Saturday, July 30, 2016

As farms keep getting bigger and more mechanized, rural income inequality grows

"Farms that once generated wealth for entire communities are now creating a new class of superfarms, which are concentrating wealth and income at the top," creating a new class divide in rural areas, Patrick Jonsson reports for the Christian Science Monitor.

“What most people think of as family farms don’t exist in large numbers anymore, but what exists are large family businesses … in the $3 to $5 million range” of annual revenue, David Peters, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University, told Jonsson.

Franklin "Spanky" Laidler of Hawkinsville, Ga., said he'd
be a millionaire if he owned the farm where he works.
(Photo by Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor)
"The widening gulf between the haves and have-nots is not limited to the Rust Belt’s cast-off manufacturing workers, working class suburbanites, or inner-city poor working on a stagnant minimum wage," Jonsson writes. "The same trends have taken hold in farm country, though in different forms. The farms that once generated wealth for entire communities are now creating a new class of superfarmers," who rely on machinery and don't hire many new farmhands.

“Those who have traditionally performed jobs on the farm are left out of any sort of share in the wealth that’s being produced,” Georgia Southern University history professor Jonathan Bryant, who studies small Southern towns, told Jonsson. “That’s become a difficult situation for a lot of folks, and many just leave. Those that don’t are the people you see in those clustered groups of rotting trailer houses: They’re stuck as much as some person in a Central American country is stuck.”

The big farmers' wealth is usually not highly visible, except to those who know who owns the land, the oldest class divide in rural America. Farming has boom-and-bust cycles, and much money probably goes into intangible investments, not tangible goods that testify to wealth. But money continues to buy power, Ohio State University rural sociologist Linda Lobao told Jonsson: “It’s always the case with land in rural communities: land makes power. And power often doesn’t want change.”

And where does that leave efforts to diversify local economies and provide jobs for the young rural people who mostly move to urban places? Jonsson paints a dispiriting picture of Hawkinsville, Ga., site of his on-the-ground reporting, but cites the experts to suggest how things can be different: "Rural communities that have managed to thrive despite the dour employment dynamics exhibit similar values: an openness to change and outsiders. In many parts of the country, rural towns that have welcomed immigrants, especially, have seen their downtowns, if not thrive, at least manage a slower population decline than more insular communities."

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