As agriculture continues to evolve in the Midwest, the impact of this evolution on rural communities is increasingly becoming fodder for community discussion. At the core of the discussion is the often unspoken concern that rural communities are dying because youth are not returning to the communities. In any survey of rural communities that I’ve seen, the declining rate of youth returning to the community ranks high as a concern of the citizens.
One of the challenges rural communities face is that parents in rural communities often send their children to college with the expectation that they will have more opportunities as a result of having a college education. In addition, the often unspoken message is that the parents want the youth to succeed without having to ‘work as hard as we did’.
Add to this the fact that the rural youth often meet and marry a partner who doesn’t have rural roots or expectations. Upon graduation, it becomes a major lifestyle change for these partners (often wives) to move to rural communities where employment opportunities are less, where shopping and services are vastly different, etc. Finally, many rural community citizens fail to recognize that today’s generation of potentially returning youth have many more opportunities for employment and lifestyle than previous generations.
Gary Hachfeld, Ag Business Management Extension Educator at the University of Minnesota has compiled information from the Minnesota Farm Business Management programs and the Minnesota Farm Business Association regarding the cost of living in rural communities. In his studies, he has examined the cost of living as reported by cooperating families, and translated this cost into the number of livestock or acres for given commodities that it takes to earn this cost of living.
For 2007, the average cost of living for cooperating families in 24 south central and south west Minnesota counties was $74,804. This living expense was for an average family size of 3.4 persons and includes all non-farm capital purchases, taxes, investments, etc.
Gone are the days when a family could be reared on a ¼ or ½ section of land. Using the 5 year average net return, including government payments, Gary estimates that in 2007 the farm family would have to have approximately 464 acres of corn and 464 acres of soybeans or a total of 928 acres of row crops to meet this expense.
On the other hand, a contract finishing facility could equate to this living expense if a total 16,586 pigs were finished each year. This number of pigs doesn’t account for the current high value to a cash grain enterprise of the associated manure from the pork production enterprise. In 2007, it took 127 dairy cows to earn the average family living expense.
When you look at these large numbers, you begin to recognize the challenge to youth returning to rural communities. New college graduates don’t have access to capital to begin farming 640 acres of land, especially considering that this coming year I’ve heard many estimates of over $400 per acre in costs to plant an acre of corn.
Livestock was often the traditional method used by our parents and grandparents to establish a farming enterprise. The challenge today is that many in rural communities are resistant to animal ag. Yet, the opportunity to construct and operate a contract swine production unit offers many young people the chance to invest in animal agriculture. This investment is backed by a 10-12 year production contract that allows the young family to borrow the necessary capital to enter into a farming enterprise.
If rural communities continue to resist animal agriculture, the data suggests that they will continue to decline in numbers. As Dave Hansen, former president of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association once said – it would only take 10-20 large farmers to farm all of Cedar County, Nebraska (280,000 tillable acres) – why should our rural communities even exist.
Without livestock, there is no need for a population base to support the agriculture system that feed grain farming is evolving towards. Without livestock, where are the opportunities for youth to return to rural communities and invest in their future?