The New Cultivators of the Earth

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.


  1. David

    In spite of my normal tendency towards being contrary, I pretty much agree with you on this one Daniel. There are already organizations appealing to the consumer side of this equation. Perhaps the development of organizations to educate farmers on marketing & transportation of farm products would be useful.

    I apologize, but by argumentativeness does incline me to point out that many heroin addicts, both rural & urban, got started through the use of prescription opioid pain killers which they originally obtained through medical doctors who apparently did little or nothing to help their patients avoid the death trap that often comes with those prescriptions.

    Also, a little bit of history, many of the poor urban black communities were the result of immigration patterns following WWI which were largely the result of the extreme racism of the time & the fact that it was essentially legal to kill & rape black people in rural America up until about 1960. The fact that the cities didn’t provide much more in the way of economic opportunities is part of the reason for the problems although a good many black families did find means to move in to the middle class.

    • Daniel Mills

      I’m not seeing how anything you said was contrary or arguing with what Payne wrote.

  2. Robert Riley

    There’s no shortage of work where I live – at least as far as I can see. In fact more often than not what I hear from employers is that no one wants the jobs, or when they do hire someone the person doesn’t want to actually work and is fired during their probationary period. With THOUSANDS of local people unemployed (hundred, if not thousands, of them being perfectly able-bodied young men) I can’t for the life of me understand how and why a local garage has had a billboard out front of their business for over a MONTH looking for a full-time wheel alignment and tire change person.

    I also can’t understand how and why there are thousands of people on welfare, yet an employer can’t simply phone welfare and have, basically, a selection of workers sent over to choose from. Any welfare recipient who doesn’t show up … is cut off welfare.

    Even the welfare requirements to show up for regular meetings with your “worker” … it’s all a joke … because if you get cut off welfare for failing to show up, all you have to do is show up on cheque day wondering where your welfare cheque is … they will tell you it was cut off because you didn’t show up for your meeting … and they’ll put you right back on welfare and rush through a manual cheque for you in another day or two. So, yeah, you might have to wait a couple of days to get your cheque, but who cares … it isn’t like they can REALLY cut you off welfare. And the money flows: it isn’t just the regular monthly welfare cheque, there’s money for a bus pass (ostensibly to help you “look for work”), hair cuts (ostensibly to help you “look for work”), dental and drug coverage, money for work clothes and work boots and winter coats (all given in the form of cash – so you can spend it on whatever you want). Nobody is living “high on the hog,” as it were, on welfare here … but it covers the basics, like rent, and then particularly for able-bodied young men there is plenty of “under the table” labour work to make a fairly comfortable life.

    Will it ever change? I doubt it. The Conservatives don’t seem to have the intestinal fortitude to follow through on any real meaningful welfare reform, and the Liberals seem to be toying with the moronic idea that the solution is to actually just give everyone a “guaranteed annual income” … and totally remove even the current pretense of any conditions or individual responsibility.