Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Confessions Of A Pessimist

June 5, 2000

A good friend sent me his observations on what is happening in agriculture dependent communities in the Midwest.

"If we accept the industrial agriculture model as prologue, then we really don't need many farmers. We could farm all of ND with less than 500 superfarms - just a guess based on sizes of the largest farms. The question is who the farmers will be. They may be hired hands for land management companies who work under contract for agri-corporation. The consequence of policies that value product over people and places has been the hollowing out of rural areas.

"Are we "surprised" that no one wants to farm? That we won't have a replacement generation? That their parents are discouraging them from farming?

"Given the present situation I don't blame anyone who discourages their sons and daughters from farming. I don't hold grudges against those who exit farming because ‘it just ain't fun anymore.’ I do mourn all those broken dreams, lost legacies, and what could have been. I do share anger and impatience.

"This was all brought home to me last Sunday when I went to my home congregation with Mom for Sunday services and coffee afterwards. My hometown has now lost its bar and its elevator. You know when the bar and elevator close, the town is near death. There is not even a place where one can get a cup of coffee. The only active church left in town is the Lutheran church, the Catholics having ‘joined’ with a neighboring town years ago, and the Methodists bravely attempting to hold on with a few souls.

"As we sat at coffee, the "young" men of the congregation (those in their 40s!) were discussing who is left in farming and who has quit. Among us, there were but three full time farmers. A few had just quit and a few farm part time and work in Wahpeton or Fargo during the week and farm on weekends and summers. The crux of the conversation came in a summary from a person who I thought would never say it, but he said the social fabric of the towns is being destroyed and in some places it is so badly torn that it can never be rebuilt.

"He asked, "Who would want to live out here when there aren't any churches except for those that are 60 miles away? Who would want to live out here when you have no neighbors? Who would want to live out here where there are no social organizations that give life to communities? Who would want to live out here where there is no volunteer fire department or no volunteer ambulance crew? Who would want to live out here when they have to send their children to live in a boarding house so they can go to high school?"

"His questions were less rhetorical and more of a litany of despair. None of us had answers to these questions, nor did we expect anyone to have answers. We just all nodded our heads in agreement and then changed the subject to the weather -- a subject equally imponderable and over which we also had little control.

"As I looked over the familiar friends, these ‘saints’ who have kept the faith, built the church, baked all those cookies for bake sales, ushered at numerous services, held bazaars and showers, held church dinners for fund raisers, consoled the grieving, rejoiced over births, I realized that I will be attending more funerals than baptisms and weddings in the years to come. It was a dismal thought and I left with little hope of the resurrection for my rural community, the place that defines my character and gives me roots.

"Lately, I find that I have less hope for the future of rural North Dakota although I have encouraged and supported every idea that provided just a glimmer of hope. I'm beginning to believe that while projects - a state commission, a coop development center, local trade organizations, rural development, electronic commerce, and the promotion of agricultural diversification and high value crops - are all necessary, they are not sufficient.

"We are faced with the replacement of an entire rural economic and social infrastructure. Even if the above mentioned efforts are successful, they will never provide the kind of economic and social infrastructure that a family farm agriculture provided.

"I fear that we will wake up too late to repair the damage. At least our European counterparts recognize the importance of people and places through their multifunctionality (a term to describe how a family farm is an important social and cultural resource beyond its economic value), an emphasis in agricultural policy and their support through transfer payments to rural areas to keep the infrastructure in place