What it means for the nation

INSIDE the Woodshed -- a boxlike restaurant in Lewis, Kan., with a ``Good Food'' sign out front -- farmer Dan Dyck munches his hamburger. ``I can't understand,'' he says of the farm depression. ``It's sitting right here in their own backyard.'' ``Maybe they don't need farmers anymore,'' answers Alvin Wheaton, another farmer.

Five years into the worst farm crunch since the 1930s, urban America is silent. There are few roars of protest. Even many rural people, not touched by the downturn in resource-dependent areas, ask the same question. Does it really affect the rest of the nation?

Economists and social observers are starting to look into the question. But answers are more difficult than they used to be.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan walked up to a Chicago podium and delivered a speech that won him a presidential nomination. ``Burn down your cities and leave our farms,'' he told the Democratic convention, ``and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.''

The logic was easy then, when 4 out of 10 Americans lived on farms. Today, with fewer than 3 out of 100 living on farms, the case is harder to make. Manufacturing, not agriculture, employs the most rural workers in the '80s. In the midst of depression on the farm, many agribusiness companies are growing.

The economic effects of rural America's downturn appear quite small, economists say. There are certain disturbing parallels between this period and the 1920s: falling farmland prices, a booming stock market, the largest number of bank failures since the Great Depression (120 in 1985 vs. an average 635 each year in the '20s).

In fact, the downturn in natural-resource industries may signal trouble ahead for the rest of the economy, says economist Luther Tweeten of Oklahoma State University. But it couldn't cause it, he says. The sector is too small, and rural America is too diverse to drag down the three-quarters of Americans who live in urban areas.

While diminished in economic terms, rural America retains a social importance, several authorities say. Many rural people feel this importance deeply.

``I don't want to take the children out of the community and out of the school system,'' says Laurie Ruf, a Hartley, Iowa, farm wife who grew up on Chicago's North Shore. ``It's a funny way to say it, but it's safe out here.''

``I don't want my kids to go to high school in a major metropolitan area,'' adds Skip Mathews, head of an engineering company in Minnesota's depressed Iron Range. Though he has other options, Mr. Mathews chooses to stay. ``I ask myself three times a day: `Am I deluding myself?' In every case, there's hope.''

``People hang on,'' says district school superintendent Gary Norris. ``They just hang on. It's amazing.''

It's easy to sentimentalize this vast, sparsely populated region. There's the rugged cowboy, the hardworking farmer, ``the backbone of America,'' as one Iowa farm woman put it recently.

A kind of agrarian fundamentalism -- which still runs deep in some parts of the United States -- sometimes clouds the issue. When R. Alton Gilbert of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank recently concluded that agriculture's economic role was small in the '20s, one farm editor dubbed him ``Gilbert the Ignorant'' without really rebutting his argument.

That kind of thinking no longer moves urban America the way it used to.

``Today, we watch on TV as farmer after farmer goes out, and there is no uproar,'' says William Kuvlesky, a rural sociologist from Texas A&M University. ``The romanticism may not have passed completely, but it is more realistic.''

``I'm not sure if we're losing our heritage or our heritage is just changing,'' says Carl Anderson, an economist at Texas A&M. In his view, urban America could be saying: ``Maybe we've reached the age where we don't need some of the agriculture people's qualities anymore.''

Even some farmers debunk the romantic view.

``It may be real sad when people lose that farm,'' says J. E. (Tex) Gates, a poultry producer in Rison, Ark. ``But when people lose their house and have to move because the plant they worked in closed down, it's the same situation.''

Losing farmers may change America, but ``it's not the soil or clean air that teaches people dedication or hard work, or pride in their product,'' says Laudies Brantley, a rice and cotton farmer from nearby England, Ark. ``In the long run, the public isn't going to be willing to keep the farms running just for sentiment.''

Efforts are under way to get beyond this sentimentality and examine rural America's real importance to the rest of the country. These efforts have yielded few conclusions to date, but at least three main lines of thought are being explored. Effect on society's values

``Look at this concrete jungle,'' says Richard Critchfield, sweeping his hand across the Chicago skyline. ``Where are you going to get values out of that?''

According to Mr. Critchfield, an authority on third-world rural areas, human values are based on rural origins. The rigors of primitive agriculture and rural living demanded rules -- respect for property and the sanctity of the family.

These rules have endured into modern times, he says, but they are under attack as successive urban generations are raised without some tie to their rural heritage.

The results: crime, breakup of the family, consumerism. ``There's nothing romantic about this [view] at all,'' Critchfield says. Work on the land has always been harsh. ``But it creates societies that endure and last.'' His solution: Preserve the rural sector and the opportunity to live on the land. Environmental threat seen

``What we're talking about is: How secure of a food system do you want?'' says Ron Krupicka, head of Small Farmer Resources Project in Hartington, Neb. ``Agriculture is basically an ecologically and environmentally dependent system. . . . Right now, we're not recognizing that.'' His solution: Raise farm subsidies and limit the size of farms. That way, increasingly large farms couldn't use ``bigger and better'' technologies that could harm the land resource.

The agricultural technology of the future will have to be more resource-sparing, more environmentally acceptable, and more scale neutral (adaptable to small as well as large farms), agrees James H. Anderson, vice-provost of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University. One heartening sign: Small, part-time farmers are the fastest-growing segment of Michigan agriculture. Traditions challenged

Rural Americans' strong ties to the land continue. Of the Iowa farmers who have quit since 1984, 3 out of 4 remained in the local area, according to an Iowa Farm Bureau survey conducted last fall. The land may also be bound up with deeply felt rural values. ``A piece of my daddy is in that land,'' says south Georgia farmer Jackie Busby, explaining why he hangs on.

Few nations have such widespread ownership of land, says DeVon Woodland, president of the National Farmers Organization. `It has been the strength of our country.'' He says a danger is that ownership is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. His group's solution: Organize farmers to sell their products collectively so that they have more clout in the marketplace.

``People are sensing a great loss'' which they can't articulate, Mr. Woodland adds. ``The public senses that we're about to lose that `something.' And once it's lost, it's gone forever.''

Maybe it's not, counters John Anderson, president of Hale County State Bank in Plainview, Texas -- a town that's witnessing a growing number of farm failures. ``The small farm was one of the foundations of our country, and even though we've pretty much lost that, we still hold to the same principles our country was founded on. My hunch is that it won't have as much effect on us as we think it might.''

Part 4 of a five-part series. Next: Paths to a stronger rural economy.

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