Larger Farms, Fewer Farmers

This column was published Tuesday, October 9, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.

As the Wichita Rotarians were diving into their rubber chicken, I asked for a show of hands. How many here have spent at least part of their lives on a farm or ranch?

From where I stood, scanning the audience of some 250 Rotarians, more than half the arms shot up. Mine, too. My father farmed until his capacity to withstand the debt involved in production agriculture exceeded his ability to live with it. When that day came, he sold the farm, changed careers and we moved to Wichita. That rural-to-urban arc typical of many in my generation in Kansas.

Writing this column is a side gig, so it was just a matter of time before column fodder would bump up against the day job. The business card reads Director of Industry Affairs and Development for Kansas Farm Bureau – the farm organization. We do what any self-respecting trade organization does: Lobby, educate, communicate and when invited, go home to the city where we grew up and remind urban-dwelling Rotarians that things are changing in the places they came from.

Within my existing portfolio is a two-year strategic planning effort, aimed at ensuring the farm organization is lobbying, educating and communicating optimally. This assumes we know the future. Or at least enough of it to get started on the work. We did the due diligence, read the reports, examined the prognostications and came to an inescapable conclusion: the future of Kansas agriculture is larger farms, fewer farmers.

In Kansas, we grow wheat, corn, soybeans and milo. We raise cattle. We’re good at it. We have an entire economic, transportation, storage, marketing, regulatory and I will argue, emotional and cultural infrastructure in place to support the growing of these raw commodities.

Many of the factors impacting the future are financial. Operating loans on a handshake over bacon, eggs and white bread toast slathered in strawberry preserves at the coffee shop are no longer that simple. This often spells trouble for the younger producer, who, unless he or she has a family connection willing to partner, finds the pathway to enter farming, nearly impossible.

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Farmers with the wherewithal to expand the physical size of their operations, tend to do that. Those without, tend not to. Here’s a troublesome fact that sums up the culture and illustrates the limitations of impacting these trends, especially those without the wherewithal: We won’t know until it’s too late. We don’t ask our farmer/rancher members about their finances. This is an independent, work ethic, save it for a rainy day, bootstrap culture. Their bottom line is none of my business. Because I respect their privacy and their pride, I’m not about to ask.

It means hard decisions loom. As the rural population base declines, watch for increased pressure on local taxing authorities to maintain equal, if not more, services. At what point does the local property tax burden begin to exceed the capacity of those left to pay it? Or maybe a better question: At what point do rural Kansans grow weary enough of higher locally-levied taxes and dwindling services that they grab their 21st century technological equivalent to a pitchfork and descend on the county commission, town council or the school board?

Throughout the middle of the country, we’re seeing steep drops in mainstream denomination church attendance. It’s not that they don’t believe in God or no longer love their neighbor. I’ll argue it’s just the opposite. You don’t put a wheat seed in the ground or inseminate a momma cow without a deep-seated faith that something good will result.

It’s not just churches. It’s service clubs and county Farm Bureau boards. People will give of their time if they feel it’s worth it. Expectations change with demographics. Our cultural and emotional infrastructure needs to keep up.

What can be done? Glad you asked.

Imagine if systems in rural Kansas with existing membership infrastructures, human/financial resources and decades of tradition came together to design, build and implement an effort aimed at enhancing the capacity of the people who have made a conscious and purposeful decision to stay in rural Kansas.

Systems that acknowledge their individual agendas and recognize that when more people in rural Kansas develop more problem-solving skills, better understand what it means to think critically and gain knowledge on how to collaborate. A rising tide lifts all boats. A good stiff south wind can carry us all to a better place.

In that future, when the inevitable rural challenges arise, we will be able to manage them, instead of the other way around. Absent such an effort, my fear is, the trends that frighten us, that lead us to stick our heads in the sand because it’s all we know how to do, will one day soon eclipse our capacity to manage them.

That’s the conversation we hope to start in our state. So, I guess it only makes sense that a guy who spent his early childhood on a Kansas farm and his formative years in a Kansas city, would return home to the city and talk with a room full of similarly-situated Rotarians about the past… and the future.