Changes in how we produce food has to be the number one reason rural America and Bourbon County (BB) are shrinking; however, agriculture continues to be a major economic influence in small communities and the number one industry in BB. Consider the following 2017 statistics about BB agriculture from the State of Kansas:
Total acres in BB: 406,701 Acres farmed: 335,935, or 82.6%
Total farm employment: 821, or about one in ten workers
Agricultural product sales: $79 million
Cattle population: 71,079, or about 5 cows per BB resident
In the State of Kansas, agricultural produced $8.8 billion in product in 2017, which was 4.6% of the $192.3 billion total Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) for the State. Nationally, agricultural was 7.7% of the GDP in 1930; by 2002, that percentage had fallen to 0.7%. It is not that agriculture has produced less; rather, our economy has become much more diversified, and most of that has occurred in urban areas. Kansas remains 6.6 times more dependent upon agriculture than the average state.
What about agricultural employment? In 1900, 41% of the labor force in the United States of American (“USA”) were agricultural workers; by 2002, that number had fallen to 1.9% of the labor force. It is easy to see that this 20th Century megatrend has impacted rural America to a far greater extent than their urban counterparts.
It is not hard to discern how this happened. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the industry relied upon horses and mules for the heavy lifting around the farm; these animals, which required care and feeding as well, were replaced by about 5 million tractors and other vehicles and implements. This mechanization, along with improved methodologies, has driven farm consolidation; while the number of farms in the USA has dropped 63%, the average farm size has increased by 67%. Additionally, in 1930, about one-third of farmers earned off-farm income; 70 years later, that number was 93%.
The impact on rural American has not only been devastating in terms of population, but culture. In 1900, about 60% of rural Americans were farmers; the number is about 20% now, and 10% in BB. Once culturally dominate in rural communities, they are now relegated to the sidelines. Anecdotally, when I grew up in a farm community in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, farmers occupied the key roles in government around the county, including commissioners and school board members; that is seldom the case now.
This is another national megatrend that was out of the control of rural American communities, and characterizes the nature of our demise. No one is to blame, it is all a part of living in a small community with wide open spaces.
Next week, I will take a deep dive into the dramatic increase in government regulations which has further strained rural American businesses, driving many of them to close down or to sell to larger companies. It is another key factor in why BB is shrinking.