[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

A week ago I was able to organize a small group of friends to attend a fine, relatively intimate event at Sterling College, a small Christian liberal arts college in Kansas (much like my own). The event, titled “Virtues of Place: Wendell Berry and Rural Kansas” was really two events, but I just want to talk about the first, a panel discussion with Front Porch Republic’s website guru Jeff Bilbro and his friend and colleague Jack Baker–who have together written a fine book on education and Berry’s thought–along with Aubrey Streit Krug, the Director of Ecosphere Studies at The Land Institute in Salina, KS. Many ideas came up in that discussion; let me focus on one of them.

The panel was a guided discussion about what it means to pursue “placeness”–that is, to develop a truly sustainable attachment to and affection for the social, economic, and culture characteristics of where one lives, works, and builds one’s family or community–in small rural towns, where the extractive farming economy of the past half-century has led to consolidation and de-population in equal measure. While the panelists had thoughtful things to say about the sorts of narratives we need to share to prioritize the value of finding worth in one’s own situation, rather than always seeking another, they never could entirely extract themselves from the economic. After all, it is one thing to hold to Wendell Berry’s call to be a “sticker,” to learn to inhabit and love one’s own place, as he laid it out in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, when one’s place is sufficiently connected or culturally rich  or filled with employment opportunities, so as be able to withstand the effects which distant corporate or governmental centralization might have on one’s livelihood. But what about Sterling? A population of a little over 2000, a median income below both the American and the Kansas average, a poor farming town, with the only non-agricultural employer of any size (besides Sterling College itself) being Jacam Chemical, a chemical manufacturer which started in Sterling in 1982 but relocated its headquarters to the comparative metropolis of Wichita (metro area population: 645,000), more than an hour away, decades ago? What can Berry’s ideas teach to such a community about sustainability?

Jeff was pretty frank in his comments, when pushed to the point. As important as reframing our understanding of place may be–especially for young people and college students!–it is admittedly simply difficult to think about the virtues of place in Sterling, or thousands of other small rural communities spread across the country, when the very real financial constraints which the people who want to live in such places confront on a daily basis are not being addressed. (The fact that the heartfelt efforts of numerous rural Republicans and Democrats across the state to once again attempt to get the Republican leadership in Topeka to allow a vote of Medicaid expansion, which medical workers and a hospital administrators in Kansas are nearly unanimous in praying for as the best option for keeping health care available in isolated, rural communities like Sterling, went down once more to defeat the same week as this symposium, probably should have received some comment, but it didn’t.) Jeff emphasized that he didn’t think at all that material variables were the only or even the most important ones when it comes to being able to build attachments to a place–but they probably are, at the very least, necessary ones.

In thinking about that necessary work, I couldn’t help but think about a former student of mine who came up to Sterling with us: Nick Pohlenz, a man who has studied theology and philosophy and how to brew beer, and now makes his living running a sawmill. I had him come to speak to one of my classes once about his experiences, and on the drive from Wichita to Sterling, he talked about what his own work–specifically, strengthening his small mill’s ability to productively reach into those regional niches where the sort of wood they can most profitably cut and process (black walnut in particular) is available in batches which they can buy, transport, and handle–can provide to a small town like Sterling. Black walnut, and regional trees like Osage orange trees and the like, are primarily found in river bottoms or other low-lying areas–areas which many farmers, seeking to level their land so as to take advantage of the economies of scale which industrial agriculture presumes, will often plow under, burn out, or just cut and leave in massive brush piles. Major milling operations, looking to sell lumber to China or other distant locales, will be quick to spot large stands of such timber, and major farming operations will similarly be quick to calculate into their offers to buy up neighboring farms such possible profits. But what about small or mid-sized farms, particularly those owned by families or individuals that would really rather hold on to their parents’ or grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ farm, even if they have to work other jobs in the area (or commute all the way to nearest city of any size) to supplement their income sufficient to pay the bills? To paraphrase, as close as I can remember, Nick’s comment as we drove into Sterling:

Over the past couple of years, this has become a crucial win-win for us: to come into these small rural farming [or, I would add, post-farming] communities, and get to the local landowners, and offer to buy and clear out a small stand of timber on their property. If we’re just talking about a typical isolated patch in a bottom area, we’d only be looking at a few thousand dollars. A big farming operation wouldn’t bother listening to us; to them, $3000 is an insurance payment on their combine. They’ll just plow it under. But how often do you think some of these local landowners have seen a couple of thousand dollars? Not often enough! They’ll take it, and we’ll take the wood, which will be more than enough to us to mill or woodwork enough product to satisfy our local clientele for some time. Bringing our business to these small towns is essential to our whole operation.

To think both practically as well as politically about what Nick’s experience with Elderslie Woodworks suggests, I think we can see several factors at work. America’s small farming towns and the food producers that try to keep them functioning, to ever escape total domination (and thus, probably, eventually, total automation), need small-scale enterprises that can productively bring wealth into their places. The businesses must be small-scaled for a very practical reason: those businesses which are scaled to take advantage of the global flows of capital which exist today simply won’t be able to profitably approach locaql operators who prefer to resist large-scale transformations–like, say, refusing to simply sell or consolidate their whole 40 acre or 400 acre plot. (Interestingly, one critical voice at the panel discussion was a local farmer who proudly defended her ability to be able to run a successful 4000-acre soybean operation, without, to her mind, any of the “placelessness” which the panel was addressing. It’s fair to hear her challenges, of course–but it’s also worth asking her, and thousands of other farmers who have accepted the gospel of “get big or get out” for decades, why she felt it so important to insist that we have “progressed” beyond the supposedly dangerous dream of a financially viable farm operating on a mere 50-acre plot.)

There is also a political reality here as well–defending mid-sized regional cities, ones large enough to develop enough specialized wealth so as to make local artisan work actually profitable, but also not so large as to crowd out the ability of small businesses to fit within their operating expenses outreach to and work within the small communities that exist within the regional cities orbit. True, certain sorts of small businesses have been able to maintain ties with small rural towns and the resources they offer even in the midst of huge urban agglomerations–but not many, and even fewer that actually make use of what those small rural towns can offer from out of their natural resources. And that, of course, takes us back to the whole theme of the symposium. For as the second event of the day, an evening presentation by Jeff and Jack about their argument for rethinking the university along the lines of “place-ness,” made very clear: however specialized or abstract any of our work or our thinking may become, there is simply no superior alternative for building up the virtue of affection for a way and a place of life than involving oneself in the ground one walks upon: farming it, planting gardens in it, recognizing its needs and enjoying its health.

It is an interesting reality that in a market economy that has moved beyond mere subsistence, it may well be that continuing to make possible the rural small town depends upon those small towns being in a relationship with a wealth generating urban center. But then, perhaps it has always been that way? Perhaps the idea that the rural farmland wasn’t a relational (and thus somewhat restricting) necessity to local urban space, but rather was purely a natural (and thus extractable) resource that any urban place–the bigger the better!–anywhere in the world could make use was just an aberrant thought, one which global capitalism and cheap oil made us believe? Well, however one construes it, keeping in mind that rebuilding a sense of place will probably also mean rebuilding a sense of mutual obligation between different types of places is an important lesson, I think. I am grateful for Sterling College and my friends for helping me to see it this week.

10 COMMENTS

  1. This is an interesting article. My family farmed in Sterling, Kansas for generations. I grew up in the nearby county seat of Lyons (pop. 3700), and after college, lived in Wichita and now in Washington, DC. There are many things that I miss about small-town Kansas, but in my experience, the disparity between economic opportunities in rural and urban places has grown to the point that if you have a real choice, choosing the rural opportunity depends upon one either not needing income, or being willing and able to pay a significant “opportunity cost premium.” Of course, there are all sorts of trade-offs and sacrifices that come along with urban places, too. I wish that the opportunity cost premium for small towns didn’t exist (or was less significant), because I know that many people in urban places would choose to live in a rural place if it were closer to an apples-to-apples comparison.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mark, and in particular thanks for sharing your experience with Sterling. Your framing of the “opportunity costs” involved in investing one’s life in such a (given the technological and economic realities of our moment) limited rural space is a good one–even when persuaded of the value of such limits, the up front costs, in terms of life choices, can be huge. Hence the need to address the incomes of those who dedicate themselves to small rural towns. Of course, that’s not sufficient–you have to do the persuasion as well, and that’s probably even harder to pull off. But if you can’t ever address the income disparity on any level, than persuasion probably won’t ever have a chance, or so I suspect.

  2. Adding 150,00 more enrollees to Kansas Medicaid would bring the total to about 500,000 enrollees in a state of about 3 million in all. Perhaps the notion of “opportunity cost” could be applied to the health care needs of rural Kansans, Medicare/Medicaid and otherwise, by determining a more cost-effective way to “provide access” to a pre-existing full service medical center in addition to providing “urgent care” or “primary care” in towns/area of need. Medicare/Medicaid issues not withstanding, the town of Washington, Missouri where I live is a viable model. Specialists are “clustered” here and “outreach clinics” exist in surrounding communities staffed by family physicians and support staff. The longest drive to Washington is about an hour. Additionally, most “specialists” rotate hours actually being in the outreach clinics for assessment and non-urgent consultation. When I lived on Rossville, Kansas some time ago a family doctor was 7 miles one way and the hospitals in Topeka provided whatever specialist services I needed just an hour away the other way. Back to Medicaid, though, my experience with government bureaucracy and politician-designed “medical services delivery models,” such as the Veteran Administration, has led me to believe that replicating and expanding the existing models does not address the underlying need nor the ever-increasing cost of funding the model which is itself ever-increasing and extractive. Finally, I too have lived without health insurance for a time and understand its necessity, but the more I deal with my present provider which is a HMO and works, versus assorted government-run programs all I can say is that there has to be a better way than what we are presently doing to provide access to adequate health care to those who live in small towns on purpose. Opportunity cost of doing so be damned, and hopefully mitigated, at least in terms of one factor important to those to live in and appreciate what they offer rather than what they don’t

    • Some fair arguments, Leroy. Some of the points you make are, I think, not so much a challenge to Medicaid expansion as a challenge to how a place like Kansas (a state with a rural population that is shrinking and aging relative to most other parts of the United States) can provide reliable medical care to its citizens at all, whether through private insurers, the ACA marketplace, or some hypothetical Medicare for All future. I can tell you that the opinion of medical professionals, social workers, and ordinary citizens throughout rural Kansas are pretty uniform: while Medicare expansion would be no panacea, and would certainly contribute to long-term cost problems, there simply is no other currently workable system that would prevent some rural counties from being much more than an hour away from the specialized medical services which rural hospitals provide. Add to the fact that a good number of the people in those rural counties are older and of limited mobility (either because of handicaps or because they lived on fixed incomes and have only one vehicle, which might be in use out in the fields at the time of an emergency, etc.), and I think the case is strong for expansion, even if (and I think you’re correct) it does not fundamentally address the whole underlying problems.

  3. I’m originally from Haviland, down between Greensburg and Pratt. If I were ever to leave Montana, I’d like to go back to rural Kansas or Nebraska. Seems to me that there’s a bit of a Catch-22 here. If more people moved back, then more local possibilities for mitigating things like healthcare problems could emerge, bill-sharing groups, ride-sharing groups, etc…. But, none of that can happen unless people think they can pay the opportunity cost to go back…and so it goes. To me, the hazards (or what I’d consider such) associated with government health care are that, if I were to go back, I’d simply regard a difficult healthcare scenario and possibly reduced life-span as part of the inevitable opportunity cost. Institutional improvements will have to follow people, not the reverse.

    • Your Catch-22 is pretty apt, Aaron. In the first case, I am strongly doubtful that you could ever get a sufficiently critical mass of people (relevant to the size of towns like Sterling, Haviland, Greensburg, Pratt, etc.) so as to be able to make a true “sense of place” really viable for the town as a whole if you’re going to depend solely on people willing to take on what you call the “inevitable opportunity costs” in regards to medical care, etc. I mean, the occasional tough-minded individual, sure–but families with small children? Or grown children caring for elderly parents? But then, in the second case, you’re probably not wrong that, simply as a matter of generating the political will for such changes, whether they involve government programs or not, there really would have to be some “pioneers” as it were: folks willing to say “Yes, my quality of life will probably suffer in some real ways by moving there, but I am financially able to, so I’m going to, come what may.” Your final sentence, about institutions following people, is certainly correct.

  4. “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.” -GKC
    – Two thousand people is pretty small, it may indeed not be a critical mass in today’s world, but the town isn’t in complete isolation.
    – One hour from a major city is not exactly out in the middle of nowhere. Plenty of people, even in the Northeast which isn’t nearly as big and “empty” as the Midwest / West, have to travel that far for non-basic medical care.
    – I’m not quite sure what it means that the median income is a bit less than average, since that’s not sufficient to determine what the quality of life, even just economically, is for residents. Would you rather make $40K in Sterling, or $100K in Los Angeles? Clearly the former.
    – I was a bit surprised at how high house values on zillow are there. I was expecting to see plenty of housing listings in the $50K-100K range, which is what you can see in struggling towns in the Northeast, but they’re quite a bit higher, so something is maintaining property values–lack of supply? The college? Closeness to Wichita?
    – Having a college in town should be a major benefit, because it gives the town a way to keep / attract young people, which is something that most towns don’t have. There should be an opportunity to work with the college to have them foster and promote entrepreneurship in students, as long as it’s carefully done in a way that doesn’t crowd out natural, organic, entrepreneurship.
    – When people founded Sterling, it wasn’t because there were jobs there, it was because they wanted to build something of their own there. That’s the mindset we need to rebuild. No one should ever say “there are no jobs here” without getting smacked. A relevant quote to finish up:
    “Never pathologize (bounded) failure. Pathologize the refusal to try.”

    • Insofar as access to health care is concerned, having lived in Kansas I feel there is essentially a need for two basic delivery models.” Kansas has three “urban clusters” and lots of “open space where people ain’t” and that’s a confounding factor in Medicaid expansion policy. Like it or not, the reality of “get the vote” politics and policy development goes along party lines. For both parties, however, it seems to be anathema to acknowledge the inefficiency of government-managed health care and come up with a “digital age” model similar to that of the Mercy model for access to health care which I mentioned in my earlier reply. My records are available anywhere I can access the internet as is my ability to schedule an appointment or have a “virtual office visit.” At first I was reluctant to utilize a nurse practitioner for minor concerns but my personal experience has been good, and, using a nurse practitioner frees up my MD internist’s office appointment hours. Medicaid policy and issues notwithstanding, establishing relatively inexpensive neighborhood clinics that offer 24/7 access in rural and urban communities would indeed also take the load off urban emergency rooms being used by people who need a lower level of care but it isn’t available or they chose not to use for a variety of reasons including no sanction for doing what is convenient rather than efficient and more cost-effective. Finally, when it comes to Medicaid it seems that those who support it do so without regard to the shortcomings of the model. That includes those who want to keep “their own little hospital” even though people drive right past it to full service hospitals in urban centers or population clusters. The mobility of our society makes access to specialized services more and more possible both ways regardless of population density. Visiting nurses, for instance provide follow-on care on site and bridge the gap between patient and provider. In my family we have recently used the specialists of an urban center 50 miles away and upon release used a visiting nurse for follow-on care in lieu of extended hospitalization. Is that a perfect model, I don’t know, but I believe to keep doing what we have been doing perpetuates inefficiency, fraud, corruption, dissatisfaction on both ends, user and provider, and. myriad other reasons why substantive change is needed in government-run healthcare instead of expanding what is.

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