here are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
Aldo Leopold

06 February 2006

Small Farming 101

Life on a small farm might seem primitive, but by living such a life we become able to discover the Great Path. I believe that one who deeply respects his neighborhood and everyday world in which he lives will be shown the greatest of all worlds.
~ Masanobu Fukuoka ~

Small Farm Nostalgia?

New York Times
February 5, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

Nebraska's Nostalgia Trap

ON average, Nebraska's economy is doing just fine. But a man whose head is in the oven and whose feet are in the freezer takes no comfort in knowing that his average body temperature is perfectly normal. In the same vein, a casual glance at a graph of Nebraska's population growth shows slow, steady increases, going all the way back to 1900, and conceals the fact that 74 of Nebraska's 93 counties are in extremis, with lower populations today than they had in 1920.

Over a third of the state's 1.7 million residents live in greater Omaha, which is booming by many measures, including population growth. According to Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University here, Omaha is growing faster than Des Moines, Kansas City and St. Louis.

What about the rest of Nebraska? Well, it's big: over 77,000 square miles (about 10 percent bigger than the six New England states combined) and 450 miles wide, roughly the distance from Boston to the District of Columbia. Most of the economic growth occurs along the thoroughfares that form what local economists call "the fishhook": Highway 275 from Omaha to Norfolk being the hook, and Interstate 80 from Omaha to Colorado being the stem.

Outside of Omaha and the fishhook, large parts of Nebraska are arguably in trouble. The dismal statistic that trends lower, year after year, for many of these struggling counties, is population.

Farms double in size with a regularity that rivals the seasons, while, almost in tandem, the number of farming families falls by half. The costs for schools, roads and police and fire departments remain relatively constant, but the bodies paying taxes, buying goods and developing land keep disappearing. County officials call it rural flight, brain drain or even mass migration, but despite the alarums, nobody has found a way to stop the excursions.

States like Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin have tried to fight the trend by restricting the corporate consolidation of farms: Keep the farmers on their land by stopping vast corporations from buying 10 farms and consolidating them into one, which is basically what keeps happening.

In 1982, Nebraska went even farther and embedded a ban on corporations owning and operating farms — Initiative 300 — in its Constitution. Last December, a federal judge in Omaha ruled that the ban violates the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act (because the ban also requires that the person owning most of the farmland also supply most of the daily labor). Some Nebraskans hope the ruling will be overturned, but that seems unlikely.

Opponents of these laws, which purport to protect family farmers, view them as economic nostalgia — like trying to protect the local paper by banning Internet news sites and mandating that the newspaper be delivered by a towheaded kid on a bicycle. If rank protectionism is not the solution, then what is?

Doug German, executive director of Legal Aid of Nebraska, who lives in the central part of the state, just off the fishhook, in Eustis (pop. 425), and provides legal services to the casualties of the state's poorer counties, agrees that rural Nebraska is at a "tipping point." The antidote to its economic depopulation, he believes, does not lie in bringing Intel or Toyota factories to the heartland, but in Nebraskans resolutely blooming where they are planted and developing micro industries capable of flourishing anywhere, with the help of computer and Internet technologies.

I hope Mr. German is right, but I wonder what kind of micro industry will save the likes of Arthur County (half the size of Rhode Island), where the population peaked at 1,412 in 1920, was 442 in 2000, and 402 in 2004? In these parts, during election season, the signs along the road say "Vote for Helen, County Assessor," because there's only one Helen, and she's running unopposed.

Instead of micro industries, a cynical futurist might see mega-farms, owned by global corporations, and farmed by armies of robot combines, controlled by global positioning satellite technology from offices in Omaha.

Richard Dooling is a screenwriter and the author, most recently, of "Bet Your Life."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company