The Numbers That Ate Main Street

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Next week Ken Meter will be in western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota, telling the story of how feeding the raw commodity maw has drained our Main Streets of their lifeblood while decimating the rural landscape socially and environmentally. Meter’s story stars numbers, charts, graphs and trend-lines—not exactly the stuff of summer blockbusters. But believe me, once you sit through one of this researcher’s presentations, you’ll never view rural economic development the same way again. You can get a taste of his insights by listening to LSP’s latest Ear to the Ground podcast (episode 51) or checking out the website of the Crossroads Resource Center, the organization Meter heads up. Take it from a confirmed numbersphobe, his analysis of the data is quite accessible—and well worth your time.For decades, farmers have been told that if only they became larger and more “efficient,” long-term financial security would follow. Meanwhile, farming communities have bought into the conventional wisdom that they must build and support an infrastructure that serves the export market at all costs. And larger, fewer producers raising raw commodities for the globe will be good for the environment, goes this line of reasoning, because farmers and communities will have more money to spend on conservation.

What Ken Meter couldn’t figure out was why most rural communities were so full of contradictions. Why are farm towns drying up even as agriculture becomes increasingly productive and “efficient?” And why is the quality of food available in communities surrounded by some of the richest soil (and best farmers) in the world so poor? Was there a connection?

Several years ago he began digging into arcane government data on agricultural productivity, employment trends, energy costs, poverty rates and levels of malnutrition. What Meter found was that rural communities that were the most heavily invested in the corn-bean-feedlot machine system of importing inputs and exporting raw farm commodities were the worst off economically, socially and environmentally.

It turns out that when virtually all of those commodities are exported out of the area, they take wealth with them. That wealth consists of the economic, dollars-and-sense kind. But it also consists of the wealth that comes with schools, churches and other institutions, as well as rich soil and clean water. The result is shuttered Main Streets, eroded farm fields and a brain drain of young rural residents.

Meter’s “Finding Food in Farm Country” analyses, as he calls them, also show in stark terms the ultimate irony: some of the most fertile farm regions have very poor access to good food. Just walk into a small-town convenience store during harvest season to get a taste of how the food system is working. As raw commodities like corn and soybeans boom out of town via truck or train, highly-processed products are brought in to feed the locals, often from thousands of miles away.

Meter has done these analyses for communities all across the country, and he’s just put his fourth Minnesota region through the number-cruncher. In all, two-thirds of the state’s farm economy has been studied by the Crossroads Resource Center. The detailed results vary from region-to-region, of course, but the overall trends are the same: we’re mining our rural communities in an unsustainable way.

Here are a few tidbits:

  • Farmers earned less producing crops in 2002 than they did in 1969, despite doubling their productivity.
  • In west central Minnesota, which raises 23 percent of the state’s corn and 22 percent of its soybeans, $1 billion is being sucked out of the region annually because farmers are exporting raw commodities raised with imported inputs and consumers are eating food brought in from outside the area. As in many rural areas, farmers and local consumers are like ships passing in the night.
  • In Woodbury County, Iowa, 1,148 farm families produced $154 million worth of food annually between 1998 and 2003. But they spent $178 million to raise it, losing an average of $24 million in production costs per year. Meanwhile, the region’s consumers—around 104,000—spent $203 million annually buying food during that same period. Around $150 million of that was spent on food from outside the region.

The good news is that in recent years Meter’s research has been a wake-up call for many local communities. Towns, cities and counties from throughout the U.S. have invited him to conduct economic research and then present the findings to local business leaders, government officials and the general citizenry. After getting over the initial shock of how much wealth is taking a one-way trip out of town, communities are sometimes galvanized into trying to reverse the trends Meter reports on.

When giving presentations, Meter often talks about how sustainable and organic farming systems can help keep wealth in a community, particularly if the food produced under such systems is processed, marketed and consumed locally. This is an important point: the people who live in these rural areas—farmers and non-farmers alike—eat food. Why not spend that food dollar locally? In other words, part of the solution for what’s ailing agriculture lies right in agriculture’s backyard: homegrown food for homegrown customers. And we can expand that backyard on a regional basis—why should Twin Cities residents get their milk from Texas and their August tomatoes from California? Do all those food miles somehow add flavor to the vittles?

A few years ago Meter was asked to do an analysis in northwest Iowa’s Woodbury County. After presenting his findings, officials there put in place numerous policies that utilize local, sustainably-produced food as a key economic development tool in the region. These policies have become a national model for other communities that are trying to keep wealth from racing down the road. Meter is quick to point out that his research is not the only reason communities like Woodbury County have taken action, but there’s no doubt his PowerPoints can serve as a useful bit of shock therapy.

Meter says increasingly rural economic development officials, frustrated by their lack of effectiveness through traditional smokestack-chasing initiatives, are showing up at his presentations, often with county supervisors, business leaders and farmers in tow.

Not that his numbers are always accepted without question: some mainstream farm commodity groups refuse to believe that all that sound and fury in the fields is producing so little long-term financial stability in the community. It’s understandable: we’ve been raised to believe that greater gross productivity automatically results in greater net gain. But skeptics have checked out Meter’s numbers and his analysis of those numbers, and found to their chagrin that indeed his conclusions are correct.

Remember, it’s not the gross, it’s the net. If it costs you more to produce something than you can sell it for, it doesn’t matter how much of that something you produce—it’s still not a profit. In fact, greater productivity may just speed the way to the poor house.

Of course, a lot more money has been moving through farming communities in recent months as commodity prices reach record levels. But again, Meter asks, how much of the wealth generated by this boom is sticking around in the long term? There are indications that skyrocketing input prices—tractor fuel and petroleum-based fertilizer, for example—are making it quite expensive to raise that $7 corn.

We’ve seen boom and bust cycles before in farm country (remember the fencerow-to-fencerow grain binge of the 1970s?), and the short-term speculation they generate is pretty exciting. The New York Times reported last month that big Wall Street firms are looking to buy farmland and consolidate farms into even fewer, larger operations. We all know what happens when the Big Boys decide to “invest” in real estate on a large scale in response to short-term spikes in the commodity markets.

Again, a lot of fast and furious financial transactions will be generated by all this speculatory action. But is it sustainable in the long term? Will it keep Main Street businesses open decades down the road? Will it increase this nation’s food security? Will it ensure the protection of our soil and make our rural communities places where young people want to make their futures?

It will be interesting to see how today’s $7 corn and the volatile ethanol market look once they pass through the Ken Meter data grinder. Stay tuned…

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