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The rural landscape has changed and old ways aren't coming back, so how do we hold on to what we have?

Mychal Wilmes reflects on the way things used to be -- both good and bad -- and how rural areas can hold on to the things and people that still make them special.

A pair of stave silos offer a hint at the dairy farming that once went on at the Don and Sylvia Colby farm near Milnor, North Dakota. Mychal Wilmes says the old ways of rural life and farming weren't all good, but there is good in the rural lifestyle to hold onto. Photo taken Aug. 29, 2017.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek file photo
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A ride along to purchase five Holstein bull calves from a dairy producer in southeastern Minnesota was welcome on a glorious late afternoon when the rolling hills best showed their beauty.

It is a strong dairy area, in contrast to the prairie that the calf buyer and I call home. Silos and barns — to an extent relics of a bygone time — remain in sharp contrast to the large dairy we stopped at. Truckloads of fresh-chopped alfalfa were being transported to the edge of a large pile, where it was packed tight by a four-wheel-drive tractor.

Along the way we talked about how vital dairy used to be across Minnesota. Local stores sold milking equipment and other supplies, and small towns were crowded with cars on weekend nights when checks were cashed, and families came to eat and be entertained.

West Concord — a town of less than 1,000 in the 1950s and now — once had a couple of tractor and car dealers, a clothing store, two hardware stores, two banks, a railroad line, and more. A mural painted on a building’s side depicts Mainstreet circa the 1950s.

It’s a shame, I said, that those days are no more.


“You can say it’s a shame," the pickup driver said, "but they are never going to come back."

There are many reasons why that is so.

Ease of transportation, technology, cost of living, efficiency of scale, and an unstopping exodus of people to metropolitan areas are among the reasons.

Writings dating to the 1980s reveal that I railed against the loss of family farms (a category that remains difficult to define), consolidation in the meatpacking and dairy industries, and the foolishness of federal farm policy that failed in its stated mission to protect family farmers.

Keeping family farmers on the land has been the goal since President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiated the farm program framework in the Great Depression. Supply management through land banks and Conservation Reserve Program sign ups have been tried with mixed success ever since the government moved away from parity pricing formulas.

History suggests that the dominance of diversified farms blossomed only briefly. The driver raised a valid point when he said that we tend to remember the good times more than the bad.

Cultivating row crops four times followed by whacking weeds, sick calves in pneumonia-filled barns, picking frozen silage from silo walls, and dealing with untiled fields was no one’s idea of fun.

Maybe a more reasonable goal is to hang on to what we have. It will not be easy. The public school closed in the early 1990s, and a start-up school that followed several years later folded. Three churches, hurt by declining attendance, have closed. The lone restaurant closed during the pandemic and won’t reopen in its wake. The American Legion, housed in a building constructed in the early 20th century, struggles for members.


The pickup driver asked and answered his own question.

“Would your children want to move back here? No, they wouldn’t, because there is nothing to do here.’’

Well, that is not 100% true. There is much to be said for raising a family away from the busyness of a big city, the community that remains strong in its commitment to schools and other institutions.

The movement away from rural areas is a worldwide phenomenon unmatched in history. The slums of Third World nations are crowded with now-landless people. Europe and the United States are far better equipped to handle the migration as rural residents move for better opportunities.

Thomas Jefferson wrote centuries ago that the strength of American democracy is found in its millions of family farmers. It remains true to this day, which may explain why countless surveys find that support for family farmers remains strong.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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