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OPINION: Rural is not just relevant — it’s vital

By Heidi Marttila-Losure

Dakotafire Media

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack made headlines last year when he said rural is no longer relevant to the national political conversation. (In his defense, he was arguing that we need to work to make it more so.) For those of us who live here, what is our argument for fighting for the vitality of rural places?

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Consider that China is involved in the opposing fight. Chinese leaders have decided that at the root of China’s slowing economy is the problem of too many rural people: Farmers don’t spend enough, apparently. They don’t have as much money as their urban counterparts, and people who can supply for some of their own needs don’t do as much as urbanites to keep the economy spinning.

Over the next 12 years, China plans to move 250 million people from farms to cities, according to a New York Times article. The land will be sold to corporations, and the farmers are being moved into apartments and given small living stipends, in addition to payoffs when their land is sold.

This strikes me as a prescription for disaster.

It’s not as if this idea hasn’t been tried. The article cites Brazil and Mexico as two nations that had their own urbanization efforts in the last century. Slums and persistent poverty were the result. China has also pushed urbanizing before, in the Maoist Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, which turned into the Great Chinese Famine.

The U.S. has of course had its own urbanizing trends, moving us away from our rural roots. The U.S. was shaped in large part by Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of small landowners, which he saw as the best societal structure for democracy: Small landowners have enough power (by way of their own self-sufficiency) so that they are not at the mercy of all government whims, but enough dependency on their neighbors to encourage cooperation.

The move toward urbanization in the U.S. was perhaps not as orchestrated by government as it is now being mandated by China, but few U.S. farmers could fail to feel the push most clearly stated by Ag Secretary Earl Butz with his “get big or get out” mantra in the 1970s. If they weren’t big enough to “get big,” where else were they to “get out” to but to the cities?

In places where urbanization has been encouraged or forced, unintended consequences have followed. In China now, for example, many of those who moved from the countryside face unemployment — youth kill time in pool halls, and the “old” (one 45-year-old referred to himself as such) play mahjong.

It’s true these people no longer have to do the work of farming — work that can certainly be difficult and tedious — but with the loss of that work they also lost their life’s purpose. Uncelebrated as the job may be, producing food has to happen for society to function. Doing that work is an honorable profession, and farmers, though likely tired at the end of the day, go to sleep knowing they’ve done necessary work.

Can all office workers today say the same? How much paper pushing or widget selling is really necessary, and fulfills that sense of purposefulness that makes life most satisfying? Certainly not all of it. And that assumes uneducated farmers will be able to make the transition to city living. Some, like the 45-year-old mentioned above, are doubtful they will be able to do so.

They have also lost their connection to the land. With landownership comes rootedness and stability; it can serve something of the same role as marriage as a foundation for society.

Wendell Berry spoke about the “unadapted people” that result when country people move to the city, and the problems for society when there are people who no longer “belong” anywhere. That sense of belonging is one prerequisite to community involvement: If you don’t feel like you belong in a place, why should you make it better? It’s like living in a motel instead of a home.

I suppose government isn’t required to make sure its citizens live with some sense of purpose (even “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” doesn’t include a meaningful existence). But one would hope a nation’s leaders would encourage courses of action that are more likely to keep society functioning far into the future.

Having many people on the land does that. It is in essence a massive insurance policy for the country, in that the means to feed the nation resides in many people with varied skill sets, distributed geographically. If one way of farming doesn’t work anymore, someone else likely has a different method; if pests strike one variety of a crop, another farmer’s variety may prove resistant.

Urbanization goes in the opposite direction. The more the knowledge of farming is concentrated in fewer hands, the less resilient the farm sector is likely to be in the face of shocks such as weather, war or the end of cheap oil. In this way, holding up efficiency as a goal is a bad long-term strategy, as it eliminates the redundancy that makes the whole system resilient in the face of change.

Ask the Irish who know their history of the potato famine of the 1840s what happens when a nation puts too much faith in one “efficient” solution to feed its population.

So, what ratio of urban to rural makes for the healthiest society? How’s this for a guideline: Rural places need to be strong enough to provide the rootedness of that gives a society some stability, as well as diverse enough in knowledge and skilled livelihoods to ensure the nation can survive the shocks we know are coming.

That many of us can then live meaningful lives in rural places we’ll count as a bonus.

— Heidi Marttila-Losure lives on and works from Dakota Sisu Farm near Frederick, which has been in the Marttila family for 127 years. She is editor of Dakotafire Media.