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How low can rural communities go?

By Jim Scharplaz
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Oct. 18, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) --The one-room country school that I attended in first grade closed long ago, when the north Ottawa County school districts first unified, and the schools in several of the district's smaller towns closed soon after. When I was in high school, there was further consolidation. In November, we will vote whether or not to close still another school, leaving schools in only one town in the district.

At first, the closings were presented as somehow beneficial to the students. Words like "modernization" and "increased opportunities" were used a lot. Now the euphemisms are no longer used. We all know it's just a matter of numbers - too few kids and too little money.

I imagine that the residents of the town whose school may he closed next year look at the deserted streets of the towns that lost their schools 30 years ago and fear for their future. And I imagine that even the residents of the county seat are beginning to wonder how long this trend will continue.

How long can this trend continue? How thin does the population have to be before everyone leaves because there aren't enough people left to have a working community, or because they are just plain lonely? I know that there are areas where the population is even sparser than it is in Ottawa County. My friends in far southwest Kansas tell me that homeschooling may be their only option by the time their little boy reaches school age. There simply won't be a school within reasonable distance of their home.

There are other such places, like the Nebraska Sandhills, where Mom and the kids live in town during the week, and return to the ranch on weekends during the school year. In parts of Montana, the whole family moves to town for the winter. And in Australia's outback, the federal government hires social workers who organize activities designed to foster a sense of community among farmers and ranchers even more scattered than those in this country.

Not long ago, depopulation of parts of rural America was promoted as a good thing, the "Buffalo Commons" a desirable outcome. Maybe we do have too much food now. But every year, every day, every minute, there are more people - and less arable land. Someday, if not today, we will need to feed ourselves from the "Buffalo Commons." Can we do that without farmers?

I wonder what shape agriculture will take, if it is not done by families who live on, and have an attachment to, the land. Who will feed us? Will farming be done like Arctic oil drilling, by crews rotating in and out, with no permanent connection to the place? Will genetically modified crops and animals, precision agriculture using computer information systems and global positioning technology, and still larger and more sophisticated farm machinery, permit the complete industrialization of agriculture?

Will we only then recognize there is some essential link between the earth and the people who farm it, that the farmer's intimate knowledge of a piece of land makes him better able to farm it than any other person?

And, when that day comes, will the earth continue to feed those who have no relationship to her at all?

- Jim Scharplaz, an Ottawa County rancher, is a member of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a natural systems agriculture research organization in Salina.