21st Century Opportunities for Rural Americans

I cut my teeth at the Center for Rural Affairs fighting for family farming in late 1970s and farm crisis of the 1980s.

We were driven by the critical role of family farming in strengthening rural communities and shaping the character of rural life. But its role is being reduced as commodity production concentrates on fewer and larger operations. That elevates the importance of developing both nonfarm microenterprises and new markets for small family farms.

Family farming is in my blood. I was raised in the barn and on the tractor on my family’s farm near Platte Center, Nebraska, punctuated by dinner table conversations about the little guy getting pushed out of agriculture.

Who farms matters, as was documented by a 1982 report to the US Congress summarizing research and agriculture and rural life. It concluded:

As farm size and absentee ownership increase, social conditions in the local community deteriorate. Communities surrounded by farms that are larger than can be operated by a family unit have a few wealthy elites, a majority of poor laborers, and virtually no middle class. The absence of a middle class has a serious negative effect on social and commercial service, public education, and local government.

We don’t have the option of returning to the family farm communities of a generation ago. But we can build strong 21st century rural communities based on their key strength. Family farming afforded people who work – the common person – the opportunity to shoulder the responsibilities of ownership and enjoy its benefits. That strengthened their stake in their community and nurtured their sense of responsibility.

Today, there are new opportunities for owner-operated rural business. Ecotourism enterprises like Nebraska’s Calamus Outfitters, are drawing high-dollar bird watchers from both coasts to supplement income from the family ranch. Hundreds of small Iowa farms are flourishing by supplying the gourmet food supplier Niman Ranch with low-stress hogs raised on straw or pasture. Nebraska food entrepreneurs are marketing together under the auspices of Grow Nebraska, to sell high value food products from jams and jellies to salsa, wine, and dried meats.

Nonfarm entrepreneurs are reaching national and even international markets for non-farm products. After driving west on a recent vacation, we found a small pottery business in the rural reaches of the Nebraska Sandhills that offer quality exceeding that found in the pricey shops of Estes Park, Colorado. (Sandhills Pottery doesn’t have a website, but here’s a nearby Valley Fire Pottery that we featured in a short video) And self-employed rural entrepreneurs are cost effectively providing business services – marketing, design, accounting, etc. – to distant companies over the Internet.

We’re still fighting for family farms that raise commodities, as you can see in our advocacy for tighter limits on mega farm subsidies. But we are also working to create the new 21st century opportunities for rural Americans to own the fruits of their labor.

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