Over the past twenty years or so, rural America has supplanted the urban ghetto as the premiere nexus of profound social dysfunction in this country. You can still find plenty of people who believe that the great pathologies of illegitimacy, drug use, crime and illness are sui generis to poor inner-city black communities, and to be fair those communities still have those problems to significant degrees. But it is the bucolic countryside where you increasingly see these miserable stories play out; the Wall Street Journal (via the Daily Caller), for instance, notes that
Rural areas and small towns now lead the nation in teenage birth rates, divorce rates, adults without a college degree, males 16 and older without jobs, median age, cardiovascular disease mortality, and cancer mortality. The report also noted that in 2013 deaths outnumbered births in a majority of rural counties, something that hasn’t occurred since the 1930s.
The Wall Street Journal article focused on Kenton, Ohio the seat of Hardin County.
Since 1980, the poverty rate of county residents has increased by 45 percent and the area is now inundated with crime. Brad Bailey, a prosecutor in the county, told the Journal that drug cases now account for 80 percent of criminal cases. They used to only account for less than 20 percent of cases…
This all represents a downturn for a region of the country that had good job opportunities and low crime throughout the middle and later portion of 20th century. Many expected that with the advent of the internet people could work from small towns, but this hasn’t occurred. Rhonda Vannoster of Independence, Kansas told the Journal that “there just aren’t a lot of good jobs.”
I have very little patience for the country folk who, having remained in an area where “there just aren’t a lot of good jobs,” decided for some reason that heroin and petty criminality were useful alternatives to, you know, moving. A great deal of intellectual effort was expended upon this demographic during the 2016 election, with intrepid journalists venturing deep into western Kentucky and southern Alabama to figure out why so many white people had taken to Codeine and welfare and single motherhood and early death. The uncomfortable but obvious explanation—that a breakdown in traditional families, religious institutions and general public morality, coupled with a stubborn resistance to leave the place where your family has lived for generations, is responsible for most of this rural misery—inspired many a deep and thoughtful thinkpiece, and also the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who promised to fix this problem but who is quite obviously incapable of doing anything about it.
There is not much that public policy can proactively do to fix these chronic problems, which are so often issues of character wedded to a stupidly permissive and indulgent public relief apparatus. Yet there is one possible solution that, if adopted en masse, would likely go a long way towards solving the mare’s nest of modern rural American life, and that is: farming, specifically small-farm local farming. Indeed, of all the theoretical ways to fix the breakdown of social, economic and spiritual life in America’s dead-end counties, this type of farming is the absolute most practical: it requires the least and lowest-cost capital, the least government investment, and offers the most readily adoptable option for putting people back not just to work but to meaningful work, the kind that gratifies the soul as well as the pocketbook.
I’m afraid there is some resistance to this proposal, both from the right and the left, many of whom see farming as a queer relic of 19th century American life, something best relegated to a few mega-farms in Iowa and Nebraska: sure, everyone loves a little rustic farm-to-table experience, but it’s too antiquated, and anyway you can’t possibly “feed the world” using rotational pasture-based operations and direct marketing sales. Yet aside from missing the point entirely (we’re not trying to “feed the world” using local food, we’re trying to feed the local community), this assessment underestimates both the rigorous efficiencies of well-managed small farms and—most importantly—the consumer desire for the food they produce. Cities have a lot of things and a lot of advantages, but the one thing they have very little of is land. The local food revolution currently underway in the American economy is driven in large part by urbanite demand; the upper hand of the rural economy is that it has the one thing indispensable to satisfying that demand: lots of dirt and grass and trees. This is an advantage.
Were America’s counties to return to a good agricultural model—one that is, quite literally, waiting around to be picked up—it would go a long way towards solving the unemployment problem (local farms need plenty of hands), the economic problem (well-run farms can make considerable amounts of money), the emotional and spiritual breakdown of rural life (farming is hard work, but—because it is hard and because it produces things of real value—it is also emotionally and spiritually satisfying), and it would very likely do a lot to repair the paradigm of broken and dysfunctional families across the rural landscape (the backbone of a good farm is a good and intact family). Farming is surely not a panacea for what ails rural America—but it might be close to one, and in any event as a solution it is far more practical and possible than recalling tens of thousands of jobs from Mexico and Bangladesh, or moving tens of thousands of people who don’t want to move, or pumping billions of dollars of useless welfare into a social landscape the is already awash in useless welfare.
This is seen by most Big Thinkers as a largely impractical solution, chiefly because most Big Thinkers assume that any kind of agricultural work is inefficient drudge work better outsourced to an Oklahoma combine or a Chinese corporation. But there is great promise in the revitalization of American farming, not as a throwback to colonial tallow-candle days but as a thriving and vibrant economy that provides real products of genuine worth. Rural American communities are dying a slow, painful death; if we wish to bring them back and have them flourish as they used to, we’re likely going to have to stop assuming that “there just aren’t a lot of good jobs” and start recognizing the near-limitless creative and economic potential sitting just beneath the topsoil.