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Decline of farms leaves voters with painful choice

By Kathy Scharplaz
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- There are few sights more depressing than a ghost town, a town that once was filled with the whir and hum of community life, the shouts and laughter of neighborhoods full of children, a town that now sits eerily silent and empty and lifeless.

Equally depressing is watching a once-excellent school go down the tubes for lack of funds, laying off award-winning teachers with decades of experience, eliminating whole subject areas, handicapping its students not only for college but even for basic living in a democratic republic.

On Election Day, residents of north Ottawa County, Kan., will vote on a referendum that, in the minds of many, boils down to a choice of the lesser of two evils. The issue is whether to close the school in Delphos, 18 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Because schools receive most of their funding from the state based on the number of students enrolled in their district, declining enrollment in north Ottawa County means a painfully shrinking school budget. Something1s got to go.

Grassroots groups have formed on either side. Delphos residents suspect that once they lose their school, ghost-town status is not far away. The experience of hundreds of other small Kansas towns backs this up. On the other hand, the expense of keeping the Delphos school open would mean budget constraints could only be met with drastic layoffs and program cuts at all the district1s schools.

What1s most galling is that none of this would be happening if wheat were going for $9.38 a bushel and corn for $6.35. Those are the prices wheat and corn would be bringing if crop prices had risen at the same rate as farm operating costs over the past 100 years. Everyday consumer items rose even more steeply than did farm inputs. In 1910, in Salina, you could buy a little girl1s dress for 59 cents, a man1s suit for $3.98, a movie ticket for 5 cents, a bedsheet for 7 cents and a gasoline stove for $8.

Farmers could buy these things as easily as anyone else because they were getting paid $2 to $3 a bushel for their wheat and corn. A century later, farmers are still getting $2 to $3 for their wheat and corn but they can1t buy clothes for their kids for 59 cents any more.

I see the problem every time I drive down the road from our farm. A stretch of land that once supported more than a dozen farm families now supports only two. Thus the declining enrollment in our schools. In fact, Ottawa County1s population was cut by half in the last 100 years.

This is no accident. It was planned, very deliberately, starting not long after World War II. Federal and industry officials believed that progress depended on continued industrial expansion. By 1962 the Committee for Economic Development, an influential, corporate-funded think tank, was saying that this expansion would be accomplished most efficiently if policy-makers could "induce excess resources (primarily people) to move rapidly out of agriculture." The committee recommended keeping crop prices low enough to make farming financially unviable for most.

Their plan to force people off the land was aided and abetted by increasing corporate involvement in agriculture and food processing. Very little of what you pay at the grocery store makes its way to the farmers who grow the food. A $4.19 box of breakfast cereal, for example, returns less than a nickel to the farmer.

I1m not sure yet which way I1m going to vote in the upcoming referendum. But I do feel sure that if more people would buy their food directly from farmers instead of from Del Monte, General Mills, IBP and Tyson1s the countryside could support more farm families, and there would be more pupils in rural schools.

- Kathy Scharplaz, mother of two and a former high school teacher, writes from a farm in Ottawa County, Kan., where she and her husband raise and sell drug-free beef. She is a member of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan.