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'Get Big Or Get Out' Farming Has Left Kansas Towns Struggling For Survival

Chris Neal
For the Kansas News Service

Go hereto subscribe to the My Fellow Kansans podcast. This season, we look at the prospects of rural places.

DIGHTON, Kansas — A billboard along Interstate 70 boasting about the productivity of Kansas farmers may say more about what’s happening in agriculture than those who put it there realize.

The message seems simple and straightforward: “1 Kansas Farmer Feeds 155 People + You!”

A closer look reveals it’s been crudely updated — an indication that the tally changes with some frequency.

The steady escalation of the number of people fed by a single Kansas farmer — from 73 in the 1970s to 155 today — reveals how lots of small farmers have been replaced by large farmers intent on getting even bigger.

That trend threatens scores of small towns that sprouted on the prairie in a different time, when larger numbers of small farmers depended on them.

Many of Kansas’ small towns look weathered, worn and neglected after more than a century of exodus. Most rose up more than a century ago, to meet the basic needs of farmers. They established banks and churches. Grocery stores and implement dealers prospered.

This sign stands along Interstate 70 between Topeka and Manhattan.
Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
This sign stands along Interstate 70 between Topeka and Manhattan.

Consider Atwood, the childhood home of former Gov. Mike Hayden.

The Atwood that Hayden knew growing up during the 1950s was a bustling town of about 2,000 people tucked into the northwest corner of the state. Well-kept shops lined Main Street. Hayden recalls six grocery stores, five car dealers, at least one pharmacy and a thriving local newspaper.

“It was,” he said, “Norman Rockwell’s America.”

Since then, the town lost nearly half its population. Most of those foundational businesses, Hayden said, “eroded away” and took the community’s core of civic leaders with them.

As governor in the late 1980s, Hayden spoke defensively about the decline of rural Kansas. A pair of East Coast academics — Frank and Deborah Popper — proposed returning expanses of rural Kansas and other Great Plains states to the buffalo as part of a massive nature preserve.

Hayden ridiculed the idea.

“I came out guns blazing,” Hayden said. “I thought the Poppers were off base and that they should perhaps go back east and we’d be just fine out here.”

He now says he was wrong.

“They were right about the out-migration they observed,” Hayden said. “In fact, it’s happening faster than they predicted.”

Several factors are responsible for the decline, Hayden said, including consolidation in the ag economy. He cited his family farm as an example.

In 1960, Hayden said, that farm supported 17 people. Most of them lived in and around Atwood. Today, it supports only three.

Today, that farm is bigger and churns out more grain than ever. But only one of the three people tending the land works at it full-time.

“My brother can do it all by himself,” Hayden said.

A report issued last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that as recently as 1987, mid-sized farms between 100 and 1,000 acres covered nearly 60% of the nation’s cropland. By 2012, those midsize farms had lost about half their acreage to large farms — those of 2,000 acres or more.

Don Hineman’s western Kansas farm — located just south of Dighton — covered 3,000 acres when he returned from college in 1973 to help manage it. 

It’s now 14,000 acres, or nearly 22 square miles, and still growing.

State representative and farmer Don Hineman has continually expanded the scale of his operation to keep pace with agriculture trends.
Credit Chris Neal / For the Kansas News Service
For the Kansas News Service
State representative and farmer Don Hineman has continually expanded the scale of his operation to keep pace with agriculture trends.

“When you have opportunities for growth you’d better grab them,” said Hineman, a state representative who chairs the House Committee on Rural Revitalization.

Getting bigger, Hineman said, made him a more efficient farmer and a better steward of the land. He can afford the sophisticated equipment needed for the latest precision agriculture.

Those systems map fields in great detail and analyze nutrient levels in different patches of soil so satellite-guided planters and sprayers can deliver the smallest amount of seed and fertilizer to grow the most bountiful crops.

“It bothers me to some extent that what we’re doing on our farm is, in a way, contributing to the decline of the local community,” Hineman said. “But it’s a matter of self-preservation. You either get bigger or you get out.”

Gail Fuller contends that’s simply not true.

“We’ve been sold a bill of goods,” Fuller said.

He owns a small farm near Emporia and challenges the notion underlying much of U.S. agriculture policy that American farmers need to feed the world with commodity crops.

“We’re doing it at the expense of the climate, the environment,” Fuller said.

Large-scale commodity farming, he argues, puts farmers at the mercy of markets that often fail to return breakeven prices and saddles them with debt.

Fuller shrank his farm dramatically several years ago after a lengthy dispute over a crop insurance payment pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy.

“We’re a very diverse operation,” Fuller said, explaining that he grazes cattle on perennial grasses and grows only enough grain to feed his pigs and chickens.

Fuller markets pricey grass-fed beef and other products directly to consumers and said he’s just starting to turn a profit after years of being buried in debt.

Gail Fuller has turned away from commodity farming.
Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Gail Fuller has turned away from commodity farming.

“Most people hate paying income taxes,” he said. “I actually look forward to it after being beat up for 10 or 15 years.”

Even with farm bankruptcies on the rise, most ag economists say it’s unlikely that a significant number of Kansas commodity farmers will follow Fuller’s lead despite evidence that sticking with the status quo means the continued hollowing out of rural communities.

“We have seen these trends of population and economic decline going on for just about a century now,” said John Leatherman, a Kansas State University agricultural economist.

Those trends, Leatherman said, are being driven by major economic forces beyond the control of Kansas farmers, community leaders — or state policymakers.

Given that trajectory, Hineman, the state lawmaker and large-scale farmer, said he hopes that taxpayers in Kansas’ urban and suburban centers won’t tire of subsidizing rural communities as they fight for survival.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “It’s unrealistic and unthinkable that urban Kansas would say, ‘Solve your own problems rural Kansas. We’re done with you.’”

This is the second in a series of stories investigating the decline in rural Kansas and efforts to reverse it. The next story looks at how communities can either shrink and whither, our find ways to thrive with a smaller population.

Support for this season of “My Fellow Kansans” was provided by  the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, working to improve the health and wholeness of Kansans since 1986 through funding innovative ideas and sparking conversations in the health community. Learn more at healthfund.org.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3

Jim McLean is an editor and reporter for KCUR 89.3. He is the managing director of KCUR's Kansas News Service, a collaboration between KCUR and other public media stations across Kansas.