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Decline in Rural America Challenges Residents - 2002-10-09

Recently the Washington Post and New York Times newspapers ran alarming stories about gloomy times in rural America. One described what it called a giant "rural ghetto." The other, titled "America's Failed Frontier," concluded that the farm belt is steadily dying. In light of this troubling scenario, VOA's Ted Landphair traveled to Kansas, in the very middle of America, to get a reading on the region's decline and what can done about it.

Boom and bust cycles are nothing new on the Great Plains. In 1987, two New York academics, Deborah and Frank Popper, found the economy's prospects so grim there that they advanced a radical solution that has become a metaphor for a region in despair. Shut the whole place down, the Poppers advocated, and return it to a "buffalo commons," where tourists could see bison once again and hike the tallgrass prairie.

Few people seriously believe matters are that dire in Kansas, but they are bad enough. The worst drought since the Great Depression of the 1930s, a sharp drop in commercial activity in nearly every county and declining population in several, have saddled the state with a severe budget shortfall. Compounding the problem, sagging farm prices have put thousands of family farms out of business.

One place with an up-close view of the plight of rural America is the Kansas Farm Bureau. "There's a tremendous amount of heartache," said Steven Baccus, the elected president. "My phone rings literally daily, not just from farmers who are losing their land - being forced off the land because they can't get the money to keep going. But this last year I started getting phone calls from businesses."

Businesspeople don't normally don't the Farm Bureau," said Mr. Baccus. "But they are. And they're complaining, how are they going to stay in business? How do we sell enough cars to stay here, or the insurance companies, how do they sell enough policies to stay on Main Street? There is real concern out in the country now about not just losing the American farm in rural Kansas, but losing rural communities, entire towns simply dying and going away because of the situation that we're currently in."

At the state's principal agricultural research center, Kansas State University in Manhattan, economist David Darling has tracked the downward spike in the farm economy.

"As they say in Chinese proverbs, 'May you live in interesting times.' Well this is one of the interesting times in Kansas," said Mr. Darling. "In the past, we've seen a combination of good factors coming together, and now we're seeing a combination of rough, not-so-good factors coming together. The drought has been sort of the veneer that has been painted over the total picture of Kansas, and it has really had a psychological impact on many people, particularly if they make their living in farming. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"

David Darling says he is in what he calls the "hope business." He works with small towns to help them take advantage of whatever assets they have. Dr. Darling says survival in hard times calls for a core of optimists willing to develop a vision for their town, then an economic action plan. But more often, he says, skepticism, not optimism, greets him.

"Western Kansas, in the past couple of years, has probably suffered about as much as I've seen in the nineteen years that I've been in Kansas," he said. "So there's a lot of hurt in the countryside. They really do have to ask themselves, 'How are we doing business? And should we do business a new way?' I was in Ellsworth the other day, and they actually admitted to me that they do not have a coherent plan to move forward. Places that are hurting the most often are their own worst enemy."

The best hope for many rural counties, Mr. Darling believes, is a regional approach, in which economically sound communities like Salina and Hays become the employment, education, and medical hub, and surrounding counties offer recreation, tourism and agricultural support. Regionalism is a marvelous idea, agrees Steven Baccus at the farm bureau, but many Kansans want no part of it. When he speaks of "Minneapolis," he means a small town, population 2,000, in the center of the state - not the big city up in Minnesota.

"There's a four-lane interstate highway between Minneapolis and Salina. I can leave Minneapolis, twenty minutes later I'm anywhere I want in Salina. A lot of people in Minneapolis go to Salina to shop. A lot of people live in Minneapolis - it's a bedroom community - and work in Salina." he said.

"It seems to me like the City of Salina and Saline County have a responsibility to those outlying areas to keep them strong, keep them viable, keep those people happy, keep 'em healthy with good medical services and everything of that nature. As to how our people would respond to it? The first response to it would be negative, because they would think that Salina is trying to put its tentacles into their community and tell them how to run their community. You know, the big godfather looking over everybody. I think that's the general attitude you'd probably see. And I think we have a responsibility ourselves to develop an educational process to get past that," said Mr. Darling.

Terry Kastens teaches farm management at Kansas State University. He knows the subject because he raises corn, wheat, and cattle on a farm in the drought-stricken northwest corner of the state. If his colleague, David Darling, is in the "hope business," Dr. Kastens says he is in the "reality business." Ever-growing, technologically advanced farm operations are going to continue to supplant family farms, he says. But so what? There'll be jobs for farmers as employees.

"And a lot of times, those employees are happier than they've ever been in their lives," said Mr. Kastens. "They're no longer starving to death. They still get to do all the things that they enjoy doing as a farmer - operating a tractor and so forth. Even though farms are getting bigger, we're not necessarily getting rid of people totally. As farms get bigger, they're going to have to hire people."

And there's another reality that those who spread doom and gloom across rural America should realize, Terry Kastens says. Some rural poverty is by choice.

"My own son, who has a master's degree in geography, and his wife, who does as well, moved back to the farm a year ago specifically because they wanted their children to have the same life's experiences that they had, growing up in a small, rural community in northwest Kansas," he said. "They made that choice being conscious that they proabably won't have the standard of living that they would have had had they stayed in the city. The standard of living is about more than about the amount of money you take in."

Many articles written about the decline of rural America, especially the "brain drain" of young people who leave for Denver and Chicago and Kansas City and grasp at the straw of the Internet. People can work at home in the tranquil Kansas countryside, the reasoning goes, and build a business with the same information streams that sophisticates in Kansas City or New York have available. True, if there's good Internet access, Terry Kastens says. But how can a town like Syracuse, Kansas - 400 kilometers from even a medium-sized city - compete with the nightlife, sports, and cultural options of a Kansas City or Denver?

These are some of the realities that led to the buffalo commons metaphor and confront even those in the "hope business" in rural America.