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Transforming the Rot Belt: Sustainable Rural Communities
by Marty Strange

Have rural places outlived their usefulness? If that question ever had immediacy, it is now, when addressed to the problems of farming communities in the North American heartland. Once robust, they were the essence of Middle America—clean, prosperous, democratic, and stable. Today they seem to be withering on the vine.

The Rot Belt

Once defined largely by farming, the economy of rural America has become more diverse. In the Southeast and industrial Midwest, rural areas depend more on manufacturing than on agriculture. In many rural areas in the Southwest, the income from tourism, recreation, and relocating retirees is more important than agriculture. And spread throughout rural America are communities that are part of the growing service economy, many of them growth centers that serve adjacent rural hinterlands. The U. S. Department of Agriculture now classifies only 556 of the 2,276 rural counties in the nation as depending primarily on agriculture. Fewer than one in 10 rural Americans live in those farming counties.

Still, some places remain quintessentially agricultural. Many are located in a crescent running northwest from northern Missouri through western Iowa, eastern Nebraska, and southwestern Minnesota, then westward through the Dakotas and across Montana to the Rockies. This agricultural region is largely within the Missouri River drainage and includes parts of the corn, dairy, and wheat belts.

In this Missouri Crescent, farming remains the heart of the economy and the essence of rural life. Though dotted with metropolitan areas and small, rural growth centers, this region contains the greatest concentration of agricultural communities in the nation.

Rural community streetscape.
Rural communities in America's heartland are straggling to survive the loss of farm population and the growth of low-paying rural jobs in areas such as health care, telemarketing, and hog production. But strengths such as quality of life, good schools, and a strong spirit of entrepreneurship hold promise for the future.
Photo by B. Amberg, courtesy Northwest Area Foundation.

These communities seem to be dying. As the number of people employed on the nation’s farms shrinks and agriculture becomes fully integrated into the industrial and international economies, the role of farm communities is looking more and more like that of Third World countries: they supply raw materials of declining value to industrial nations while paying ever more for finished consumer goods and farming supplies.

It’s no wonder that these communities are under pressure. Between 1940 and the mid-1980s, dramatic yield increases far outpaced sharp commodity price declines, and farm sales more than doubled nationwide (after inflation). During the same period, however, farm production expenses tripled, capital purchases quadrupled, and interest payments jumped tenfold. Despite the fact that farmers had twice as much money to work with, farm profits fell by 10 percent and the number of farmers fell by two-thirds.

Although those changes occurred throughout agricultural America, they were especially intense in the most farming-dependent regions. Thinly populated to begin with, nearly all the farming communities in the Missouri Crescent lost population between 1980 and 1990. This outmigration exceeded 10 percent and included especially the young and the well educated. As a result, these communities now have among the lowest number of working-aged adults per dependent (those over 65 or under 18). Public and private investment has faltered, and many local governments are under severe fiscal stress, trying to tax a shrinking property tax base that yields low net income. Roads, bridges, and schools are old and dilapidated.

This loss of farm population has also shrunk the local business base and transformed Main Street from a thriving outdoor minimall to a darkened wholesale and warehouse district. According to one study, all communities of less than 5,200 people in seven states (Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) lost businesses between 1960 and 1989; retail concerns dropped from about three-fifths of business establishments to only about one-third.

As retail businesses close, people who remain in the community find it necessary or appealing to do more of their shopping in larger markets. Today, a town with a population of less than 2,500 is likely to be losing more business to larger towns than it is pulling in from smaller towns—and about three-fourths of the farming-dependent counties in the region don’t have a town as big as 2,500.

What is to become of all these places? Can community be sustained on this farming frontier in the Missouri Crescent? One cynical suggestion is to "turn out the lights" in much of the region and establish a federal grassland park for buffalo to roam. As one pundit put it, "They don’t call it ‘the Plains’ for nothing." The region has become the agricultural equivalent of the declining manufacturing centers of the Great Lakes in the 1970s and ‘80s. Move over, Rust Belt. Here comes the Rot Belt.

The Economies of Depletion and Alienation

In these circumstances, the primary competitive advantage of such rural places seems to be their desperation and vulnerability. Increasingly, they are seen as places to warehouse the unwanted, the undesirable, and the used. "Rural development" becomes a bump-and-grind hustle to lure refugee businesses looking for a high-productivity, low-wage workforce, communities that will concede taxes in return for jobs, and state governments that will wink at regulatory infractions.

Much of the growth that does occur in the rural areas of the Missouri Crescent, like much of the rural growth nationally, is in scattered pockets of development that intersperse the farming regions. This growth is often attributed to value-added food processing and consumer service industries that offer the lowest-paying jobs and often depend on both the market for services and the surplus labor pool of the surrounding countryside. In these pockets of rural growth, wage rates are lower, and falling even faster, than in other rural communities.

Consider some of the leading sectors for rural job growth in the Missouri Crescent:

  • Nursing home aides. Because of health care reforms that emphasize getting people out of the hospital in a hurry, low-skill, low-wage nursing home aides are in demand—especially in rural areas where full-time workers make less than $6.00 per hour and many people work less than full-time, often without health insurance. It’s one of the fastest growing rural jobs, in every region of the country.
  • Correctional officers. Inmate population has tripled since 1980, and many new prisons have been built in rural areas to reduce costs and sequester prisoners far from urban population centers.
  • New-collar sweatshops. Outbound telemarketing jobs and other blue-collar work in white-collar-environment sweatshops demand plenty of people, especially those willing to work less than full-time in intense four-hour shifts.
  • Waste dumps. From nuclear waste to toxic sludge to simple trash, urban America is finding that rural America makes a great dumping ground in an age of regulated disposal.
  • Hog factories. Assembly-line technologies and automated waste disposal systems have created a boom in industrial hog farming and demand for locations with plenty of water and few people to complain about odor. Some of this corporate hog boom is in the South, where corporate farming fits well with the plantation tradition, but much of it is in the farming regions of the Midwest and Great Plains.
  • Peripheral production. Rural jobs that involve production of goods, rather than services, tend to be in natural resource and manufacturing industries where domestic and international competition is keen, workers are not unionized, and management, professional, and technical jobs are relatively scarce. Touted as ideal for rural areas because they often involve "value-added" food processing, they are generally dead-end jobs in branch plant facilities that ship profits out of the local community. A good example: meat packing plants. Sparked by the desire to pay lower wages and be closer to large volumes of livestock, meat packers have moved from urban centers to smaller rural communities in the past two decades—and real wage rates have fallen by 38 percent. Increasingly, new plants have been located in small communities that can’t provide a sufficient supply of workers, requiring recruitment from outside the community, frequently from Mexico and the Pacific Rim nations.

Driven by a psychology of decline, development based on these jobs is hardly sustainable. Indeed, job growth in these communities is increasingly based on the false economies of depletion and alienation.

Still, despite their troubles, rural communities in the Missouri Crescent seem to persist. In fact, some may have begun to turn things around. Between 1990 and 1994, nearly half the farming counties nationally gained in population, and nearly half their gain was in the form of net inmigration. Some of those counties were in the Missouri Crescent.

But is this small rebound a real turnaround, or just a small correction on an overall path of decline? Is there a path that leads to sustainable development of small agricultural communities?

The Dilemmas of Sustainability

It’s not surprising that in a world used to hearing almost daily of environmental disasters, "sustainability" has become a fashionable idea. Often, it is narrowly conceived as an environmental goal, or as a way to reconcile the conflict between jobs and the environment. But it is also confused with the status quo, or worse, with the idea of protecting vested interests. Should every farm and every town be expected to survive? Are they all entitled to survival?

The roots of "sustainability" are in biology and ecology, where such questions have no meaning. Individuals and species simply cannot survive in isolation. Nothing is ecologically sustainable except in the context of community.

In the natural world, the principles of community sustainability are well defined. A "community" is a mixture of different species that share a place, interdependently, through symbiotic relationships. Some of these relationships are competitive, predatorial, and parasitic; others are mutual, cooperative, and supportive. Individuals, including individual species, are expendable. They may be replaced over time by other species that perform similar functions or redefine community relationships. Cycles and balances are maintained in new ways. Life goes on. Ecologically speaking, vested interests are not sustainable—only relationships are. And those relationships occur in the context of continuously changing community.

Human communities are different in only one respect, albeit a crucial one: intentions. People make conscious decisions to shape their communities, to nurture, to dominate, to exploit them. Anyone who has ever lived in a small community knows there are parasites and predators mixed in among the civic-minded. What distinguishes human communities from "natural" communities is that the balance between these essential forces of competition and cooperation is maintained not by the laws of survival alone, but by the strength of our moral code.

The rationale for "saving" communities is therefore not ecological. It is moral. It must be that they are "good" places to live, places where even the competitive and predatorial relationships are, for the most part, satisfying.

The irony of this truth is revealed in the social remorse often expressed over dying farm communities, and in the preferences people express for living in those communities. A poll taken in 1985, in the depth of the worst farm financial crisis in 50 years, found that 48 percent of Americans would prefer living in a town, village, or rural area rather than in a large or even small city. People—even those who have never lived in a rural area—know that we are losing good places to live.

Principles of Rural Community Sustainability

What then might be adjusted in the "cycles and balances" of these communities to make them more sustainable? Will certain "species" have to be replaced by others? What relationships need to be reinforced, and which ones modified by new partners? What kind of community must gradually replace the kinds of communities that are dying in the hinterland of the Missouri Crescent?

All those questions can’t be answered here. However, the following principles might help guide us.

Place matters. People want to live in a place that is small enough to incorporate regular, ongoing relationships that reinforce healthy behavior, constrain inappropriate behavior, and, importantly, accept divergent views and are amenable to compromise. That’s certainly not the exclusive province of small communities; it applies to urban neighborhoods, too.

Minnesota farmer Mike Noble, with cattle.
"I'm living in a neighborhood where virtually every conventional
farmer I know has either lost his farm, divorced, gone crazy, died,
or is in misery," says Mike Noble, a farmer in southeastern
Minnesota. So Noble and his wife, Diane, switched from conventional
to sustainable farming methods, a strategy that has paid off
financially and that they feel offers hope for repopulating the countryside.

Photo by C. Lassig, courtesy Northwest Area Foundation.

The important point is that community cannot occur outside the context of place. Rural communities won’t be made viable by "lone eagles," urban professionals who retreat to small towns and commute to the global economy every day via the information superhighway. Community requires direct, complex interaction among diverse types, sharing the same physical space.

Put the rim on the wheel. Place matters, but no place can be an island unto itself. Cooperation creates power. Declining farming communities need to think of themselves as part of a region and become partners with each other, sharing information, nurturing enterprise, and pooling government services. That doesn’t mean they should spurn relationships with interspersed growth centers. To the contrary, they should build relationships with those centers. Currently, these declining communities often relate separately, passively, and with suspicion and hostility to the growth centers.

The relationship between individual communities and the growth center is bilateral, a bit like the spokes of a wheel without a rim. By working together, communities might become the rim of the wheel around the growth center, strengthening themselves and making the wheel itself more functional.

For example, small communities in one part of the Missouri Crescent are collaborating with the community college in a growing service center to establish a two-way interactive fiber optics system that will make the communities equal partners in a system none of them could have separately. Such cooperation wouldn’t happen if the small communities were not focused on their mutual needs.

Transform agriculture. The path of agricultural development has led to ruin for small communities in the Missouri Crescent. That path needs to be changed if these communities are to prosper. Sustainable agriculture clearly has a role to play. By conserving natural capital in the soil and substituting the farmer’s skilled labor and management for purchased and imported energy products—fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides—sustainable agriculture keeps more profits local.

Much of the community interest in sustainable agriculture has been motivated by concern about water pollution from farm chemicals. Doing something about that problem can be economically attractive for farmers, too. Iowa farmers, for example, have cut nitrogen application rates on corn fields by over 20 percent in the past six years without any loss of yield, increasing net farm income by $40 million per year and substantially reducing nitrate pollution.

In fact, a series of studies funded by the Northwest Area Foundation found that sustainable farms not only can be economically competitive with conventional farms, but also are more likely to buy locally produced goods and services.

Another study comparing the local impact of 14 conventional and 14 sustainable farms in one farming-dependent community found that the sustainable farms supported 45 percent more people per acre than the conventional farms, earned twice as much net income, spent 43 percent more on family living expenditures, and generated 36 percent more property tax base—all crucial factors in local community well-being.

The Missouri Crescent communities are quintessentially agricultural in character. A handful of them might become something else—manufacturing, retirement, or commuting peripherals for growth centers. But unless the vast majority are to be simply abandoned, agriculture must be transformed.

Take advantage of the "economies of community." There are some economic advantages to small, intimate places that function informally. Sometimes these advantages are hard to see, but they are important to the economic patterns of the community. I live in a town of 747 people. When I get my car serviced, I usually pick it up in the evening, after the mechanic has closed shop and gone home. I know the work will be done and that the car will be parked on the street with the keys in the ignition. I’m not worried about it being stolen, and he’s not worried about getting paid. In small towns, we expect as a matter of course certain things that are packaged and sold as "conveniences" in larger communities—if they are available at all.

By the same token, "competitors" in small communities often share information and strategies. The Northwest Area Foundation studies of sustainable agriculture found that sustainable farmers rely most heavily on each other for information, making use of both informal networks and formal organizations. I remember sitting in a meeting and listening to an economist question why farmers would do such a thing as share information with their competitors. The farmers in the room were equally baffled by his failure to understand that in community, cooperation often provides as much strategic economic value as competition.

The same thing can happen in manufacturing. In Europe, some rural areas have developed so-called "flexible manufacturing networks" in which small companies cooperate to provide an array of customized manufacturing services that a big company, with its rigid and specialized production apparatus, can’t.

Make institutions that live for, not from, the community. Although individuals may compete, some institutions must nourish community. Schools are a prime example.

The dilemma of rural schools is that they have become institutions whose function is to educate kids—and the community’s future—out of town. In the Missouri Crescent, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that rural schools are financed largely by local property taxes. Communities pay for the education of many children who will live their adult lives and pay their taxes elsewhere.

In these communities, however, there is a growing community schools movement that tries to establish—and balance—a dual mission for rural schools. They must prepare children for life in a global community that demands abstract knowledge and cosmopolitan perspectives. But they can also teach respect for indigenous knowledge, and local history and culture. And they can learn a lot from a curriculum that itself contributes tangibly to the well-being of the community.

Simple examples abound. An art teacher in one small town involved students in developing display ads for local businesses. A business teacher helped students do a computer inventory of the community, and students served as computer consultants to local businesspeople with no computer skills. A school on an Indian reservation established a greeting card business.

One school in Minnesota really took the bull by the horns. Faced with the closing of the small town’s only grocery store, the school board bought the business. It built a business education curriculum around operating the store, with students performing all management and labor functions. Soon, the school’s biggest problem was finding enough kids to field a football team. They were all down at the store, learning entrepreneurship, cooperation, and community.

The movement toward community schools—also called "schools without walls" or "schools at the center" of the community—puts kids in schools that teach them not just to find a job, but to create jobs and fill needs. They acquire problem-solving competency that might help them better control their future—and that might enable them to choose to stay in the community that nurtured their competency, though it won’t bind them to it.

Students in Rutland, S.D.
To spur economic development in their town of Rutland, South Dakota, these students are planning to turn an unused building into a convenience store, which they will run as part of their school curriculum.
Photo courtesy South Dakota State University.

Build on strengths. Is the glass half empty or half full? Too much of what poses as rural development looks at rural communities as places that aren’t urban, and evaluates their development needs in terms of what they lack. Indeed, because rural communities are so diverse, they are increasingly lumped together as merely "nonmetropolitan," known only for what they are not.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, self-development is always better than good development, and rural communities need to address their weaknesses by building on their strengths.

The Missouri Crescent region has strengths. Among the most important are strong public school systems that, although financially weak, consistently produce high graduation rates, high standardized test scores, and high college-admission rates. The region also has a strong spirit of entrepreneurship. Self-employment is robust among nonfarmers as well as farmers. In fact, one analysis of farming-dependent counties in the northern Plains showed that self-employment provides over 40 percent of the jobs and 50 percent of the income.

In short, one of the primary assets of these communities is that people want to live there, and will find a way to make it possible.

Fortunately, the same analysis points to another asset. One-fourth of total personal income in these counties is from passive investments, largely in certificates of deposit and money-market certificates. Some of that capital could be redeployed to finance the entrepreneurial spirit of the community. In fact, that is what some development programs have done, pooling community capital into revolving loan funds that finance start-up businesses—often home-based microenterprises. Interestingly, these efforts are most effective when the community is organized to deliver business training and other skills to new entrepreneurs. They are learning that the true "capital" of the community is not financial, but rather the accumulated experience of interdependent people who have learned to take care of themselves.

Some people see "development" only as something to do with investment, employment, and competitiveness. While these are important considerations, they are not good measures of "sustainable" development.

Sustainable development is not merely about jobs. It is about the empowerment of a community, about people enabled to earn a living with satisfying work. It is about the commitment of entrepreneurs and other employers to a community, not about footloose investments attracted by tax incentives or other concessions. It is about competing when you can and cooperating when you should to achieve community contentment.

Individual communities will live and die, businesses will succeed and fail. But relationships can be sustainable, and sustainability can make good places to live.


Marty Strange has always made home in rural America. He is Policy Director for the Rural School and Community Trust, a non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen rural schools and communities. He was a founder of the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, and served as its program director for 23 years. His book, Family Farming: A New Economic Vision, is one of the leading critiques of industrial agriculture. Marty received Common Cause's Public Service Achievement Award and the Rural Sociological Society's Distinguished Service to Rural Life Award, and was named by a panel of scholars and journalists commissioned by the Lincoln Journal Star as one of the 100 people who most influenced the course of the state of Nebraska in the 20th century. He is a trustee of the Vermont Land Trust and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. Marty lives with his wife and son in Randolph, Vermont.

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