Tattered Countryside — Part I

July 23, 2008 | 0 comments

This was the first of a four-day series in The Des Moines Register that examined how the decline in family farms frayed the fabric of rural life in Iowa. The series was awarded the 2000 Outstanding Achievement Award by Gannett. The award is given in recognition of the best writing in the annual competition.

March 26, 2000

A decline in farmers transforms Iowa


Manning, Ia. – Elda Ehrichs’ hands shake slightly as she fumbles with an oversized quilting needle.

She leans in closer to inspect her work. “God willing, we’ll keep at it as long as we can,” Ehrichs says as she ties knots in a quilt tended by nine women, ages 71 to 86.

Manning women have met once a week since 1972 to stitch quilts for the poor and the sick. In all, they have made 1,912.

Their acts of charity are as deeply Iowan as the family farms from which they came. Both their craft and their farms, however, are endangered.

Something vital is missing on the farms and at the quilt racks: others who will take over.

Family farming, as Iowa knew it in the 20th century, is irreversibly gone. A countryside dotted with 160-acre farms, each with its house and barn and vegetable garden, has all but disappeared.

The profound change has significance far beyond economics. It is altering Iowa dramatically, in ways not yet fully known. At stake is a way of life wound tightly around a way of doing business.

“We will not be tied to the land, to the soil, to the environment as a culture,” said Vern Ryan, a rural sociologist from Iowa State University. “Family farming gives Iowa a certain sense of uniqueness, and hopefully pride. When we lose it, it really becomes a question of what we will become over the generations.”


In Iowa towns without movie theaters or fancy eateries, residents have built their communities around simple pleasures -church-basement potlucks, ice-cream socials, Fourth of July parades and quilting bees.

“All of that is still going on, but it has greatly declined,” said Paul Lasley, another ISU rural sociologist. “Is it possible we are creating a rural culture where no one wants to live anymore? I think so.”

In places like Manning, a whole town cheers wildly for a tournament-bound girls’ basketball team. A week later, the same town finds itself weeping alongside a grieving farm widow.

Manning is one small Iowa town, like hundreds of others, tied to the farmland around it.
Residents are stitched together by common goals and shared values.

In some ways, the town of 1,484 defies the fraying social fabric of Iowa’s rural landscape. It has retained its own independent school and six churches.

But the forces at work across Iowa, as farming faces its second economic crisis in a generation, are present here. Of the 35 graduates in Manning’s Class of 1999, one stayed in town.

Sunday offerings at some Manning churches have fallen. Pastors blame the farm economy.

The strong work ethic and rich character that have helped preserve Manning are symbols of what the whole state loses when family farms die.

“Much of what is viewed as good in rural America has been described as family farms and small-town life,” Lasley said.

Many of the Iowa schools that educated children from small farms closed. So have churches and stores where families worshipped and shopped. Main streets -which once had traffic jams on Saturday afternoons -are deserted. Young Iowa farmers have gone the way of horse-drawn plows.

So have young farmers’ wives at Quilting Day.

Farm women now work in town to help pay the mounting bills. Unprecedented numbers of Iowa farmers -almost 40 percent -now get most of their income from jobs off the farm, according to 1997 statistics.

Even more farmers than that hold second jobs. The possibility of farm life for their unborn descendants, in many ways, looks dismal.

Still, the world will always need Iowa, its skilled farmers and the state’s 35.8 million acres of rich soil. Economists agree that some farm families will continue to live in Iowa’s countryside. They will be fewer, and the way they work the land will be different. Their farms will be bigger.

Increasingly, the farmers will work under contract for agribusiness companies. Others will find niches to keep their independent operations alive.

“Iowa is perhaps the most productive piece of ground on earth, with its natural resources, its climate and its people,” said Dennis Keeney, who retired recently as founding director of ISU’s Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “We will continue to have the natural resources, but we probably won’t have the people because we won’t need them” to operate an industrialized agriculture system.

Agriculture pumps tens of billions of dollars into Iowa’s economy every year. Iowa leads the country in efficiency and production of hogs, corn and soybeans. And, although commodity prices have been depressed over the past two years and most likely will stay low for the next two years, the 1990s were a more prosperous decade than the 1980s.

Small farmers, though, are steeped in bushels of gloom. Many of them have not shared in the prosperity, even with the help of the federal government. The latest slump in commodity prices has led to a wave of independent farmers leaving the land at a pace unmatched since the 1980s farm crisis.

The changes are robbing farmers of their occupation’s most valued perk: independence.

Big farms with more than $250,000 in annual sales make up the bulk of U.S. agriculture sales, and the share is growing.

“Their role as independent entrepreneurs is endangered,” said Neil Harl, an ISU agricultural economist. “It means even less income for them. It means less management by them. It is the road to serfdom.”

The number of farms in Iowa has dropped to 91,000 -fewer than half the number in 1950.

The change in farming mirrors the reality of almost every other type of industry. Banks are merging. Insurance companies are growing ever larger. Newspapers are controlled by fewer companies. In Iowa no other industry has influenced the state’s values more than farming.

Iowa’s rural roots have been proudly displayed on highway signs at the state borders. The state slogan, etched into the signs, once touted Iowa as “A Place to Grow.” That had as much to do with raising families as it did with raising crops.

In Manning and across Iowa, many farm families are finding ways to preserve their way of life. Statistics show that others are unable to do the same.

“Agriculture will continue, and a few people will make a lot of money, but we will have lost a way of life,” said Carroll County Extension Director Dennis Molitor. As farmers begin their spring planting -eternally a season of optimism in Iowa -an undercurrent of uncertainty permeates Manning in the southwestern corner of Carroll County.

Who will sow the seeds in the years ahead? Who will sew the quilts?

The number of quilters who show up on Thursday afternoons at the Zion Lutheran Church dwindles -an illustration of what is happening to the traditions and values Iowa has held dear. Even with arthritis and bad backs, the women still manage three quilts a week, made of mismatched curtains, polyester pants and donated yarn.

There is little doubt among the quilters what will become of their time-honored craft. Rozora Schroeder, 77, answers the question matter-of-factly as she cuts brown and orange fabric into perfect squares for a quilt.

“When we’re gone, I imagine it will die.”


An earthen quilt, tended by fewer and fewer farmers each year, rolls south of Manning toward the country lane of the Ahrendsen home.

On a lonely county highway in the bluish light of sunrise stands Aaron Ahrendsen, 9, with a Scooby-Doo backpack. His school bus crests the hill on time, at 7:24 a.m.

The bus, with 44 seats, seems too large for the rural route on which he lives. Only three seats are occupied after Aaron boards. The bus travels 8 miles each morning before it picks up a fourth passenger.

The town cafe crowd -retired farmers who share coffee and stories for an hour every morning -bemoan the sparseness of rural Manning. The farmers remember an era when a couple dozen children hopped on the school bus along the same road.

When the old farmers were growing up, more than 200,000 farms blanketed Iowa’s countryside. In 1996, the number of Iowa farms fell below 100,000 for the first time in the 20th century.

1996 also was the year Aaron proudly donned a farm cap and flannel shirt for a first-grade class project on careers. He told his parents he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up, just like Dad.

This is a boy who sprints first for the farm-machinery displays at the Iowa State Fair. He has never stepped on the midway to ride the double Ferris wheel. He gets a charge out of climbing in every combine and peeking inside the huge grain wagons parked at the fairgrounds.

“I’ve told him he can do what he wants to, but I’ve also told him already that he’ll have to have a second job if he wants to farm,” said the boy’s father, Glen Ahrendsen. “People keep talking about family farms and about saving the family farm. It’s gone already. It’s just gone.”


The changes in agriculture are siphoning the traditional lifeblood from small towns -young farmers and their families. Rural experts predict the worst fate for Iowa towns that have relied on agriculture.

“The small towns will continue to wither and die,” said John Ikerd, a University of Missouri economist.

In reality, a scarce few Iowa towns have died -four in the past decade, according to census figures.

Many, indeed, have withered. In those places, little but the grain elevator, post office and perhaps a tavern remain. Between 1980 and 1990, a period when thousands of Iowans lost their farms, small towns lost their people.

By the time the 1990 census rolled around, 22,177 fewer residents lived in Iowa towns with populations less than 1,000 than in 1980. Iowa’s overall population is among the slowest-growing in the nation. While metropolitan areas such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids are growing, rural counties continue to lose population as young people move elsewhere.

Regional centers in Iowa will survive, perhaps thrive, rural experts predict. The outlook for Iowa’s smallest communities looks grim.

“The towns will be largely boarded up, with a few retirees and some people hanging on to service the big farms,” said Keeney, the former Leopold Center director.

The exodus has dramatic effects on the people who remain. Schools and churches consolidate. Youth groups and 4-H clubs shrink or disappear. Businesses close. Neighborhoods become temporary stopping points for residents looking for cheap housing.

“We no longer know each other, and we don’t share each other’s stories,” ISU’s Lasley said. “In the past, we may not like our neighbors, but at least we knew them. We’re creating a culture where people no longer trust each other.”

In small-town Iowa, trust has been defined by handshake deals and unlocked doors. Manning has defied the odds. The town of about 1,500 is still a place where no one is a stranger. Only one storefront on Main Street sits empty. Downtown parking spots are hard to find on weekdays. The school has avoided consolidation. Service clubs thrive.

The town’s survival strategy is applauded by rural experts. Manning relentlessly recruits new businesses, some with little or no connection to agriculture.

“We realize that while agriculture was our base, it can’t be the end-all, be-all of our existence anymore,” said Don Luensmann, Manning’s city administrator.


The picture of prosperity in Manning hides something.

Scratch the surface.

You will meet a young farmer abandoning his lifelong ambition and starting a new career at United Parcel Service.

You will meet a debt-ridden farmer who buffs floors to pay the bills. He has almost no retirement plan at age 59.

You will meet a widowed farm wife who will watch a piece of her life disappear at auction two weeks from today.

You will meet a father who watched a life’s dream fade when his two sons quit farming within a year of one another.

In the same town, you will meet people with inspiring tales of perseverance. A few farmers found ways to expand their operations and harvest sizable profits. Others discovered an agricultural niche to keep them on the farms where they were raised. Still others turned to corporate-owned operations for a steady paycheck.

A common thread weaves through all their lives: resolve. They accept the things they cannot change. Then they move on.

“It isn’t a choice,” farmer Glen Ahrendsen explained. “You just adjust to it and make it work.”

Ahrendsen knows about change and how it can arrive like an unexpected hail storm.

One morning two years ago, a sheriff’s deputy pulled into Ahrendsen’s lane.

“Doesn’t anybody live on these farms anymore?” the frustrated deputy asked Ahrendsen. A cow was loose just up the road. The deputy had knocked on four doors in search of the owner.

Ahrendsen knew why no one answered. The four farmers were at work in town.

To his surprise, Ahrendsen would soon become the fifth. At age 58, an Iowa farmer would see about a job at Wal-Mart.

Copyright 2000 Des Moines Register

by | July 23, 2008 | 0 comments


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