Rural Kansas Dying
Those in Kansas wondering what the heck went wrong and those in surrounding states that see the same things moving in a similar direction just may want to click on this story and read it. Interesting, but written by a Lib, so keep your shaker of Kosher sea salt handy.
The combination of soaring costs and plummeting prices has created an emergency in the nation’s breadbasket. “We are in our third year of very low farm income levels across the state,” said Taylor. Net income per operator fell to $8,451 in 2015. While it rebounded to $55,790 in 2016, it remains well below the $150,000 average of the previous seven years.
It is dark irony that, by focusing on production, Kansas farmers have devalued their own goods. Ever more sophisticated technology has led to a commodity grains glut that—thanks to the simple law of supply and demand—has crashed prices. In towns across Kansas, two- and three-year-old wheat sits under tarps beside full-to-the-brim grain elevators. Farmers wait in the hope that prices will rise—even just a little bit—before they sell.
“We’ve grown so much wheat we’ve dug ourselves into a hole after a run of good years,” said Taylor. The state is a victim of its own agricultural success.
When debt-saddled farmers can’t recoup their expenses, they can quickly have no choice but to sell their land—a painful decision that sometimes means leaving rural Kansas entirely. There were 75,000 farms in Kansas in 1980. Today, there are only 59,600, according to Xan Wedel, a researcher at the University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research.
But consolidation is not the only way commoditized farming exacts a human cost. The very purpose of today’s highly mechanized agriculture is to eliminate people from the farm system. After all, modern technology—from machinery to chemical herbicides to proprietary high-yield seed—allows one farmer to accomplish a task that would have taken three a generation ago. Today, operators sitting at computers hundreds of miles from the farm can easily steer gigantic harvesters via satellite. Kansas’s agricultural landscape needs fewer and fewer human caretakers.
Rural areas across the Great Plains “uniformly are experiencing decline,” said John Leatherman, an agricultural economist at K-State, the land grant university responsible for supporting Kansas’s agricultural sector. And, in his view, that’s not such a terrible thing. “Under-utilized human infrastructure”— schools and hospitals serving depopulated areas—is a burden on urban taxpayers, he said. “It is good for society and the world as a whole,” to move to a more robotic “factory floor” model of agriculture.
Not long from now, “the region will only need people to run the grain silos and the gas stations,” said Laszlo Kulcsar, head of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education at Pennsylvania State University. “Such people will not care about the place or the land. They will be people with no other options.”
For years, Kulcsar studied the depopulation of rural Kansas as director of K-State’s Kansas Population Center. In his view, commodity agriculture has squeezed all other economic life out of rural Kansas. But when he visited all of Kansas’s 105 counties on more than one occasion to speak with farmers and other residents about their lives, he found only resignation.
“Kansans are complacent,” he said. “They accept the depopulation. They think they are winning if they just slow it down. That’s not winning.”
Across Kansas, a lonely few are trying to pivot away from the system of industrial agriculture that has defined, and drained, the state.
I met Tim Raile at Fresh Seven Coffee in Saint Francis (population 1,300), at the suggestion of owners Kale Dankenbring and his wife, Heidi Plumb. After a cup of their coffee, our first cup of the trip that didn’t come from a gas station, I trusted their taste.
In the most remote northwest corner of the state, Dankenbring’s hometown, the couple built a motorcycle repair shop and coffee house with graffiti art and used furnishings suitable for any hangout in Los Angeles or Brooklyn. In five short years, they became the glue holding this struggling farm community together. Raile is a regular, as are most of the farmers, their wives, and the town’s two cops. “People who have never left rural Kansas just see the limitations,” said Dankenbring, who brought Plumb, with her coffee roaster, home with him after they traveled the world together.
Like most of the farmers in Cheyenne County, Raile has been a conventional commodity grain farmer his whole life, as were his father and grandfather, one of the original group of German farmers immigrating to America from Russia who built the town at the turn of the century.
But as Raile said: “When everyone zigs, I zag.” He has always been quick to try new seeds, new herbicides, and new machines, and was an early adopter of no-till farming. While other northwest Kansas farmers were draining the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate thirsty cornfields, Raile dry farmed. He likes to bet against the crowd.
Easy-to-spray herbicides and pesticides made it possible for Raile to handle his 8,500-acre farm by himself, only recently bringing his son on to help. But one year, his cocktail of herbicides left a few weeds. The next year, and each year thereafter, more weeds survived. In a few years, weeds were overwhelming his wheat fields. “It didn’t matter what chemicals we used or how much,” he said.
When his annual herbicide bill hit $250,000, Raile feared he was killing his farm in an effort to protect his income. “I quit arguing with reality,” he said. “This wasn’t sustainable.” He switched to certified organic agriculture.
Going organic is the ultimate contrarian move for a Kansas farmer. Raile kept his decision a secret from even his closest friends that first year. Less than one percent of Kansas’s agricultural production is certified organic—that’s a mere 86 farms with a total of 54,208 certified organic acres, as of 2016, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In a state with $18 billion in annual agricultural product sales, the 60 members of the Kansas Organic Producers Association have recorded a mere $8 million in annual sales for the last several years.
Disdain for organics runs deep among Kansas farmers, said Raile. Two and a half years into his transition to organic, just one friend has stopped by to ask him about switching.
“There are plenty of good reasons to not go into organics,” he said. It’s labor intensive, which means hiring farmhands. He had to buy new equipment and learn new farming methods. Still, he thinks the math is in his favor with the money he’ll save on chemicals.
“I’ve always believed the big ag companies when they said their chemicals are safe,” he told me. And he chooses to continue to not question that trust. But if consumers are paying a premium for organics—two to four times the price of commodity wheat, depending on the grain —he thinks it’s crazy not to grow it for them. He plans to sell directly to customers along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, a three-hour drive from Saint Francis, where demand is high for organic heritage grains.
Raile isn’t alone, said Catherine Greene, USDA senior agricultural economist. With commodity grain prices falling, there has been a spike in conventional grain farmers switching to organics. “It’s a higher value crop, which is why organic acreage is increasing around the world,” she said.
Raile is not the first St. Francis farmer to go organic. Robert Klie flipped his 2,100 acres to organics 13 years ago and said he earns $22/bushel for heirloom Turkey Red wheat and $10/bushel for his standard organic wheat. “When the chemicals don’t work, the company always has an excuse,” said Klie. That ticked him off. One day he stopped using chemicals cold turkey. “Chemical companies have brainwashed farmers, telling them they are feeding the world and they can’t do it without all of these chemicals. Well, you can do it without chemicals. We are,” he said.
Re: Rural Kansas Dying
Re: Rural Kansas Dying
SW, I`m not familiar at all with Kansas, over the years I`ve heard they are Conservative that leads the elites to scratch their heads "what`s wrong with Kansas" (given they have a tough row to hoe, often times).
But there are a few gems in the article. Like after the industrialization of agriculture, where to farm these days it takes $ millions. Well, look at the natural progression, if I`m a 20 something wanting to farm and go to the bank and unless I have a dad willing to let me mortgage his section of land, I can`t get a loan to get started. Well, then don`t be surprised if Kansas is in my rearview mirror (or insert Iowa or Nebraska or any other ag state).
Without 20 somethings replacing the established 70 somethings there is less need for schools, banks, parks, movie theaters, hardware stores, cafes. Some that do tackle it either find a niche (organic) or chase volume or get a job to support their farming hobby. I see it in Iowa where there are Menonites/Amish that seem to do well and you have the crop farmer that also takes care of a few 5,000hd hog sites for the manure/fertilizer as their niche.
I have a kid moving to California and someone insinuated basically "how could he live out there...bet you couldn`t" My off the cuff answer sort of surprised myself when I said that I could see myself in California and if I didn`t farm, why would I want to live in Iowa? Yes, Iowa has great people, but our weather really sucks, sucks more every year, but these rural states do have a ceiling on opportunities. As a person in the "autumn of my life" perhaps the ceiling of opportunities is good enough for me, but if I was younger I totally understand the search for greener pastures.
Re: Rural Kansas Dying
Re: Rural Kansas Dying
The word organic - seems to be seismic tremors, horror movie notions to our rural conversations , with quickness to chastise the process - - -
Reviewing some of the conversations I have witnessed through print and verbal, the consolidation progression to which we have now try to manage or operate through the marketing maze of dwindling options - - -
Expert ism sold to dwindling marketing, customer bases, dwelling on shortsightedness mono-culture venture - interesting - - -
Painting ones self into the craving corner, of B T O ism , of unoccupied vast territory's, will have very little luster in future pages of history - - -
Buffalo Commons comparing to George Orwell unthinkable 1984 , in which out of NoWhere appears Julia with her omit-ions of Winston - - -
Keep the check off $$$$ coming please, and the corp $$$ to manifest our UN - Manifest Destiny ? ? ?
Re: Rural Kansas Dying
Hey Clayton, I don`t know but ElCheapo isn`t the typical Kansan? he`s liberaler than most. 🙂 But liberals have historically been against NAFTA and big industrial agriculture, but Trump comes in and "highjacks" those issues, so now the ElCheapos don`t know what to do.
ElCheapo is complacent with the way things were prior to November 8, 2016 🙂 but there were other factors involved.
Farmers aren`t concerned at all about the new farmbill, the way prices are, one would think tractorcades would be headed for DC in support of a supply management, price support plan. But farmers must figure they`re low on the totem pole and why ask for something they have no chance getting. I figure if everyone else thinks they`re tough enough to go into this without a meaningful safety net, well then I am too.
With organics, I think there`s a fear that consumers will one day demand that all farmers farm that way and the premium will be gone. Some wouldn`t have a clue how to farm without chemicals, so they figure whacking the mole when he sticks his head up is the easiest in the long run...call it a "hoax" and so forth and "maybe it`ll just go away".
I will say this, organic markets would probably be saturated if just 10-20% more farmers got into it, so it isn`t a salvation for everyone, not enough pieces of pie to go around. If prices stay low long enough, perhaps there will be a return to LISA , Low input sustainable agriculture, which was talked about for a year in the 1980`s ...then farm debt was written off and it was off to the races...big big big!
We do have a cheap food policy which requires "free trade" open borders and a "flat world". Trouble is with that big big big stuff there are a lot of casualties and we are far from seeing the end. Old money rich farmers that think they have the deepest pockets will find out they aren`t immune either.
Re: Rural Kansas Dying
Where do I start ?
First, thank you Clayton for the kind words.
There are a few of us in a little group
That hold out hope...about all we have
Left. We remember the way things were
And try to preserve it, but that is getting
Harder every day...so we try to keep
Things, even if, life support type
There is profit in agriculture, certain places
And items. But due to the thin margins,
The size becomes larger.
Oh, the article.. On thing wrong, we are
Not quite to the point to farm remotely.
Organics....I know a couple producers,
And 1/3 of the marketing staff is within
10 miles from me.
Its half a dozen one thing, and the other.
Yes logistics are a problem.
The feeling I get from the "" in crowd"",
We could approach a level of over
Supply, since yields are lower, it will
Take longer for that point to be reached.
Yes, we should have farmers protesting
In Washington... But we have been told
FB does that for us (but don't..they are
Part of the slime in DC)
Yes, I am somewhat of a liberal. I believe
In helping our fellow man....if that makes
Me a liberal, I guess I am.
Despite what we are "" told"" rural america
Is hurting..,the reasons, many.
The question is, if things are so good, why are
Things so bad ????
It just happened we started a new series
At church. "" Be anxious for nothing""
What a timely study.
"" but in everything by prayer and supplication
With thanks giving, let your requests be made
Known to god.""
I plan to put this to work tomarrow. I have
Many things to be anxious about.
And many here are, and have things
Worrying them...most financial.
If you are worried, anxious...you are
May I suggest the fallowing
My PM button is always on...if I can be of help or support
Feel free to PM. From what I read, it might be some
Time until they get better.
The offer is open to all, regulars and "lookers".
Even BA !!!
I'll leave you with line from a movie I enjoy, sister act 2
"" go with god, crispy""