Observations While Driving Across Nebraska


Photo by Phillip Capper @Flickr CC

In late August, I did the infamous drive across Nebraska on I-80 from Colorado to Eastern Nebraska. Some call the road I-GO-80, and the trucks indeed used to, making those of us in small cars feel threatened, but trucks have slowed down these recent years in the interest of fuel economy. If ever there was a stretch of road that could serve as the 1978 trucker movie song “Convoy” this would be it, and I’ve been trapped in convoys on I-80 in Nebraska before. Today, trucks in these parts continue to dominate the road, and on this particular trip, at one point in West-Central Nebraska, I estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the vehicles on the interstate were semis.

The drive across Nebraska on I-80 is also what the average U.S. citizen knows of Nebraska, and they’re never shy about telling you “Oh, I just drove I-80 and was through Nebraska. It’s boring. It’s really flat….” Well, yes, I-80 through Nebraska IS flat, because it follows the wide and shallow Platte River valley, just as all river valleys are flat. Geographically, Nebraska is richly diverse with very different biomes in each corner of the state. So many times I’ve had to explain this to people.

Each time I do this drive to return to my roots in Eastern Nebraska, I try to make observations about what has changed, and I try to observe how quickly those changes are occurring.

On this road trip, I kept a notepad and pen next to me and jotted down words like “wind, sunflowers, onion truck, tumbleweeds, round bales, power lines, 98 degrees F, windy, pivots, large pick-up trucks, Behlen, Kent Feeds, prolife bumper stickers, more wind, more sunflowers, more pivots, more pick-ups, more power lines,” and the like.

It was remarkably green everywhere across the state, especially as compared to the drought conditions of last summer. The rivers were extra-high, too, compared to many years in late summer when they get very low or dry up from irrigation demands. The crops looked outstanding, both the irrigated ones, as well as the crops in the dryland farm belt that I hail from. This year’s main harvest concern is the ability to mature the crops before the first frost, as they got planted late due to wet weather, not only here, but in a wide swath across the corn belt.

The subject that I spent a lot of time thinking about on this trip was that of the ongoing changes in demographics and the depopulation that is occurring in rural Nebraska and across the rural areas of the Midwest. I tried to come up with the best guess as to how this trend will play out in, let’s say 50, 100, or 200 years.

With the coming age of robotic farming, will these regions continue to depopulate as farms trend yet larger? Or, might this century-long depopulation trend be reversed with small and energy independent farms of the future, along with revitalized small rural communities, as a new generation of farmers replaces the old ones while searching for security, independence, and missing meaning in their lives? Might they bring with them a societal change, a new holistic value system in food production? As the populous southwestern states become more and more water stressed, might urban centers grow larger in Nebraska due to its abundant aquifer water resource? Or, will the Popper’s predictions of a buffalo commons come true at last if a failing economy or other resource constraints end policy support of today’s over-produced commodity crops?

The extreme weather of this driving day in late-August reminded me of the inhospitable climate that the Midwest is for people. It felt like Hades as I walked the dog at a windy rest stop near North Platte with the car thermometer reading 98 degrees and the wind at 40 miles per hour. Extremes in weather occur both in winter and in summer in much of our crop producing heartland. The heat comes with humidity and wind, the cold is a damp cold, and snow comes with wind, too, blowing it into high drifts. The corn loves this day’s weather, however, and so do the insects. “But I’m not corn,” my Mother-in-law used to say. She grew up in tiny Oakland, Nebraska and eventually settled in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is a weather Shangri-La by most Nebraskan’s standards.

Only the tough people stay in corn country, not the softies, and not the dreamers, like myself. We eventually vote with our feet. As long as other people can be relied upon to produce our food and get it to our nearest grocery store, given our druthers, the rest of us tend to opt for more moderate climates in crowded coastal, desert, or mountainous regions.

After driving through town after town in which I marveled at the quietness, the emptiness, the ghosts of their former selves, I stopped in the town of North Bend to grab a shot of main street on a Sunday afternoon. Not much was happen’n.


Edward Hopper-esque scene of North Bend, Nebraska

Back in Willa Cather’s day, these small Nebraska towns were vibrant. The best theater troops and opera in the country passed through, traveling by rail, to entertain the members of these newly formed communities that were so rooted in a hope for the future. Now the rail spurs are gone and the old opera houses have long been abandoned.

Today, instead, we have very aged rural communities. Growth, if any is occurring at all, is in the nursing homes and hospitals.

Farmers that are 60, 70 and 80 years old are reluctant to retire and pass their land on to the next generation, making it about the most difficult business that there is to transition. Finally, when a farm does sell, sometimes for the first time in two or three generations, the old farm place and shelter-belt gets bulldozed and burned, to make way for more corn acres. This very thing just happened to the long standing place next door to my own family’s farm just two months ago. The buyer was a neighbor who is trying to expand his operation.

Because of these currently high priced land values, it is difficult for the younger generation to begin farming unless they are given land. The next generation also is reluctant to settle in an area that lacks the latest in quality health care, schools, internet and cell phone service, reliable roads and electricity, postal service, quality grocery stores, and like-minded community members for friendship. It is necessary for taxpayers and urban centers to help subsidize needed services, roads, and utility upgrades in the rural areas.

Small town services like grocers and hardware stores left many years ago, replaced by Walmart’s and Orscheln’s in hub towns sometimes 60 miles away from what is now nowhere. A significant number of people who are residing in these rural areas commute to jobs that are also often an hour or more away. Who’d have thought that my Mother-in-law’s birthplace of Oakland would eventually become a bedroom community for Omaha, over an hour’s drive away? As the millennial generation desires walkable urban communities in which to live, our rural areas are requiring ever-greater commutes for work, schools, goods, and services.

Something’s gotta give and it’s gonna.

Currently the movie producer, Alexander Payne, of “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” fame, who hails from Omaha, has a new movie out titled “Nebraska”. Payne is a brilliant film editor and producer, and because everybody knows everybody else in the small state of Nebraska, somewhere in my files I’m proud to say that I have a photo of myself taken with him.

Payne has the ability to capture the spirit of a place and people dwelling in this region of the country by way of painful truth, the likes of which I’ve only seen elsewhere from the genius storyteller, Garrison Keilor. Keilor also knows how to exhibit the qualities of a Midwesterner by using the true-to-life conflicting emotions of funny and sad to an audience. His portrayals of irony are so real, that some rural people listen to him and simply don’t even get it.

I’ve watched the reviews and movie trailers of Payne’s movie “Nebraska”. One British viewer said, “It’s like everything is in the rear view mirror. There’s nothing ahead.” No, the comment wasn’t about the state of Nebraska, but it refers to the seasoned life of the movie’s main character, played by Bruce Dern. One could certainly wonder whether the quote might pertain to these little rural Nebraska towns, too.

In my own life, Nebraska is truly in the rear view mirror. These days I return to Colorado following my visits. And I’ve got the bug juice on my windshield to prove that I’ve been there. But, perhaps, less bug and butterfly juice than there used to be, another observation that I was contemplating on this latest trip back home.

6 thoughts on “Observations While Driving Across Nebraska”

  1. Hi Kay – Sounds like a great road trip – you were brave to do it in august! Personally, I’m more of a “harvest-time guy”.

    Your observations are really interesting.

    With all of the wind, are there wind farms in this region?

    I was looking at farmland in Southern MN, Northern Iowa and the giant wind towers and spinning blades would be hard for many to live near. It made me sad looking at some towns that were dying out near the wind farms. But the hedge fund investors in the farmland asset class just look at wind as a way to diversify and boost revenues. Old McHedgefund bought a farm but has never been on the farm or fired-up a tractor!

    On the flip side, I have an ag-savvy client, from a multi-generation farm family, an avid farmland investor, and on the board of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, who has the vision you alluded to – of certain regions of the midwest trending to the “new generation of farmer”. He feels there will winners and losers (more losers) – some towns reduced to ghost towns but a short list of towns/regions he feels are poised to become “holistic/cool” and ripe for revival.

    best,
    john watson

    1. John,
      There is only so much I can say in one post without writing a book and having the reader tire of the subject and this post was long enough, but its interesting that you bring up the question of wind farms in Nebraska. The state of Nebr. has a public utility that has had very cheap electricity over the past decades. This is partly due to its abundant water for the power plants, its proximity to Wyoming for the coal, and its rail lines that carry the coal. This has been business friendly so that the state has Valmont and Nucor Steel and many other electric-intensive operations, and they have been a net exporter of electricity every year. So, not surprisingly, they have shunned wind. That came back to bite them economically recently when an online server decided to locate somewhere else other than central Nebraska where they were looking, because they could get “clean energy” in, I believe it was Iowa that they picked instead. There has long been a grass roots movement of conscientious Nebraskans for wind, but they’ve been unsuccessful. I think with this company going else where, the reality of our new era is now affecting some of the decision maker’s logic in the state. On the other hand, yes, I agree from what I have read that wind farms make living nearby inhospitable, too.

  2. Last time that I drove through Nebraska, I took pictures of water towers. Gave me a reason to periodically leave the beaten path (aka the highway) and see what some of the small towns are like.

  3. A couple of years ago we visited my 92 year old father’s village in Romania where he was born. There were wind farms galore, but they were not a nuisance because of the very different model of rural life. Instead of each family living isolated on its homestead surrounded by its land, the farmers lived in a village with a school, town hall, etc. Their chickens and geese roamed in communal flocks. Each home had its vegetable garden and outdoor oven. They drove out to the fields each morning. My father described how this used to be a communal affair, with everyone sharing a wagon and singing songs out and back. The windmills in the fields are not heard in the village.
    I realized that our division of the Midwest into sections of land settled by homestead claims, plus our combative rugged individualism, had worked to the detriment of communal farm life, and made farming a lonely and isolating experience.
    Here in Minnesota and Wisconsin, many young people who did not grow up on a farm are embracing small family farming. They are often college educated and approach the whole business with a fresh eye devoid of tradition or obligation. I recently toured a farm where the owners raise sheep and make award winning sheep cheese. They consulted with our University first, and the wife apprenticed with cheese makers in Vermont and France before they started! They built their milking and cheesemaking facility with a gallery where visitors and school groups can view the entire process, followed by a trip to the tiny cheese and lamb store. Genius! These are the folks that give me hope for our food systems.

    1. I spend time thinking about “what would?” be the perfect rural farm community design, and sometimes I think these towns will be bulldozed to make way for corn, just as the farm places are. I like the European model of small farms around the towns. In Romania, eventually this model did not work, and now they are divvying up the small parcels to make way for large acres, right? I’ve been so impressed with the objectives of Dacian Cioloş, the EU Ag commissioner from Romania who actually has engineering and agriculture experience trying to promote more sustainable practices over there, as compared to we, who have a lawyer and politician as our Sec. of Ag.

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