Nebraska Public Television did a half-hour episode telling the story about its Latino population which is involved in agriculture. Very few of the Latino children who are educated in Nebraska, often in meat producing counties, plan to work in the agricultural sector, however. The cost of entry into farming here in the U.S. is an obstacle to farming for immigrants. Another problem that is addressed in this video is USDA loan accessibility for Latinos who wish to own land and begin farming. Given today’s set of rural demographic circumstances, I think that this is an important story, and a video worth watching.
This post includes material from the report on the July 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s symposium, “Structural Transitions in Global Agriculture.”
The subject is the lack of growth and decline of population in the rural areas of the U.S. which used to be much more reliant upon agriculture.
Although we have heard repeatedly from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and people like RFS lobbyist Bob Dinneen about how great ethanol has been for the rural areas, when we look at the data, it shows us quite the opposite. One of the reasons for this is that the farms that grow monoculture crops like corn keep getting bigger, which means depopulation and lack of support for the small rural communities.
In addition, a disturbing graph from the USDA shows us that since the financial crisis, the urban area economies are recovering rather well when we look at employment numbers, but the rural economies have barely come up at all. The featured time span happens to coincide with the ramp up in ethanol production due to the federal mandate.
I have written about rural demographics and trends a number of times before, and there are many factors that are contributing to sobering declines in rural statistics. Just last week I learned that the rural grade school that I went to in Nebraska is shuttering its doors because there are no rural children left in the area. They waited until they were down to three students. When I went, there were around 70.
Structural Transitions in Global Agriculture: A Summary of the 2014 Agricultural Symposium – By Nathan Kauffman, Assistant Vice President and Omaha Branch Executive.
Rural America at a Glance – 2014 Edition
source: USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture
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.
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.