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Published November 02, 2010, 07:27 AM

Farmers no longer have the region to themselves

If you’re closely connected to agriculture on the Northern Plains, you’ve almost certainly come to this unpleasant conclusion: A growing number of area residents know little about ag and care even less.

By: Jonathan Knutson,

If you’re closely connected to agriculture on the Northern Plains, you’ve almost certainly come to this unpleasant conclusion: A growing number of area residents know little about ag and care even less.

My epiphany — a fancy word for a sudden insight or revelation — came eight or nine years ago during a conversation with an area businessman. He complained that North Dakota State University barns and livestock are adjacent to Hector International Airport, a well-run, growing airport in north Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city.

“It’s just terrible. People fly into town for the first time, and right away when they leave the airport they see a bunch of barns and animals,” he said in disgust.

I politely pointed out the obvious: Agriculture is crucial to the region’s economy and those barns and livestock represent a big part of what we do and who we are.

“Maybe so,” he said. “But that stuff makes us look like hicks living in the 19th century.”

From my perspective, he was being silly.

From his perspective — he had a big-city background and was a newcomer to the Northern Plains — his complaint probably made perfect sense.

The point is, a growing number of people in the region think like him, while fewer think like me.

North Dakota has lost about 88,000 rural residents and gained about 84,000 urban residents since 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. (The official explanation of what constitutes rural and urban is way too complicated to summarize here.)

The same trend, though less pronounced, exists in Minnesota and South Dakota. Montana, in contrast, is adding rural residents faster than urban ones. But keep that in perspective. Judging by U.S. Census Bureau maps, most of the rural growth is coming near the mountains. And from what Montana ranchers tell me, most of the newcomers have little interest in production agriculture.

Empathy for agriculture

The real issue, of course, isn’t where people live. It’s whether they have a strong connection with ag — and folks who fit that description are fast reaching minority status in the region.

The way things seem to be going, farmers and ranchers on the Northern Plains will end up as strangers in their own land.

We can skip any nostalgic nonsense about the glories of life back when ag ruled the prairies. Just ask the folks who lugged around heavy milk pails in the days before automation.

Even if we could go back, we shouldn’t. The region needs to continue to diversify economically. Production ag remains vital, but it’s only part of the answer.

That said, farmers, ranchers and other agriculturalists increasingly need to explain their perspective and defend their interests. Most folks in ag are doing a good job of that. For those who aren’t, here are a few respectfully submitted suggestions:

n Make your case calmly, logically and without personal attacks.

n Take every opportunity to promote agriculture to the general public. That includes working with the news media. (Self-serving advice, I know, but sound nonetheless. )

n Try to understand urban residents’ viewpoint. Sometimes it’s valid. Even when it’s not, there’s usually a measure of truth in it. The businessman complaining about the barns and livestock adjacent to the airport wasn’t completely off base; some people arriving in North Dakota for the first time probably are taken aback.

So keep standing up for ag. Just remember that you won’t always prevail. Given the prairie’s changing demographics, you shouldn’t expect to.

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