Little farms on the prairie bow to a Wal-Mart era

'Promised land' struggles to diversify - and survive

More than a century ago, some 350 freed slaves left the Kentucky hardscrabble for a new beginning on the Kansas prairie. Promoters billed Nicodemus as "the Promised Land," and while some would-be pioneers turned back as soon as they saw it, most stayed and created the largest exclusively black settlement west of the Mississippi River.

The town prospered for a while, in anticipation of a railroad. But the train never came, and drought, depression, and a postwar exodus reduced its population until its little white schoolhouse had to close in the late 1950s. Today, even the school bus doesn't stop here anymore. And all those 19th-century dreams of agricultural independence have come to rest on the shoulders of one man, Gil Alexander - the last full-time farmer in Nicodemus.

"I'd like to see someone stick with it," he says. But to "any young person who wanted to get into this, I would say, 'Run!' "

While the rise and fall of Nicodemus remains bound up with African-American history (it's now a national historic site), its story resonates everywhere in rural America. Hard times and low prices have repeatedly forced producers off their land and pushed others to farm ever-larger acreages.

This consolidation has created the most efficient industrialized agriculture in the world. But it also represents a leading factor behind the collapse of so many rural towns on the Plains. And the trend will continue, experts warn, unless the region can reverse its drive toward megafarms or find some other way to diversify its threadbare economy.

These currents pose the greatest challenge to the Plains frontier (counties with fewer than six people per square mile). This is where a good crop still makes local retailers smile, where an accident to one farmer routinely pulls neighbors from miles around to plant his corn or combine his wheat, and where experiments are under way to preserve this way of life by reengineering agriculture toward smallness.

To some, these solutions can revive a semblance of the old Jeffersonian ideal, where rural communities - indeed, the nation - supposedly thrive because family farmers own their land and control their destinies.

In reality, however, farmers' future rests largely in the hands of others. "As people's preferences change ... that drives agricultural production," says Mitchell Morehart of the US Agriculture Department's economic research service.

In other words, consumers will determine whether frontier farmers keep producing bulk commodities, or start growing specialized "boutique" food.

Chances are you've never heard of one boutique product: Promised Land Flour. It's made from wheat that Mr. Alexander and part-time farmers here grow, grind, and sell directly to consumers. Their "mill" is so small - "You can almost get this thing in a car," one observer says - that Alexander won't show it. But the flour sells well, particularly during Nicodemus's annual emancipation festival, which draws hundreds of the town's descendants from as far away as Alaska and Washington, D.C.

"If we wanted to, we could probably run [the mill] full time and sell all the flour we'd put out," Alexander says. He estimates the wheat he converts to flour brings $15 a bushel as opposed to the wheat he sells in bulk, which goes to large wheat processors and might earn him $3.40 a bushel. Unfortunately, the first approach takes far more time, effort, and skill to do successfully.

"What we have in our rural communities today ... is essentially a kind of colonial economy," says Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. "What we expect from these communities is to produce these raw materials as cheaply as possible and then transport those raw materials out so value is added somewhere else."

Critics call this "corporate agriculture" (although it's really commodity agriculture out here, since families still mostly run the grain and cattle operations). And before you pooh-pooh it, consider how well it works for most of the country. Farmers raise bulk food with labor-saving technology that lets them spread their costs over larger and larger tracts of land. Big corporations buy that cheap food and process it into branded items that supermarket chains sell. The end result: US consumers spend only about 8 percent of their budgets on food - lower than the rate in any other nation.

The challenge lies here in the heartland frontier. Critics argue that commodity agriculture isn't environmentally sustainable. Economically, it has proved devastating to rural towns: Bigger and bigger farms mean fewer and fewer farm families to support small-town merchants and rural schools. To reverse the decline, experts warn, the region needs something beyond megafarms.

* * *

"The big question is: How does this region go beyond a commodity economy?" says Mark Drabenstott of the Center for the Study of Rural America, a unit of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Other parts of rural America have diversified into manufacturing and services. Farm wives work in town. Farmers themselves are taking second jobs: Nearly half of all farm operators now say their major occupation is something other than farming.

But out here on the frontier Plains, where a commute to the city might take two hours - one way - second jobs are harder to come by. Less than a quarter of producers on the northern Plains have significant employment except for the farm.

That's why, more and more, the remaining farm-dependent counties are in the frontier Plains. In the 1950s, two-thirds of the nation's nonmetropolitan counties were farm-dependent (at least 20 percent of business earnings came from agriculture). Today, only a seventh of nonmetro counties remain farm-dependent, and nearly a third of those lie here on the Plains frontier.

For the frontier's towns to prosper again, the region will have to figure out what to do with its vast expanse of farmland. Boutique farming represents one possibility. If farmers can tie directly into niche markets the way Alexander and his partners have, then they can keep more of the wealth in rural America. Maybe it's brown eggs for the organic market. Or poultry raised the old-fashioned way rather than in huge confinement facilities.

"There's a growing market of purchasers who increasingly want to buy food because of some differentiated quality," says Mr. Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center. It still represents less than 1 percent of farm production, he estimates. But even 5 percent of the huge food industry would pump millions of dollars into rural economies.

Already, some cooperative ventures are showing promise. Organic Valley Family of Farms in rural Wisconsin has grown to become a $125 million co-op of more than 500 organic farmers spread over 17 states. In North Dakota, Dakota Growers Pasta Company processes and sells the durum wheat its member stockholders raise. Since it sells a higher-value pasta, rather than bulk wheat, the cooperative gives its farmer-members a larger share of the consumer retail dollar.

* * *

Still, old patterns die hard, especially in the brutally competitive food business. Many direct-marketing experiments have failed to capture a sustainable market. Dakota Growers faced the opposite problem: Its farmer-owners couldn't raise capital quickly enough, which forced the cooperative last year to change its organizational structure and move a step closer to becoming a traditional corporation. Even organic farming is showing signs of going the corporate route, Kirschenmann says.

For two decades, biotechnology has held out the promise that farmers could grow new kinds of foods. But the technology remains controversial and so far has improved current mass-production crops rather than creating new ones.

Other farmers are diversifying away from food altogether. Some are trying to reap the wind with huge turbines that create electricity. All across the Plains, producers are turning to "agri-tourism": They open their farms to visitors who want their children to see where food comes from, or they rent their land to hunters. This time of year, hundreds of Plains motels lure the hunting trade by making available cutting tables and large freezers for cleaning and storing game.

"It's our harvest, really," says Betty Chapin, who runs the Modern Aire Motel with her husband in Smith Center, Kan.

Still other producers hope to make a living from growing and processing renewable fuel, such as biodiesel. And a handful are experimenting with an offshoot of biotechnology, called "biopharming," which involves raising crops that produce drugs or drug ingredients. The Texas-based company ProdiGene, for example, is selling an enzyme, Trypsin, grown in bioengineered corn and used to speed up the production of insulin.

The biopharming market remains iffy. "It's not clear how big an opportunity it would be for farmers," says Michael Fernandez, director of science for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., focused on genetically modified food. Large drug companies are likely to strictly control production, perhaps even owning and tending the fields they use.

Even smaller biopharming companies may insist on strict controls in the wake of a recent federal fine levied on ProdiGene for accidentally contaminating soybeans with its bioengineered corn.

Could public policy help the region? The biggest federal initiative - farm programs - has kept average farmers' income above that of nonfarming neighbors and roughly equal to that of other local businesspeople. But because the lion's share of aid goes to the biggest operators, critics argue that farm programs are speeding up consolidation. In essence, big farmers get government money to buy out their neighbors, they say.

But that's not the full story. Big farms also produce more food than smaller operations and, on average, actually receive a little less federal aid per dollar of output than smaller farms, says Jeff Hopkins of the US Agriculture Department's economic research service. He concludes that farm policy has done little to affect consolidation one way or the other.

Some reformers argue public policy could rescue the Plains frontier by shifting more money toward the revitalization of rural communities. "We could spend the same amount of money we spend now on agricultural incentives and public policy and stop the bulldozer" of depopulation, says Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Walthill, Neb.

Environmentalists argue the government should stop paying farmers to take cropland temporarily out of production and buy up that land instead, creating huge ecological reserves.

Whatever direction the region decides to take, decision time is approaching for frontier farmers.

* * *

No one is more surprised that Alexander is still farming than Alexander himself. When he graduated from college with an accounting degree, he had a job lined up in Duluth, Minn. He came back home simply to help his father harvest the wheat - and then lingered.

"I realized what we had here and how unique it is," he explains. His great-grandfather, a runaway Mississippi slave and Buffalo soldier, homesteaded here, and passed the land on to his son, who expanded the operation and tilled 600 acres with mules. By the time Alexander and his father ran the operation, it had expanded to some 1,700 acres.

Tractors and combines, chemical fertilizers and herbicides meant that one family could now run a large spread by itself and produce far more grain than farmers two generations ago could have dreamed of. But they also speeded up the seemingly unstoppable march toward megafarms and rural depopulation.

"This whole 20-mile radius was our playground," says Alexander, standing in his driveway and stretching a hand out toward the emptiness that once housed big families and his playmates. "We would ride our bicycles. Then we went through a phase where we rode horses."

For the future, "I see bigger and bigger farms," he says, "and small family farms like what I'm running won't be around."

A soul-food restaurant dream

BOGUE, KAN. - Sometimes, ties to the land run so deep it's nearly impossible to come home. Just ask Angela Bates-Tompkins, who wanted to return from Denver to her roots in Kansas.

Her parents, who had already moved back, preferred to leave their land to all six children, rather than sell. And no one else from Nicodemus, the historic farming settlement, would part with their property. For six years, Mrs. Bates-Tompkins pleaded with a cousin, who finally sold her 25 acres just west of Nicodemus.

Now back, Bates-Tompkins wears many hats. She writes educational materials, performs a living-history program, and last May opened Ernestine's Bar-B-Q here in nearby Bogue. Every weekend, people come from miles around for ribs, potato salad, and baked beans so fine they could almost be the main course. She even uses the locally produced Promised Land Flour for her bread and fried chicken.

Ernestine Van Duvall used to run a restaurant in Nicodemus but moved to the Los Angeles area and started a restaurant and catering service there. That's where Bates-Tompkins learned to cook soul food.

These days, Bates-Tompkins does the cooking while Mrs. Van Duvall plays the piano for customers. The restaurant "is holding its own," Bates-Tompkins says, but she hopes to move it to those 25 acres outside of Nicodemus. "If I could be in 'Demus, that's where I would be. It's home."

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