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Rural critical mass

By Dave Carter

Critical mass.

The term describes the amount of molecular material necessary to begin the chain reaction necessary for a nuclear explosion.

Anyone concerned about the fabric of rural America today ought to be concerned about critical mass. Not from a sense of molecular matter and nuclear explosions. The critical mass in question concerns the existence of farms and ranches owned and operated by independent family producers.

“Family farm” was once the catchphrase of America farm policy. The preamble of every farm bill paid homage to preserving and protecting the family farm. Politicians, likewise, peppered their speeches with references to saving the family farm. The concept carried with it a series of notions concerning hard work, thrift, neighborliness and community.

The phrase fell out of favor somewhere along the way. Critics began to scoff at the phrase as referring to some sort of notion of rural yeomen with 40 acres and a mule. The steady erosion of family farms began to be accepted not as a symptom of rural decay, but instead as a sign of economic progress. Each year, we patted ourselves on the back for adding another 5-10 people to the roster of individuals fed by each farmer.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1998 report on Rural Conditions and Trends, the production of agricultural commodities accounts for only 5.6 percent of the food and fiber sector’s $1 trillion contribution to the American Gross Domestic Production. Food manufacturing and distribution, meanwhile, accounts for 61 percent of the food and fiber sector revenues.

The Colorado Crop and Livestock Reporting Service, meanwhile, reported that 96 “farms” in Colorado account for more than 51 percent of the state’s agricultural output.

In other words, we are rapidly replacing a rural structure composed of large numbers of independent farms with a handful of industrial operations catered toward the needs of the manufacturing and distribution sector.

Which brings me to the concept of critical mass. What happens when we lose the critical mass of producers necessary to sustain a viable agricultural-based economy? What happens to the local Main Street? What happens to our local schools, churches and volunteer organizations?

The National Center on Additions and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University just released a study revealing startling information about drug use among rural youth. According to CASA, eighth graders living in rural America are 104 percent likelier to use amphetamines than those are in urban areas, and 50 percent likelier to use cocaine.

Perhaps a rise in rural drug use is inevitable as transportation and communication technologies eliminate the barriers between rural and urban communities. But the cause may run deeper.

The numbers of latchkey children increased over the past two decades as producers were forced to seek off-farm employment to subsidize their operations.

Meanwhile, the sense of neighborliness similarly declined. We no longer know whether the folks that bought up the old abandoned farmhouse down the lane are simply reclusive entrepreneurs running some sort of internet business from their home, or whether they are running some type of amphetamine lab out in the barn.

A growing number of farmers and ranchers recognize that we are rapidly losing the critical mass to sustain what once made our rural communities a special place to live. Those producers are packing up in preparation for a trip to Washington, D.C. to join farmers and ranches from around the country for a Rally for Rural America March 21. They want to send a collective message: Rural America needs help.

They will be rallying for a new farm policy that reduces the damaging price volatility for agricultural commodities.

They will rally for stronger enforcement of anti-trust policies designed to protect a competitive marketplace. And, they will rally for international trade policies that benefit the independent producer, and not just the international corporations purchasing the products of the independent producers.

Farmers at the rally hope to be joined by members of organized labor, consumer organizations and environmental groups. That’s good, because it takes more than just farmers and ranchers to achieve the critical mass necessary to send a message today.