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farm fields

Wounds suffered by American agriculture curable?

Nebraska's Rural Futures Institute is a model for every other state with an agricultural economy.

Since the early 1950s, America’s population has doubled and the number of farmers has fallen by two-thirds. As in all businesses, too, conglomeration has taken its toll on small farms. Sixty years ago, Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture during the Eisenhower years, infamously and presciently said this about agriculture: "Get big or get out of farming."

It made him a figure of derision among legions of small farmers. They threw eggs at him during subsequent speaking engagements and raged against his dictum. The next six decades, though, proved him right. The little guys began to disappear and the pace with which they vanished accelerated, year-by-year.

Problem #1: Too many of the generations that followed wanted nothing to do with farming. They were lured to cities that offered more opportunity, a shorter work week and the kind of varied and rich social life that couldn't be matched in rural towns.

Problem #2: Farming was becoming increasingly complex and expensive. With few children willing to take up the reins and corporations knocking on the door offering significant amounts of money for the land, the sell-out of small farms began to resemble a modern-day land rush, rivaling the 'Sooner' stampede that overran the Oklahoma district in 1889.

The result remade rural America. Many of the small farms near medium- and larger-sized cities turned into suburban housing developments; heavily populated places in the heartland with odd names like "Granite Falls" where there was no granite and few falls but the image sold well. Farther out, of course, small farms were coalescing into big farms where the economies of a much larger scale made the always risky pursuit of agriculture a little less of an annual crap shoot.

And, please, none of this nonsense about those evil big corporate farms shoving aside pure and innocent small, family-owned farms. It just plays to the uneducated prejudices of people who know little of modern American agriculture. Those large 'incorporated' farms are almost always family-owned businesses that have incorporated for tax purposes.

And one other thing for the ag illiterati who pine for the good old days of the farmhouse with a big red barn out back and a few chickens scratching at the ground behind that white picket fence: Farming is a business, usually tougher and possibly more unforgiving than any other business.

Unfortunately, the inevitable growth of large farms helped bring about the great emptying out of rural America and a consistently depressed economy that will probably never rebound. It began a death spiral accelerated by fewer job opportunities and left behind a rapidly aging population that large-scale employers -- except for places like Walmart -- found unappealing. Sam Walton, more than anyone else, inadvertently helped kill the dream of a prosperous rural America.

Walmarts opened in rural communities and soon killed those small mom-and-pop stores that represented the heart-and-soul and job opportunities of those towns. The choices for the last few generations was work in one of Sam's big box stores, take over the family farm when the parents wanted to step aside or leave. Small town America was becoming ghost town America.

So where do we go to turn the tide? It's often said that American farmers pay the bills with domestic sales and make money with international trade. Killing the Trans-Pacific partnership has damaged opportunities with our once reliable Asian partners, wounding NAFTA hurt North American trade and getting into a tit-for-tat tariff war with China has caused serious pain with soybean prices. Uncertainty about America's policies, the kiss of death for international trade, is causing other countries to search for more reliable resources.

If you want to call the last half century a gut punch to American ag, the last two years have been a series of one-two punches that threaten to knock an already staggering business to its knees. The recent 'bomb cyclone' dealt an unrecoverable blow to many financially strapped Midwestern farmers. Devastating winds, snows, rain and floods hit during the peak of calving season and will seriously delay planting in states ranging from the Dakotas to Ohio with the worst of it turning its fury on Nebraska where more than 75 towns and cities have declared a state of emergency. A devastatingly quick knockout certainly won't happen but a slow-motion TKO that could impact large parts of our agricultural strength within the next half century is a frightening possibility.

Fighting the good fight are organizations like the University of Nebraska's Rural Futures Institute (RFI), led until recently by the estimable Chuck Schroeder. They've taken on a huge task and here is what they say about themselves:

"Through the Rural Futures Institute and other initiatives, the University of Nebraska works to create a thriving rural future for the state. This means providing access to education that encourages leadership and entrepreneurial development and focusing on recruitment and retention efforts by creating economic development opportunities, health care access, technology connectivity and more."

RFI is a well-targeted organization. Its desire to make sure rural Americans have access to good health care, meaningful education and adequate job opportunities will help promote economic development. It's a tough row to hoe, though, as those agricultural fields seem to be growing tumble weeds faster than cows and crops.

At times, though, the job must seem like trying to stop a badly damaged and leaking Hoover Dam with a single roll of paper towels. The effort might be heroic, but the outcome is pre-ordained unless a lot more people and organizations step up. Right now, RFI has the support of 19 colleges and universities, 10 businesses, 21 of Nebraska's government agencies and 45 of that state's non-governmental organizations.

Bottom line: RFI is a model for every other state with an ag economy. Until the other 49 jump on board, though, it's only a startup, even if it does have the heart of Rocky Balboa.

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