest assured, this problem hits close to anybody in rural America.  When farms are forced to close and the families forced to leave their land, often land that has been theirs for generations, what happens? Our communities fade and die.

Essentially what has played out in the news of late has been effect and cause. Effect graphically and often gleefully demonstrated by increased urbanization and the development of agricultural land; cause as noted matter-of-factly by the USDA’s historic unwillingness to pay much attention to small and medium-size farmers and the regions they inhabit.

A quick look at statistics of my region, the Arkansas Ozarks, bears this out. In Secretary Perdue’s recent speech, we can see echoes of Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower’s agriculture czar and his protégé, Earl Butz, the USDA head during the Nixon and Ford years. Perhaps the most lasting policy idea to come out of these men, and repeated by Perdue, was the notion of “get big or get out.”

The impact of this idea in my region has been the hollowing out of its rural spaces and many of the unique characteristics of the Ozarks. For perspective, according to USDA agriculture census data, in 1950, before the major era of farm loss began, the Arkansas Ozarks had 37,691 farms with an average farm size of 135.8 acres. By 2012, there had been a 57% loss of farms since 1950 and a commensurate increase in farm size (66%). That same time period saw a 31% percent decrease in the amount of land farmed across the region as well.

Dairy farms in the Ozarks, one current target of Perdue’s efforts, fared even worse. In 1978, there were 2,366 farms with dairy operations; by 2017 that had plummeted to 35 (a 98.5% drop). Indeed, the two dairy farms close to our own farm in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, are the size that Perdue believes should close in the name of industrial efficiency. The type of logic Perdue and other agribusiness “specialists” use means rural people, and not just farmers, are in for yet another round of community loss and degradation.

An optimist might suppose that new farmers come in and take over. But when this type of event occurs at the same time a region is experiencing massive urban growth, another narrative develops, one of rural gentrification. In short, land prices climb, and as farms go out, they are bought by developers who split up once productive ground and turn them into cookie-cutter subdivisions without any biological or community diversity and little hope of a return to productive land and rural community.

As the land prices jump, only those in the upper income brackets can think of purchasing places in the rural landscape. Often these folks work and do their living in the larger towns, taking their kids to those schools on their way to work, and in general only sleeping in their country estate. Along the way, county budgets are stretched further and further until these places are ultimately consolidated into a neighboring town. At that point the county loses that revenue forever, further harming the ability of rural spaces to effectively care for themselves.

What does all this mean? In short, it means nothing more or less than the death of rural communities — but not the type of rapid death written about in national media or like we saw during the 1980s farm crisis. It’s a slow death, along a road paved by promises that new technologies will keep enough people on the farm to maintain rural life the way it has always been. While there are promises of quick economic development to support places, these “easy” fixes ultimately can’t sustain the agrarian neighborhood in the same way a steady community does.

These types of policies, favoring industrial consolidation of agriculture or blindly accepting cancerous growth, are fundamental to understanding the much discussed rural crisis in America. Indeed, when whole regions are impacted by this but it’s rarely discussed by “experts” and “culture makers,” it’s no wonder rural America has little use for an educated elite.

In general, commentators from Washington, D.C. to county planning commissions see regions like the Ozarks as useless, fly-over country populated by people too stupid to leave what is clearly a meaningless place. In this context, the reactionary defenses of place and home that helped catapult Donald Trump into the Oval Office make some sense. Indeed, it would seem that so-called “progressives” haven’t learned their lesson, despite many efforts to understand regions like the Ozarks. After all, such fatalistic approaches to understanding rural places are still being written: a recent New York Times piece on my aunt’s hometown of Clinton fell prey to the same sort of rationale as it argued that people in places like Van Buren County, Arkansas, are more interested in “going it alone” than helping out the community. While there is some truth to this, it can’t be explained outside of the depopulation of the American countryside.

Historically, the Ozarks, like most rural areas, were not depopulated and worthless; rather, the Arkansas and Missouri uplands had hundreds of small, neighborly communities with mid- and small-size farms scattered along the hillsides and keeping watch over the land – and over each other. There was a type of husbandry to life that moved beyond just caring for sheep or crops, but to people as well. While not perfect, our rural space was one of community self-sufficiency characterized by self-employment (to borrow from Wendell Berry), not the anti-community libertarian strain characterized by a pseudo-colonial servitude to large corporations like Tyson and Dollar General.

County planners and national agriculture secretaries seem to believe that these identities — mythic or otherwise — can be maintained no matter how development occurs or how many farms go out. The point here is that agricultural communities like those we once had in the Ozarks survived and fell by the strength of an imperfect neighborliness. Though the Ozarks, like any rural community, was never perfect, the region had an ideal it tried to stick to. All that is fading away—after all, to be neighborly means you have to have neighbors. And fundamentally what the Secretary of Agriculture, pundits, and planning commissions are pushing is the final destruction of neighborly communities in America’s rural spaces — places like my home.

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