Category Archives: rural demographics

Rural Depopulation in the U.S. Mapped

As I look at this map below, I will share one observation. The corn ethanol story has drastically increased the amount of demand for corn in recent years because of government policy. This, we are told by our Secretary of Agriculture, is a boon to the Midwest. Yet, if we look at this map, we can see that the largest corn producing states, and ethanol production states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska have lost population in their rural areas during this supposed boon time period. Fact is, current farm policy and programs like this are contributing to farms getting larger and depopulation of the Midwestern rural areas.

From the USDA…

Nearly two-thirds of rural U.S. counties have lost population since 2010

Population change is varied across rural and small-town America. Since 2010, over 1,200 rural (nonmetropolitan) counties have lost population, with declines totaling nearly 400,000 people. At the same time, the population of just over 700 rural counties grew, together adding just over 300,000 residents.

New regional patterns of growth and decline emerged in recent years. Areas of population decline appeared for the first time in the eastern United States, including New England, the North Carolina-Virginia border, and southern Ohio. Falling birth rates, an aging rural population, and a declining manufacturing base contributed to population downturns in these regions.

In the Mountain West, population growth also slowed considerably, and in some cases turned negative, for the first time in decades, affecting numerous counties in western Colorado and Wyoming, central Oregon, and northern Idaho. In contrast, an energy boom has spurred population growth in sections of the northern Great Plains that had previously experienced long-term population declines.

source: usda

Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country

The middle of this nation is referred to as flyover-country, which is appropriate because much of our population lives on the East or West coast and flies over this area to get to the other side.

The satellite map above is of an area not all that far from where I grew up, in Northeastern Nebraska, an area squarely embedded within this so-called flyover-country. It’s really close to where Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” was filmed, in the towns of Plainview and Stanton. (I spent many days in Stanton when I was growing up, because my grandmother lived there.) We saw the movie last weekend, by the way, and it is true to Alexander’s style, artistic genius portraying a sorry story about the pitiful human condition made even bleaker with his choice of black and white film. It was winter, of course. Winter scenery can make bleak bleaker, and Alexander uses every bleak tool that he can find for this film.

Payne portrays realism well. He included the center pivot a few times in the film, and he showed non-English speaking Hispanics changing a tire in the local filling station. There were many camera scenes so desolate that they took my breath away. You could see that there was no new investment going on in his chosen communities, outside of roads and cars and pickup trucks, which he portrayed as being of prime importance to the people living there — evident through their conversations. Oh, and lest I forget, he never left out the brain drain, either.


Main Street of Stanton, Nebraska (Wikimedia)

There are many satellite maps of regions in Nebraska which look similar to the one above, but this particular one (up top) is an area north of Highway 275, northeast of the town of Clearwater. This region also made the national news not too long ago because of the huge vintage car auction held in Pierce, Nebraska, which you probably remember.

Don’t you love that town’s name, Clearwater? There aren’t many people that live in Clearwater, or near it for that matter, but the center-pivots are the new life-form, populating the region and enhancing the growth of corn by pumping out the clear water from underground. The town had 419 people in the last census. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, its Hispanic population percentage increased from 0.26 percent to 11.5 percent.

If you’ve never looked at this region using Google satellite maps, I wish you would. Maybe you’ve seen how pivots have taken over as you’ve flown over. It seems like they are almost everywhere that they can be, by now. For those of us who never invested in Valmont, we’ve missed out on a great investment opportunity.

Along with population losses, rural areas such as this one in Nebraska have lost too much wildlife habitat and biodiversity. A couple of barometers for us are the monarch butterfly and the pheasant. According to Harvest Public Media, in Nebraska, wild pheasant concentrations have fallen 86 percent since their peak in the 1960s. As for the monarch, there are no longer milkweeds in the Midwest which are necessary for them to breed on, and so their population is falling dramatically. No longer will first graders in science classes be able to marvel at the story about the massive and mysterious annual monarch migration, like you and I did.

Yesterday, I was reading a twitter feed from the Renewable Fuels Association, because they were testifying to defend ethanol mandates by our government at a hearing discussing the new EPA proposal to cut back the mandate to levels more in line with the blend wall problem. The ethanol-industrial-complex representatives kept saying that the ethanol industry is providing new jobs for rural America.

From what I’m seeing, if anything, the opposite is true, as increased corn production is leading to larger and too-expensive farms making it difficult to begin farming. As farm depopulation continues, the small communities also depopulate and lose their goods and services so that remaining rural residents drive farther for off-farm jobs and groceries.

There is a new USDA report out about ethanol industry job growth. It revealed that the new jobs created, which are negligible in number, are primarily for truck drivers and natural gas pipeline workers (to get the gas piped to the distillation plants and to get the corn hauled to the ethanol plants). Sadly, too, the USDA reports that net job growth in nonmetro areas since 2011 have been near zero, and that between 2010 and 2012, the rural areas have, for the first time ever, experienced a net population loss.

As for the population growth of pivots in the state of Nebraska, the most recent data that I can find out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, tells us that in 2008, there were 55,000 center pivots in the state, which irrigate about 6.7 million acres, and that center pivot irrigation increased by 5 percent between 2003 and 2008. It would be safe to assume that number went up a lot since 2008, as a result of high corn prices caused by the ethanol mandate. I can tell you that the farm next to my own family farm put one in exactly a year ago in our dryland corn farming county of Nebraska. I guess it was a knee jerk reaction to the drought of 2012, but doing so will punish those of us nearby when we have to dig our own general purpose water wells deeper.

The subject of irrigating corn for use as ethanol is a very interesting one, and important, too, as everyone tends to pretend it’s a rational thing to do in flyover-country.

Watch this space next week for more on this subject.

3 Picks: Aquaponics Venture, Aging Farmer, Blueberry Mechanization


Picking Blueberries. Flickr CC via Robin.

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) A new, ambitious aquaponics venture in Watsonville, California: Donna Jones tells us that “Partners Jon Parr and Drew Hopkins are attempting to create the largest commercial aquaponics operation in the country at a former rose nursery. If all goes as planned, they’ll fill 350,000 square feet of greenhouses with fruits, vegetables and fish within 18 months, all grown in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. … Their vision is to create a self-contained operation. The aquaponics system will allow them to use far less water than conventional growers, and no fertilizer or pesticides. To control bugs, they’ll regularly infuse greenhouses with carbon dioxide, a by-product of the wood-chip burning gasification oven that will power the generator that will supply electricity. Aquaponics is so efficient, Parr said, they’ll be able to grow a head of lettuce in a month and more than four heads in a square foot, each month all year. A conventional farmer might get one head of lettuce per square foot, and two to three crops per year, he said. In three years, they’ll be able to send 15-pound sturgeon to the market as well.”

2) Who owns Iowa’s farmland? “Last year, almost one third of Iowa farmland was in the hands of someone over the age of 75. … There are younger owners, although they represent a small percentage of the acres. Over half, 56%, of the farmland in Iowa is owned by someone over the age of 65. … Absentee land ownership has declined in the last few years since the run-up in land values. In 2012, 21% of the farmland in Iowa was owned by an absentee owner.”

3) In Maine, a Switch over to the Mechanical Harvesting of Blueberries: Dave Sherwood tells us yet yet another story about machines taking over from the unpredictable reliability of immigrant labor to harvest blueberries in Maine. “Maine growers see few alternatives to mechanization, as migrant labor dries up and few Americans appear to take their place. Though the state keeps no official tally, the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission said the number of seasonal workers employed here has dropped nearly 80 percent in 15 years, to fewer than 1,000 last year. “There are people that say if we just paid more, Americans would do the work. But that’s a joke,” said Ed Flanagan, president of Jasper Wyman & Son Inc, Maine’s second-largest blueberry grower. Flanagan says hard-working pickers make as much as $20 an hour here, almost three times Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50.”

BONUS: Yesterday’s Non Sequitur Comic.

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

Savory Conference Hub Representative: Durukan Dudu

Note that this post is part of a series of posts that I am making after attending the first ever Savory Institute International Conference held recently in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado.


Durukan Dudu inside the Boulder Theater. June 2013.

The mission of the Savory Institute is to promote the restoration of the world’s grasslands through holistic management. This holistic approach combines economics, ecology, and social systems.

The institute’s founder, Allan Savory, gave a TED talk earlier this year which greatly increased the public’s awareness of his vision for solving the global crisis of desertification.

Community based Savory Hubs are popping up around the world to educate people to apply holistic management practices to the land in ways which are economically viable and reward all parts of the system. These parts include the soil, the grasslands, pastoralism, biodiversity, water storage capacity, carbon sequestration, and a revitalized hope for people that are living in the regions adopting the holistic practices.

The Savory Institute’s goal is to establish 100 locally led and managed Savory Hubs by 2025 which will influence the management of 1 billion hectares of grasslands that are currently desertifying.

Savory Hubs educate and train people about how to heal their land and become profitable at the same time. Research is ongoing through data collection and interpretation at each Hub until the best system is worked out to properly manage livestock and land for each unique region in which the Hub is located.

During the conference, we heard reports from a wide variety of global Hub leaders. Although each report was enlightening, I’ve chosen to feature the presentation by 28-year-old Durukan Dudu, from Anatolia, Turkey.

Durukan was a bit of an entertainer and appeared to enjoy his time on the stage. The audience ate it up, so we might dub him the “rock star” of the Savory Hub representatives. As he paced the stage, his message was vibrant and inspirational.

He represented not only his Turkish Savory Hub, but also, his twenty-something demographic. He spoke of an age group that wants to return to the land to find meaning in their lives and do the right thing, even though they’ve obtained educations and degrees which would offer them careers in the city. With passion and commitment, they “just want to be good people.”

But this is not easy. They lack knowledge, money, and the skills necessary to farm. They need internships. They need capitol.

Yet, this group of young people out of Turkey did it anyway, and although it took them eight years to get going, they’ve finally moved to a rural area to farm. They are a group of engineers and professionals who now run a Savory Hub.

While most of the youth around the globe are fleeing the countryside to go to the cities, they have done the reverse.

People in their Turkish village ask them why they are “going backwards”.

To that, they answer, “No, we are going forward.”

They are now setting a positive example for their community and they are having a positive ripple effect, too, because farmers who had left the land in their region are returning to it because of a renewed hope and contagion of positivism and goodness. The example that this Savory Hub group is setting demonstrates a successful model to regional farmers who had given up.

Durukan likes the American movie “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and explains that he’d be afraid of any of the individual characters in the movie, but that as a team the three work well together. He equates this with holism and Hub teamwork.

He says that most of us are not able to see the whole. “It is there, we just don’t see it.”

He sees the potential in what they are doing to “maximize our goodness for each other.”

I liked Durukan’s message because the story that he told is classic for his age group today. I have heard many young Americans tell the same story, and I have read about the large numbers of young and unemployed in Greece and Spain, who also wish to return to the land. Suddenly, the land offers more hope and sanity than the urban areas they came from.

While the average age of the farmer becomes older everywhere, this age group’s desire to return to the land is increasing. They see the farmer’s role to be a healer of our people and our planet.

You may find out more about the Savory Hub project, including how to start your own by following this link.


DD’s Twitter photo

Previous Savory Conference Posts:
The Savory Institute Conference
Allan Savory: “Agriculture is More Destructive than Coal Mining”

Trimble, an Interesting Company

Sometimes I just get lucky.

Like a couple of weeks ago when I boarded a 5 A.M. bus for the Denver airport. Whodathunk that the nice pleasant lady who sat next to me would want to talk GPS tractors for the hour?

Imagine my surprise when she told me she was headed to China and Malaysia to discuss GPS use on heavy equipment. Imagine her surprise when she found out she was sitting next to another lady very interested in that!

My seatmate was a fellow Boulderite who was a University of Colorado graduate in electrical engineering. She now works for the company Trimble, giving expert advice to those interested in adopting their GPS technology around the world. She explained to me that Trimble is one of the world’s leading companies which adds or incorporates GPS to heavy machinery used in farming and construction.

When I told her of my concern about the escalating energy costs and inputs of industrial agriculture, my new friend told me that Trimble allows farmers to save 30-50 percent on fuel and energy through precision agriculture. She said it costs 30 to 50 thousand dollars to set up a system. Trimble works with Deere and Caterpillar and it is the biggest of five GPS system companies for machinery, according to her.

Probably the most insightful part of our conversation was this… she told me that their biggest problem is finding qualified people who can run the GPS farming systems. I told her my demographic knowledge of farm regions in the Midwestern U.S. and how much they have changed over the past half-century. We both agreed that this aspect of the high tech farming future is a very large challenge indeed, especially as farms continue to trend larger as they adopt these systems.

Which makes the situation rather ironic. One of the big reasons to use precision agriculture, besides saving input costs, is reducing labor. But the large scale farms necessary to use the systems efficiently make that niche labor in these rural regions all the harder to find and retain. Let’s call it the human side of the equation.

Though there is a lot of interest elsewhere, Trimble’s main agricultural markets are currently North and South America and Europe. (Let me add that the long-term potential for growth in this arena is huge, however, since the BRICS nations are industrializing production rapidly and some scientists expect that another 2.5 billion global acres may be converted to farmland by the year 2050.)

In China, she said there is a huge wealth and cultural divide. She went on to say that the newly wealthy younger generation has a great interest in buying farmland, but large scale farming is still uncommon over there although it is a goal currently aimed for. Because now, she said, if they buy farmland, what are they going to do with it?

A big part of Trimble’s business is in construction and surveying, as their technology makes competitive bidding more precise. Roads can be laid using precise applications of materials through GPS and laser leveling plus there is great value in being able to quickly relocate expensive tools that are often misplaced during the processes.

HERE is a link to the company Trimble’s website.

HERE is a link to view Trimble’s informative agricultural videos over at youtube.

Please note that this post is not intended to offer investment advice and I do not own any investment in this company.