Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Great Plains Face Daunting Challenges

August 21, 2006

Consider this. From Montana and North Dakota on the north, to Texas and New Mexico in the south, between the Rockies on the west and the tall grass prairies in the east, is the area known as the Great Plains. It is America's outback or steppes - an essentially treeless expanse defined by short grass and short rainfalls of less than 20 inches a year. Though encompassing a 6th of the land mass of the contiguous United States, it is home to only 6.5 million people or about a 40th of the US population.

There is a reason for that. It has the hottest summers, coldest winters, largest daily and weekly temperature swings, strongest inland winds, most severe droughts and paralyzing blizzards, the worst hailstorms and most locusts. Though it can be tremendously productive, its fragile ecology is fickle and often drives people from the land.

This summer is an example of that. The Great Plains states are bearing the brunt of summer drought conditions that are stressing people and the land to the limit. If fact, drought conditions are probably the greatest single threat to the agriculturally dependent and fragile economies of the Great Plains.

The Homestead Acts of 1862 and the early 1900s lured land hungry immigrants and other settlers to the plains in great numbers. The land was over settled and the "bust" cycles proved it. Soil conditions and a lack of water in some areas are unforgiving competitive liabilities.

Technology and capital have replaced human labor. People fleeing the land is most intense in agricultural areas where the few can now do the work of many. Without a dynamic manufacturing or service sector there aren’t many choices for employment for people leaving agriculture.

Young people and young families leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere. This selective and continuous out-migration has a cumulative effect. In many places, there are more deaths than births.

The heyday of the Great Plains was in the 1880s, 1920s and after World War II. Since then, there has been a continuous population decline. In Nebraska from 1980 to 1990, 50 of 52 counties west of the 98th meridian lost population. So did 38 of North Dakota's 41 western counties and 22 of Oklahoma's 23 counties.

This wasn't just a product of the farm crisis. In a study of 478 Great Plains counties, sociologists Richard Rathge and Paula Highman of North Dakota State University found that from 1950 to 1990, 38 percent of the counties had a continuous decline in population while only 8 percent consistently grew. The counties that suffer the most decline are the smallest, the poorest and the most remote.

Rutgers University social scientists, Frank and Deborah Popper suggest that the decline is so bad that the region ought to be converted back to buffalo and national preserves that would attract tourism. Buffalo Commons!

According to Rathge, the Poppers, sociologist Leonard Bloomquist at Kansas State University and Calvin Beale, a demographer with the U.S.D.A., the Great Plains counties that are most likely to experience decline:

- are agriculturally dependent

- have a higher percentage of elderly

- have lower levels of education

- lack manufacturing and service businesses

- have few economic connections with other communities

- geographic isolation

- have a low population density - less than two people per square mile

- have declining retail sales and few building permits

- see a rise of regional trade centers with consolidated and centralized services.

The social consequences of population decline. The loss of people spurs a vicious cycle of an ever-shrinking economy which in turn pressures further out-migration. Besides the shrinking economy, strain is put on the community’s vitality and institutions. Schools, hospitals, medical services, social services, churches and governments have to cope with shrinking revenues and clientele. The costs of providing needed services rises. Vital services for the elderly are often in short supply.

Dual income families and off-farm employment also take its toll. Increased commuting to work or for shopping, children's activities, entertainment or specialized services takes energy and time.

Consequently, there are fewer and fewer people to volunteer their time for the community functions which are the heart and soul of rural life. As the leadership and volunteer pools shrink, leaders in small communities become more subject to burnout. Greater and greater demands are placed on those who remain and care about the quality of community life.

Why do people stay? To understand the tenacity of the Great Plains, you have to understand the strong bonds and love people have for agriculture itself, their family heritage on the land, and close associations they have with relatives, friends and neighbors. They also enjoy a deep sense of belonging in their local community and with their church congregations.

When the economics are decent, these things are wonderful. When the economics of the region hurt, there are few answers but to hang on and hope for the best. This is one of those years.