Monday, May 16, 2011

Boom times for farmers and agribusinesses don't mean likewise for shrinking small towns

Here's a story that illustrates the increasing disconnect between small towns and the increasingly larger farms that surround them, by Adam Belz in the Des Moines Register: "Aside from some scattered bright spots, the biggest boom in farmland prices in 30 years has done little to reverse the gradual decline of small towns across Iowa. The same is true in agricultural communities across the country, according to scholars who track rural economies."

Belz quotes Iowa State University sociology professor Cornelia Flora, who studies agriculture and rural poverty: "We have this decoupling of farms from their particular small rural communities. We don't have the multiplier effect that we assumed we would always have." He writes from Guthrie Center, above, a county seat of 1,569 souls, near which a square mile of farmland recently sold for $1.3 million, thanks to "near-record corn and soybean prices."

In Guthrie County, "Young people generally leave for college and don't move back," Belz writes. "As farm acreages get bigger and equipment gets better, the connection between farms and nearby towns weakens, Flora said. Farmers might buy their equipment from a dealership in another county, on the Internet, or directly from the manufacturer." And with a Des Moines nall 45 minues away, about half the storefronts on Main Street "are either vacant or don't keep regular hours."

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data "statistics show that small-town banks that lend money primarily to farmers have strong balance sheets, but little demand for loans outside of agriculture. Community bankers have resorted to philanthropy when trying to jump-start growth on Main Street. They donate and raise money for fine arts centers, local grocery stores and bowling alleys that wouldn't start up in the free market."

Farmers and agribusinesses are flush, but another Iowa State sociologist, Paul Lasley, told Benz, "Increased individual profitability of a farm or a firm only benefits a community if the profits are reinvested in the community and new jobs are created and wage rates go up, and I'm not sure that it's translated into either of those right now. It may be too early to see the benefits, and in some cases there may not be a lot of local benefit." (Read more)

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