Trouble in the heartland

A century ago, 20 percent of the American population extracted their living directly from the soil. But today, once-thriving farm communities in the Great Plains are disappearing one by one. Is America’s heartland dying?

Where are the Great Plains?

They form the spine of the United States, running 1,600 miles from the Texas panhandle north to the Dakotas. The Plains encompass all or most of 10 states and account for a fifth of the nation’s land mass, stretching 750 miles across at their widest point. The region has long been America’s breadbasket, and most of its jobs are still somehow related to agriculture. But over the last half century, the rural counties of the Great Plains have lost more than a third of their inhabitants, even though the nation as a whole has added 130 million people. “There are rivers of people flowing out of the Plains,” demographer Robert Lang told U.S. News & World Report.

Why are people fleeing?

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The family farms that were once the backbone of the region’s economy are going bankrupt. The federal government lured settlers to the Plains more than 100 years ago by giving them homesteads of 160 acres. Immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, and Germany transformed the forbidding landscape, establishing farms that were passed down for generations. These days, young people are fleeing to cities in search of jobs instead of taking over their parents’ failing properties. “Even the parents are telling the kids to get out,” said Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska research group. Some areas have lost 40 percent of their residents between the ages of 18 and 49. “Job opportunities in my town are really, really nothing,” said Melanie Simmons, 23, who left her hometown in North Dakota a year ago. “I don’t see a future there.”

Why are small farms failing?

They can’t compete with massive corporate farms. Over the last 30 years, sophisticated machinery and other technological advances have drastically increased farming efficiency. In 1930, one farmer took nine hours to harvest 100 bushels of corn by hand. Now a person operating a combine can harvest that much corn in seven minutes. Unfortunately for the small growers, an International Harvester combine can cost more than $150,000—more than an individual farmer makes in five years. Modern fertilizer and pesticides, while effective, are also very expensive. As expenses have risen, the efficiencies that come with technology and larger scale have driven the prices for produce and meat way down. That means that only the biggest farms can make a profit. The average Midwestern farmer barely scrapes by today on an income of less than $20,000 a year. In 2003 alone, ConAgra Foods Inc., a massive agricultural corporation, made a profit of $775 million.

How does this affect everyday life?

Small communities throughout the Great Plains are withering away, like crops caught in a permanent drought. Many towns have streets full of abandoned and boarded-up stores, and their economies are now so feeble that they can no longer support local schools and businesses. “We’ve lost the movers and the shakers,” said Bill Blauvelt, owner and publisher of a Nebraska weekly newspaper called The Superior Express. Like other towns in the region, Superior has all but collapsed over the last few decades. The newspaper used to cover 10 high school football teams. Only three of them are left. The town has lost two car dealers. Four clothing stores and a J.C. Penney store have also disappeared. None could compete with a massive Wal-Mart 60 miles away. The last local factory—a cheese plant that made mozzarella for Pizza Hut—recently closed because it was too remote from big cities to make money. “We will eventually be left with a lot of places without schools, stores, or even government,” Dr. John C. Allen of the University of Nebraska told The New York Times. “We will depopulate much of the Great Plains.”

What are the social implications?

Farming towns mired in poverty are succumbing to many of the same social ills that plagued America’s big cities in the 1960s, including crime and drug use. There is now more illegal drug use among teens in rural areas than in American cities. Methamphetamine, or crystal meth, has become the drug of choice both for consumption and for local entrepreneurs looking for a sure supply of cash. In Iowa, for example, authorities busted only two meth labs in 1994—and 803 five years later. Experts say crystal meth has hit small-town America the way crack cocaine once hit the cities. “This is really the first rural explosion of a hard drug,” said Thomas Monaghan, the U.S. attorney for Nebraska.

Is there any hope?

Not a lot. Much of the Plains region is already well on the way to becoming a series of ghost towns, and experts say that unless the communities can reinvent their economies, the trend will continue. Local leaders are trying to lure new businesses with tax breaks and industrial parks, but they haven’t had much luck. Thousands of miles of the northern Plains have reverted to wilderness, with fewer than two people per square mile. Huge buffalo herds now roam there, as they did before the pioneers came. The region is fast becoming a land of old-timers, where few expect prosperity to return. Of the 99 U.S. counties with the highest percentage of residents over 85, all but two are in the Great Plains. “We’re going to have to start importing pallbearers,” said Ole Svangstu, 55, a North Dakota farmer. “At some point,” said James Thorson of the University of Nebraska, “it’s going to be, ‘Last one out, please turn out the lights.’”

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