Rural Communities Look to the Past to Defeat the Industrial Agriculture of the Present

John Ikerd

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) pollute ground and surface water, spread disease, eliminate jobs and lower surrounding property values because they smell terrible.

Peo­ple in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties are begin­ning to join forces to defend their health and well-being against the inher­ent threats posed by con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions (CAFOs). I believe that the future lead­er­ship of rur­al Amer­i­ca is emerg­ing from among those who are tak­ing the lead in pro­tect­ing their com­mu­ni­ties against CAFOs, and I am just begin­ning to appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of the new rela­tion­ships that are being forged among rur­al peo­ple who share this com­mon con­cern for the future of their communities.

Over the past year, I have met with local anti-CAFO group in Arkansas, Nebras­ka, Mis­souri, Iowa, South Dako­ta, and Ontario, Cana­da. Each group is dif­fer­ent but they all of have one thing in com­mon: they are all cre­at­ing com­mu­ni­ties of neces­si­ty.” Most of these folks didn’t form these new rela­tion­ships because they want­ed to. They got togeth­er with neigh­bors because they felt they had to. They knew they would have to work togeth­er if they were to have a chance to pro­tect them­selves, their fam­i­lies and their com­mu­ni­ties from the threats of CAFOs.

Rur­al Amer­i­ca once had strong com­mu­ni­ties. It would have been very dif­fi­cult for any­one who built a CAFO in a rur­al area in ear­li­er times. It wasn’t social­ly or moral­ly accept­able for one per­son in the com­mu­ni­ty to ben­e­fit at the expense of oth­ers. Rur­al peo­ple were also very skep­ti­cal of out­siders,” such as the cor­po­ra­tions that are pro­mot­ing CAFOs. They under­stood that more often than not, out­side investors” were intent on tak­ing advan­tage of the local yokels.” The strong com­mu­ni­ties of ear­li­er times were cre­at­ed out of neces­si­ty and over time became impor­tant keep­ers of rur­al social and cul­tur­al values.

When I was a kid grow­ing on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri, I lived in a strong farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty. The com­mu­ni­ty was an inter­wo­ven net­work of peo­ple who knew each oth­er main­ly out of neces­si­ty. Most farms in those days couldn’t actu­al­ly be farmed by a sin­gle farmer or farm fam­i­ly. Farm­ing was a com­mu­ni­ty affair. For exam­ple, there were crews, some up to four men and boys, who trav­eled from farm to farm to fill silos. Each farmer brought along with their share of farm equip­ment and labor. For my dad, it was most­ly labor — as there were three grow­ing boys in the fam­i­ly. In the ear­ly days, the trav­el­ing thresh­ing crews fol­lowed a steam engine that pulled and pow­ered the thresh­ing machine. The hay­ing crews tend­ed to be small­er because there was less equip­ment involved, but it still took a crew to put up hay. The men and boys worked hard, but a lot of social­iz­ing — hors­ing around — also took place at these gatherings.

The farm wives” also renewed their com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions at time of har­vest. Sev­er­al women and girls would gath­er at the host farms on har­vest days to help the host house­wife pre­pare the noon meal for the har­vest crews. The farm women also had their indi­vid­ual groups who gath­ered peri­od­i­cal­ly to make quilts to keep their fam­i­lies warm in win­ter and to help each oth­er can fruit and to make pre­serves or cut up meat and make sausage on butcher­ing days. The work was often tedious and tire­some but the con­ver­sa­tions helped to pass the time.

These net­works of neces­si­ty were inter­con­nect­ed through local church­es. Every­body knew every­body in their own church­es as well most folks as in the oth­ers church­es near­by. The par­ents of kids who went to school togeth­er all knew each oth­er. Vis­it­ing on Sun­day wasn’t lim­it­ed to kin­folks; vis­its includ­ed neigh­bors. Peo­ple also vis­it­ed at the coun­try store and at the bar­ber shop, fill­ing sta­tion and farm­ers’ coop­er­a­tive exchange in town.

Giv­ing some­one a hand” wasn’t lim­it­ed to help­ing out in emer­gen­cies, but was giv­en any­time some­one need­ed a hand.”

These com­mu­ni­ties, cre­at­ed out of neces­si­ty, were com­mu­ni­ties that not only helped rur­al peo­ple make a liv­ing but also gave them a com­mon sense of pur­pose. Rela­tion­ships are dif­fi­cult and dis­agree­ments nat­u­ral­ly arose. But, rur­al folks knew they need­ed to get along to get by in life. Fur­ther­more, this strong sense of com­mu­ni­ty added a sense of mean­ing and qual­i­ty to day-to-day rur­al life.

But times changed” in rur­al Amer­i­ca. The indus­tri­al­iza­tion of agri­cul­ture removed the neces­si­ty for com­mu­ni­ty-based farm­ing. Indi­vid­u­al­ly owned field chop­pers replaced the big silo crews, indi­vid­ual com­bines replaced big thresh­ing crews, and inex­pen­sive hay balers replaced hay­ing crews. Farm­ers were free to har­vest their own crops when­ev­er they choose, rather than wait their turn to be helped by the big crews of neigh­bors. Mod­ern kitchen con­ve­niences also elim­i­nat­ed the need for farm wives to share housework.

Social cir­cles in farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties began to nar­row and nar­rowed fur­ther as farms grew larg­er and sur­viv­ing farm­ers became few­er. New peo­ple moved into rur­al areas — seek­ing low-pay­ing jobs on fac­to­ry farms or escap­ing high liv­ing costs in cities. Most peo­ple didn’t both­er to get to know their new neigh­bors because they didn’t need to.” Rur­al folks even­tu­al­ly became like city folks — not only not know­ing, but not real­ly want­i­ng to know their neighbors.

This loss of com­mu­ni­ty left rur­al com­mu­ni­ties vul­ner­a­ble what I call the eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion” of rur­al Amer­i­ca by the large agribusi­ness cor­po­ra­tion. The com­pre­hen­sive cor­po­rate con­trac­tu­al arrange­ments that char­ac­ter­ize CAFOs are the epit­o­me of rur­al eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion. The ongo­ing eco­log­i­cal, social, and rur­al eco­nom­ic degra­da­tion of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties are the inevitable con­se­quences of eco­nom­ic colonization.

How­ev­er, peo­ple in rur­al Amer­i­ca are begin­ning to awak­en to what they have sac­ri­ficed in the name of inde­pen­dence and eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy. The threat of fac­to­ry farms or CAFOs mov­ing into a com­mu­ni­ty has proven to be a pow­er­ful moti­va­tion for peo­ple to think about what they are about to lose – if they become a CAFO com­mu­ni­ty. They are also begin­ning to under­stand if they are going to pro­tect them­selves from the threats of CAFOs, join­ing forces with neigh­bors to regain the pow­er of com­mu­ni­ty is an absolute neces­si­ty. They are just begin­ning to real­ize that form­ing and sus­tain­ing rela­tion­ships with oth­ers, regard­less of neces­si­ty, also is sim­ply a bet­ter way of life.

There are still many places in rur­al Amer­i­ca that have the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cre­at­ing and sus­tain­ing social­ly vibrant and eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. These com­mu­ni­ties still have clean water, clean air, scenic land­scapes, and peo­ple who are com­mit­ted to car­ing for the land and care about oth­er peo­ple — even if they don’t know each oth­er very well. If these com­mu­ni­ties are able to pro­tect them­selves from CAFOs and oth­er forms of eco­nom­ic col­o­niza­tion they will be even bet­ter places to live in the future.

There is no eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal pow­er greater than the pow­er of the peo­ple in com­mu­ni­ty. While the pow­er of com­mu­ni­ty may be gained through rela­tion­ships of neces­si­ty, it can only be sus­tained through rela­tion­ships of choice.” We even­tu­al­ly must come to under­stand that we social beings — rela­tion­ships, regard­less of neces­si­ty, make our lives better.

(“Rur­al Com­mu­ni­ties of Neces­si­tywas orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on John Ikerd’s web­site and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion. For more infor­ma­tion about CAFOs, and the threats they pose to rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and economies, click here.)

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri. After work­ing in pri­vate indus­try, he spent 30 years in var­i­ous pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tions at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri before retir­ing in ear­ly 2000. He now spends most of his time writ­ing and speak­ing on issues relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty with an empha­sis on eco­nom­ics and agri­cul­ture. He cur­rent­ly resides in Fair­field, Iowa and is the author of sev­er­al books includ­ing Essen­tials of Eco­nom­ic Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Sus­tain­able Cap­i­tal­ism, A Return to Com­mon Sense and Cri­sis and Oppor­tu­ni­ty: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture and A Rev­o­lu­tion of the Mid­dle.
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