We’re taking a short trip through eastern Iowa to visit relatives and do a little genealogy. It’s been a fun trip, although the weather reminds a person more of December than the last week of March.
Driving from the Tipton area first west to the Amana Colonies, where great German food and rhubarb pie are the main attractions, down through the Amish area around Kolona and then west to Ottumwa, the impact of modern technology on farming is stark. Small towns that were once mercantile hubs for a wide rural area now feature largely abandoned commercial districts, with rows of storefronts replaced by a Casey’s General Store. The only going concern in most of them is a grain elevator.
Many of the farmsteads look forlorn this time of year with decaying barns and other outbuildings. Most of the farmhouses are dilapidated. On the other hand, some farmsteads look prosperous with well-kept buildings, modern farm equipment in evidence, and well-fed livestock in the pastures and cattle yards.
So what’s going on? What’s happening is that farming technology has so reduced the number of farmers needed to work an acre of ground that it’s had a noticeable and continuing impact on the communities in which the farmers live. Ever so gradually, the technology that allows a single farmer to handle thousands of acres of land led to the death of the communities in which they lived. Farmers could farm more land, so fewer farmers were needed, not to mention fewer farms. Thus those dilapidated farmsteads, many of them abandoned because small farms are continuing to be amalgamated into fewer much larger farms.
Fewer farmers mean a reduced population in general, and that means the small, independently owned businesses in rural hamlets gradually ran out of customers. The economic death of those little towns was slow, but sure. With no one to patronize businesses there was little need for young people to hang around after graduation from high school to raise their own families.
The cycle started out in those rural areas, but then it spread to Iowa’s cities. Ottumwa, for instance. The city relied on the railroad and on industries anchored by the John Morrell & Company meatpacking plant. Nowadays, instead of cattle being shipped into Ottumwa for slaughter and packing from distant points on the railroad and from a myriad of small farms in Ottumwa’s hinterland, the industry has moved to be closer to the giant feedlots that have replaced the old small supplier network. With changes in the railroad industry, the meat industry, and industry in general, Ottumwa finds itself 10,000 people smaller than it was a few decades ago.
So what’s the answer? Is there an answer? Should there be one? Even if someone wanted to turn the clock back, it’s now impossible. The toothpaste has left the tube and it’s not going back in. So gradually, those small towns will continue to evaporate, farmsteads will continue to be abandoned and deteriorate. Because that’s the way things happen. Here in Kendall County, entire communities have disappeared (Pavilion, Penfield), farms have been abandoned, and so has everything else from post offices (NaAuSay, Kendall) to schools (all 120 or so one-room schools in the county).