Rural Communities Pay the High Cost for Cheap Food

rural railway in northern montana

A few weeks ago I started this series of short essays based on some of the themes from my Grain by Grain book (set to be released on March 5, 2019) on the high cost of cheap food. Today I want to focus on the high cost to our rural communities. This particular high cost comes in three main forms:

  1. The loss of farmers, and their families, to the community;
  2. The resulting loss of small businesses in the community;
  3. And the forever-changing patterns of buying, which is further compounding the problem.

In my first essay, I discussed the commodity mentality that farmers have been hoodwinked into accepting as normal. As grain farmers, we no longer grow food, but commodities. It’s a high-input game and the prize is the highest possible yield without much focus on net income. When commodity prices are high, this system can work. But a drop in commodity prices—like we have seen recently—spells disaster, particularly for the farmers. As a result over the years, farmers have gone broke or just given up and left their farms and communities with little-to-no opportunity for their children to return to take over the family farm. The cost of land and machinery impedes new families from moving in, so the net result is neighbors buy up the land and the rural population declines as farms get bigger and farmers become fewer.

But the loss extends beyond just the farmer: the community also loses the farmer’s family, decreasing vital human talent and resources. This is the glue that holds a community together, adding to its diversity and vitality. What’s more, fewer children attending rural schools reduces the viability of the local education system and schools begin to close, further eliminating teaching and staff jobs and putting even more strain on local businesses struggling to support their own families.

In my lifetime, I have watched this downward spiral in my own hometown of Big Sandy, Montana, which had a population of nearly 1,000 when I was growing up. Today, we have less than 600—that’s almost half of my friends and neighbors gone! And with the drastic reduction in population, local businesses have experienced similar losses. When I was a boy Big Sandy had a car dealership, two hardware stores, a couple of second-hand stores, a jeweler, a dry cleaner, a lumberyard and farm supply store and even a movie theater, all of which are completely gone without the residents to support them.

With the decrease of local commerce, buying habits have changed. Big box discount stores are drawing customers away from their small towns. Recent studies show that 48% of the revenue taken in by local stores stays right there in the community, adding to the local economy and supporting the families of our friends and neighbors. While the local contribution from chain stores is at a floundering 14% and that’s only if the store is in your community, if it isn’t then your community sees almost nothing. And buying habits are changing again—more and more folks are shopping online from large corporations that are often not even in the same state or region, let alone your local community. These types of businesses, whether they’re brick-and-mortar or online, suck money out of their local communities and give nothing in return other than cheap goods. But those cheap goods are coming at a very high cost to the local social and economic fabric.

The driver is all of these social and economic losses to small, rural communities is the quest for cheap food and cheap goods without regard of the cost to those that make them, not to mention the loss of friends and neighbors unable to support their families which results in fewer jobs and smaller communities. It’s really too bad the true price of these cheap goods isn’t listed on the price tag. If it were maybe we would think twice about who and what we really want to support with our purchases. It begs the question:

“How much is our community—our friends and our neighbors—worth to us?”

The answer to that question might make us see the true high cost of cheap and change some of our buying habits.