When one speaks of hope in the middle of America, one tends to refer to it existing in “pockets.” The small population of family farms are pockets of hope. The few towns that have held onto their local hospitals, albeit without their maternity wards or most of their doctors, are too. Farm kids who have returned and taken on their aging parents’ responsibilities. Communities organizing to keep their grocery stores open. These are hopeful signs and they crop up, yes, in pockets, all over the place. It’s a relief to hear that a local restaurant is opening where another had shuttered. That the hospital found another nurse to replace the one who left. That another community continues to hum along, not thriving, but not dying. Not yet. The expectations, the hopes, remain pocket-sized.
Hope is an important part of what keeps a community going. If a town places its hopes within its own borders, in the small businesses and institutions it already contains, that creates a feeling of solidity and permanence. If a town believes in itself, places its hopes in the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of its own population, then that can be a bulwark against temptation.
And what would tempt a little community out on the prairie, whose hopes are only pocket-sized? The same thing that tempts everyone: money.
Here’s a hopeful news story: last Fall, the town of Tonganoxie, Kansas successfully fought off Tyson Foods. The town’s leaders had secretly partnered with the largest meat processing corporation in the country to bring a massive chicken complex to the community of just over 5,000 people. Assuming the locals would be thrilled with the proposal to create 1,600 new jobs in their town, the announcement of the complex was made with great fanfare and with speeches by Governor Sam Brownback and Tyson’s Group President for Poultry, Doug Ramsay.
“Six months ago, I couldn’t have told you where Tonganoxie, Kansas, is,” Ramsey said to the crowd. “I can tell you today that Tonganoxie, Kansas, is the center of the Tyson universe.”
But Tyson was not the center of theirs. Anger over the non-disclosure agreements that had kept local officials from informing the community about their plans, concerns about over-burdening local infrastructure and schools, and fears about the impact on local waterways and air quality stirred the small town into a frenzy. Locals formed a group called “Citizens Against Project Sunset,” after the officials’ code name for their secret Tyson agreements. They held rallies in opposition to the chicken complex, contacted journalists, and distributed yard signs. Eventually, in the face of the overwhelming protest, the County Commission revoked the bonds it had approved for Tyson and the plan was scuttled.
It’s a hopeful story, and lots of Kansans, including myself, felt proud of Tonganoxie for its principled stand. To see a town choose its own quality of life over the temptations of a corporate colonizer is a rare and heartening thing. A pocket of hope.
The less hopeful sight? The more than forty other Kansas towns who wrote letters asking Tyson to relocate the company’s plans to their communities after Tonganoxie showed them the door.
But then, desperation will drive you to do crazy things.
One of the few ideas that stuck from my college psychology courses was Abraham Maslow’s theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow expressed the vast complex of human motivation as a triangle, with the most basic of human needs on the bottom and successive rungs of less and less pressing needs as the sides converged to the top. Those bottom needs, the most basic needs, like food, shelter, and clothing would need to be satisfied before a person would be motivated to act on behalf of the next rung of needs, which included personal safety and health. After that rung came social belonging, then esteem, followed by self-actualization and, finally, self-transcendence. Like most successful psychological theories, it seems obvious to the point of triteness when you think about it. If you ask a starving man to choose between a hot meal and literally anything else, he will choose the hot meal. Once he’s fed, then he’ll start to wonder how he can keep himself fed and move to the next rung of the hierarchy, seeking safety and security. Only after he knows where that next meal is coming from can he start to look around and think about his community and how he might fit into it.
The difference between Tonganoxie and those other forty-odd towns? Tonganoxie wasn’t desperate. The town is within commuting distance to both Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, and Kansas City, and most residents already had incomes higher than the $13-15 per hour Tyson was promising. The town was prospering well enough on its own, and so the prospect of a boom in lower wage jobs, a glut of new kids into the school district, and possible threats to their water and air quality, just didn’t sound appealing.
To a town like Concordia, Kansas, which sent its own letter asking Tyson to relocate, all those concerns are a luxury they can’t afford. They just want something to keep their town from vanishing off the map.
“We are a state that feeds the nation and feeds the world,” Ashley Hutchinson, head of the economic development organization for Cloud County, where Concordia is located, told Harvest Public Media. “If you don’t particularly want that opportunity on your doorstep in a metro area, that doesn’t mean we don’t.”
But Tyson hasn’t shown any signs of interest in setting up shop in any other Kansas town.
It’s easy to feel angry with these other towns competing for Tyson’s interest. After all, they are farm towns who would gladly get into bed with a company known for exploiting and abusing the contracted farmers who raise its chickens. Close-knit towns who would sign up their citizens for jobs with a company infamous for worker safety hazards and health violations. Beautiful rural towns that would risk the values of their homes, their air quality, and their water quality. All for the promise of some jobs.
But a drowning man will grab anything you throw into the water, hoping it will keep him afloat. And, as farming supports fewer and fewer people each year, these towns feel like they are going under.
The history of farming, like the history of all other industries, is one of workers displaced by technology. One doesn’t think of farming as an industry. This is a real gift to the large farming interests, who would prefer the average consumer to picture bucolic scenes of big red barns and rusty tractors when they pick up their food. But any industry is, firstly, about maximizing efficiency and what is a feedlot if not efficient? What are farmers chasing each time they invest in a new piece of machinery but the promise that, with this machine, more can be planted and harvested in faster time and with fewer hands than before? Efficiency. A word with such positive associations and such devastating realities. The one promise you can make about efficiency—that over time there will be fewer and fewer jobs for anyone already straddling the line of expendability.
In 1910, a third of the population of the country worked in agriculture. By the year 2000, that number was under 2 percent. In 1910, the country had 14 million farm workers. In 2000, with triple the population, that number had fallen to around 3 million. It just doesn’t take as many people to plant a crop anymore. It’s increasingly likely that, in the not-too-distant future, as autonomous vehicle technology advances, a crop might plant and harvest itself.
It’s in the nature of “efficiency experts” to be awed by all of this advancement. And it’s in the nature of the rest of us, raised as we were in the country of assembly lines and time cards, to accept it all as inevitable, inarguable. It’s progress, after all. Progress toward what and for the benefit of whom? No one asks.
Those of us who enjoy science fiction have been fascinated and repulsed for decades by the possibility of a technological “Singularity”–a pandora’s box moment when the abilities of our created technology surpass our own and after which technology begets itself, progressing at its own inhuman pace, almost certainly to humanity’s detriment if not our destruction. Blessedly, that moment isn’t yet here. And yet, we sometimes behave as if it were. We act like it was God or Fate or some other omniscient troublemaker who put the smartphone in our hands, who bought the wifi-enabled thermostat and the voice-recording Personal Assistant in the corner of the living room. Like all those devices just walked in and camped out in our homes without our even inviting them. And what would you have us do? Ask them to leave? Time doesn’t flow backward, and neither does technology.
It’s with that same passivity that we accept that, obviously, the farms that will survive need the newest and most efficient machinery. The best seeds and the most effective fertilizers. “New” and “efficient” are good things. And the massive debt that smaller operations need to take on in order to finance those purchases? That’s just the price of farming. Don’t like it? Get out. The world doesn’t need you to be a farmer. These days, those tractors practically run themselves.
It isn’t hard to imagine the day when our entire agricultural production is managed remotely, by computer from offices in Kansas City and Chicago, organized by algorithms, monitored and tended by drones.
That’s the future haunting these little towns out on the prairie. Each time a farm job disappears, that’s another resident moving away who had paid taxes, shopped at the grocery store, and had kids in the schools. Each time a small farm is gobbled up by a bigger farm, there’s another face missing from the church pew and another kid gone from the local football team. Eventually, parents stop trying to convince their kids to stay at home, or to move home after college. Grandparents start thinking about moving to be closer to their grandkids. And a town, which had a rich history, a culture and traditions that sustained generations, slowly turns to dust.
When you live in a town like that, helplessness can set in. A deep cynicism can begin to murmur that all that history, the stories and the hard work that went into building your home, was for nothing. You can stop believing that anything in your town has any value really, or that the few things that have value—the grocery store, hardware store, local school—are doomed, no matter what. You don’t place your hope in your own people. They’re all as poor as you are. The only option you can see, if there’s still some will to survive, is for your town to beg for a savior like Tyson Foods to come in and keep you on the map.
Unfortunately, the people behind the little pockets of hope out here—the successful family farms, the busy farmer’s markets, the few thriving local businesses—haven’t yet swayed most minds to consider an alternative to looking outward for support. The belief that rural areas are “backward,” stuck in the past, with nothing to offer the modern world, hasn’t only taken hold in cities. We’ve all bought into the notion that any place that isn’t growing must be dying, and perhaps deserves to die. Rural people start to believe it of themselves. Like conquered people, they attribute their survival to the benevolence of their conquerors—Tyson and Con-Agra, oil companies and wind farms (usually owned by those same oil companies,) Purdue, Monsanto, and feedlots—and not to their own hardiness.
A year ago, Wendell Berry, farmer-poet-prophet, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Book Review in response to an essay they had published decrying the “Southernization” of the rural half of the country. He wrote, in part:
What is remarkable about Mr. Rich’s essay is that he attributes the southernization of rural America, and the consequent election of Mr. Trump, entirely to nostalgia “for a more orderly past,” without so much as a glance at the economic history of our actual country. The liberals and Democrats of our enlightened cities, as Mr. Rich rightly says, have paid little or no attention to rural America “for more than half a century.” But it has received plenty of attention from the conservatives and Republicans and their client corporations. Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy.
The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.
In a New York Times Op-Ed, A. Hope Jahren writes: “Farm policy hasn’t come up even once during a presidential debate for the past 16 years.” But the problem goes back much farther than that. It goes back at least to Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, who instructed American farmers to “get big or get out.” In effect that set the “farm policy” until now, and thus sealed the fate of the decent, small, independent livelihoods of rural America. To that brutally stated economic determinism I know that President Clinton gave his assent, calling it “inevitable,” and so apparently did Mrs. Clinton. The rural small owners sentenced to dispensability in the 1950s are the grandparents of the “blue-collar workers” of rural America who now feel themselves to be under the same sentence, and with reason.
Rural America is, has always been, a colony for the wealthy of elsewhere to exploit and it has the self-deprecating, self-denying worldview of a colonized people. The willingness to auction off anything of value in order to ensure our survival. The eagerness to embrace anyone who will hear us and speak to us as equals. The anger at being ignored. What now could change things, when that manner of living and thinking runs so deep in our blood?
When I imagine a bright future for the left-behind places of the country, I imagine communities that know the value of their own lives, their history, their labor and their imagination. Not just as quaint talking points from flattering politicians or corporate interests, but as real, breathing principles. I imagine towns in control of their own fates, and communities that exist for the purpose of sustaining the people who live there. Farmers planting crops that will firstly feed their families and their own neighbors and towns. Local ranchers and local slaughterhouses and local manufacturing, on a human scale. Industry and energy, on a human scale. Hardware stores and grocery stores, schools and hospitals, that survive on the strength of the people they serve. A focus not on growth or wealth, or on evolving into something more urban and hip, but on stewardship of what already exists and what could be nurtured into existence with some hard work.
It sounds impossible, even to my ears. No one will buy into it. Inertia is so strong, the fierce currents pulling us further and further from the ideals we’d love to live up to. The world isn’t only moving away from those ideals, it’s recoiling from them and sprinting in the opposite direction. Each day its pace quickens with every new advancement, every boost in “efficiency.” And yet. We all still remember, somewhere inside, what it was we wanted for the world, and how different that was from what we see now. I know we remember because we all celebrate the same outlying stories—the small farmer who survived despite the odds, the little town grocery that fought off the threat of Walmart, the kid who came home to take over the family business. How can we be doomed to efficiency while that common spark still lives? We’re all telling ourselves the same bedtime stories about justice and fairness and a simple, meaningful quality of life. We just don’t yet believe in them. We don’t know how to love what we love. We’re hopeless. But still. We hope.
Tonya Stiles is Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
Unless otherwise labeled, all photos by Jim Stiles.
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