Rural Development vs Agricultural Advancements

Rural Development vs Agricultural Advancements by Jude Conway

I read an article recently that was sent to me by one of the Ag Ventures Alliance board members and I believe had been printed in the Mason City Gazette. The article was written by Kimberlee and Frank Spillers of Atlantic, Iowa and began this way, “for the first time in history rural cities lost more population than gained between 2010 and 2014.” The question they posed was whether your community was doing development the same way as they have for 100 years and if so is that working?

This got me thinking – What is Ag Ventures Alliance (AgVA) doing to promote rural development? AgVA was developed in 1998 as a value added cooperative and over the years has developed the dual purposes of one; enhancing the success of its member farmers through investment in value added agriculture products and in agricultural technology and two, promoting rural development and growth in areas where its members reside. In many ways, these two objectives are at cross purposes with each other. The investments we make to create efficiencies and reduce costs on the farm reduce the number of farmers needed in any given area, which indirectly reduces the number of people in small towns needed to support those farmers.

I recall my youth in the 1960’s when many farmers in Northwest Iowa, where I grew up, were making a living on a quarter section, or 160 acres. After researching average farm size, this seems reasonable as an average farm in that area was about 250 acres in 1964. Today the average farm in my home county is over 400 acres, almost twice as large and it takes less people power to operate it than it took to operate a 250 acre farm 50 years ago.

During that same period, farmers were beginning to specialize. They were not growing grain and raising chickens, pork and beef. They may have chosen to just be grain farmers or perhaps grain farmers plus specialize in one type of livestock. I am not blaming the farmer or anyone else for the economic forces and the advances in technology that led to larger and more specialized farms but all of this resulted in less people needed in rural communities to support the farming community.

Farm input companies, food processing and equipment manufacturing have been consolidating over the past fifty years and continue to do so today.  For instance, in 1965 there were over 550 small meat processing facilities in Iowa and by 2008 this had shrunk to less than 200. That means that 100’s of towns in Iowa lost their meat locker over forty-three years.

A more dramatic example over a longer period of time is the Dairy industry. In 1925 the dairy industry was just beginning to mechanize and most farmers still milked cows at least for their own family’s consumption. In Iowa, every county in the state had at least 1,000 dairy cows and there were 689,000 cows in the state. Each cow only produced about 4,000 lbs. of milk a year.

By 2010, the dairy industry was highly automated but only 36 of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties had at least 1,000 dairy cows. There were only 209,000 cows in the state but each cow produced an average of about 21,000 lbs. of milk. So, less than one-third as many cows produced nearly twice as much milk with significantly fewer farmers and farm hands doing the work. Just as in the meat industry the milk processors consolidated an in 2010 there were only thirteen liquid milk plants in the state. These examples show the dramatic impact both agricultural and food processing efficiencies had on rural communities in Iowa.

AgVA could make the case that by investing businesses in value added agriculture and agricultural technologies we are replacing many of the jobs lost to agricultural efficiencies but of the seventeen active investments AgVA currently has in portfolio, ten or about 60% are in metropolitan areas, much of it around universities or other technology companies.

We are spending some funds each year, providing grants to rural development initiatives in the Midwest but I am sure we could do more as an organization and personally. I don’t have all the answers but we must be open to opportunities we might come across. We must work with our neighboring communities to bring opportunities into a region instead of competing with neighbors for the few things that come our way. We should be looking at home grown innovations and encourage those innovators to maximize their opportunities. Most importantly, rural communities have a great deal to offer and we must remember not to sell ourselves short.

Please make sure you comment on this article if you have thought of ways to develop our communities in the rural Midwest.


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