Restoring Rural Communities of Necessity

John Ikerd

Note: John Ikerd is professor emeritus at University of Missouri, Columbia whose teaching, lectures, and writings on sustainable agriculture and sustainable economics have made him a frequent speaker at conferences here and abroad. His message here is one we desperately need to hear and implement.

During the 1940s and 1950s, when I was growing up on a small farm in Missouri, we still had strong rural communities. Farming communities were interwoven networks of people who knew each other mainly out of necessity. Most farms in those days couldn’t be farmed by a single farmer or farm family. Farming was a community affair, by necessity.

In the early days, steam engines that powered threshing machines led threshing crews with teams of horses from farm to farm. Crews of up to forty men and boys traveled from farm to farm to fill silos with corn silage. Each farmer brought along their share of farm equipment and labor. For my dad, it was mostly labor—as there were three growing boys in our family. Haying crews tended to be smaller because there was less equipment involved, but it still took a crew, a community, to put up hay. The men and boys worked hard, but a lot of socializing also took place at these gatherings. There was a feeling of social connectedness.

The “farm wives” also renewed relationships during these times of harvest. Several women and girls would gather at the host farms on harvest days to help the hosting wife prepare the noon meal for the harvest crews. The farm women also had their own groups or social clubs who gathered periodically to make quilts to keep their families warm in winter. They also helped each other can fruit and make preserves or cut meat and make sausage on butchering days. The work was often tedious and tiresome but the varied conversations helped to pass the time and maintained bonds of social connectedness.

These networks of necessity were interconnected through local churches and schools. Everybody knew everybody in their own churches as well as most folks in the others churches nearby. The parents of kids who went to school together all knew each other for school sports and social activities. Visiting on Sunday wasn’t limited to kinfolks but also included neighbors. People visited and passed the time of day at the local country stores and at barber shops, filling stations, and farmers’ cooperative exchanges in nearby towns. “Giving someone a hand” wasn’t limited to helping out in emergencies, but was given any time someone “needed a hand.”

These communities, created out of necessity, were communities that not only helped rural people make a living but only gave them a common sense of purpose and brought fullness and meaning to their day-to-day lives. Personal relationships back then, as always, were difficult to maintain, and disagreements naturally arose. But, rural folks knew they needed to “get along to get by” in life. They weren’t going to move away and live somewhere else simply because of a difficult relationship with a neighbor. The challenges of community, as well as the rewards, added a sense of substance, significance, and quality to day-to-day rural life.

But “times changed” in Rural America. The industrialization of agriculture removed the necessity for community-based farming. Individually owned field choppers replaced the big silo crews, individually owned combines replaced the big threshing crews, and inexpensive hay balers replaced the big haying crews of my youth. Networks and communities of farmers were no longer necessary. Farmers were free to harvest their own crops whenever they chose, rather than wait their turn to be helped by the big crews of neighbors. Even on farms without their own harvesting equipment, the work sharing groups were far smaller. Modern kitchen conveniences also eliminated the need for farm wives to share housework. Farm wives may have had more free time but fewer reasons to spend it with others in their local communities.

Social circles in farming communities narrowed still further as farms grew larger and surviving family farms became fewer and farther apart. With fewer farm families, many rural schools were consolidated into larger schools and rural churches struggled to survive. With improved roads and cars, farm families bypassed the country stores and even nearby towns to shop in larger stores elsewhere.

The number of people rural people still knew grew fewer and fewer as they grew older and their kids left the community to raise their families elsewhere. New people moved into some rural areas. Some were seeking the low-paying jobs in small factories that moved out of metropolitan areas and others found work in the large “factory farms” that were replacing family farms. Some new residents were simply trying to escape the high living costs in cities. Most people in rural communities didn’t bother to get to know their new neighbors because they “didn’t need to.” Communities were no longer a necessity in rural areas.

The disintegration of rural communities has not been an accident of fate or even the inevitable consequences of a “free-market” economy. The process can perhaps best be described as “economic colonization.” Economic colonization is a term used to describe a process by which nations use superior economic power to exploit the natural and human resources of previous political colonies. Political colonization was deemed immoral and ended in the early 1900s, but economic colonization continues and is not limited to exploitation of nations by other nations. Today, large financial and agri-business corporations are using their dominant economic power to exploit and extract the natural and human resources of rural areas under the guise of rural economic development.

Rural economic colonialization is defended by the proposition that rural people are incapable of developing their own economies and thus must rely on outside investments. Local officials are told outside investments will bring badly needed jobs to rural areas, stimulating the local economy and resulting in a greater variety of retail businesses and an expanded the local tax base. More local tax revenues will provide opportunities for better schools, better health care, expanded social services,

In cases where promises of prosperity have failed to persuade the people, corporations have resorted to economic favors for local leaders or outright “bribery.” If all else fails, they simply resort to interstate commerce laws and claim an “economic right” to force their way into communities where they are unwanted. These are the same basic strategies colonial empires have used with the indigenous peoples of their colonies throughout history. As with political and economic colonies of the past, the promises of economic development are soon replaced with the reality of economic extraction and exploitation.

Whether intentional or not, industrial agriculture has been a primary means of colonizing rural America. Rural communities have been promised economic prosperity through industrial agriculture. Instead, industrial farming operations have eroded the fertility of the soil and polluted the air and water with chemical and biological wastes—more like mining operations than traditional farming. Comprehensive corporate contractual arrangements have replaced thinking, caring family farmers with far fewer “farm workers.” Communities are supported by people, not simply production. It takes people not only to buy farm supplies and equipment at local dealers but also to shop for clothes, cars, and haircuts on Main Street, to fill desks in local schools, pews in local churches, and seats on town councils and school boards.

Rural kids who grow up and choose to “stay home” are often labeled as not being among the “best or brightest.” Some are “bribed” to stay by parents who help them get long term loans they must stay to repay. New rural residents are more likely to be immigrants desperate for temporary work or people fleeing the cities for a variety of reasons. These remnant rural residents may be good people but they have no shared commitment to a common vision of the future. The sense of community has been lost and the shared hope for the future is lost.

A recent Wall Street Journal article calls “Rural America the New Inner City.” It began, “For more than a century, rural towns sustained themselves, and often thrived, through a mix of agriculture and light manufacturing. Until recently, programs funded by counties and townships, combined with the charitable efforts of churches and community groups, provided a viable social safety net in lean times. Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places. Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings”1—below inner-cities.

Wendell Berry summarized the current plight of rural America in a recent letter to the book editor of the New York Times: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying. 2 The economic colonization of rural America has turned promises of rural prosperity into the reality of rural ghettos.

Margaret Wheatley, a leading thinker on institutional and cultural change, recently identified three major trends in American society: First, “A growing sense of impotence and dread about the state of the nation,” second, “The realization that information doesn’t change minds anymore,” and third, “The clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action—that there is no greater power for change than a community taking its future into its own hands.”3 I agree with Wheatley.

First, I believe the prevailing mood in rural America today is one of “impotence and dread.” Many rural people are beginning to awaken to the sources of economic exploitation but feel powerless to stop it. Their desperation makes them even more vulnerable to continued exploitation. Second, I agree that information no longer changes minds. We now have more than 50 years of “sound science” and the real-world experience of people in rural communities confirming the negative environmental, social, and economic impact of agricultural and economic industrialization on rural America.4 However, many in positons economic and political power are heavily vested in the industrial model of agricultural and economic development and have deflected blame to various “others” and fed a widespread sense of fear and denial in rural areas.

So where is the hope for the future of rural America? I agree with Wheatley, the hope is in the “clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action.” I think most rural people either don’t understand or don’t want to believe what is happening to their communities and why it is happening. If they understood, I believe people in rural communities everywhere would realize they are once again living in “communities of necessity”—and would take action. 
People act whenever they feel it is necessary to defend against acts of nature—windstorms, floods, fires. People also take action whenever they feel compelled to defend deeply held social and ethical values. Honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect! “These five core ethical values are common to many cultures, regardless of race, age, religious affiliation, gender, or nationality,” according to the Institute for Global Ethics.5 The economic colonization of rural America violates every one of these core ethical values. Whenever people fully comprehend this blatant disregard for the values of basic human decency, I believe people in rural communities will be compelled take action.

To break the cycle of rural economic extraction and exploitation, rural people must again join together, as communities of necessity to protect themselves and their families from the ecological, social, and economic consequences of economic colonization. This is a not a farm-versus-town or rural-versus-urban issue. It‘s a matter of necessity for those who care about the future to come together and reclaim the sovereignty of their communities that has been sacrificed to economic expediency. A common sense of community is no longer an option or choice, it is absolutely necessary.

Meaningful change is necessary but real change won’t be quick or easy. The defenders of the status quo are economically and politically powerful. The personal relationships and commitments necessary to empower local communities and to build alliances or communities are difficult to form and to sustain. We Americans have a long history of striving for self-reliance and independence, making it difficult to admit we need to rely on each other. That said, we also have a long history of coming together, even making government work, whenever it has been necessary to do so.

We don’t have to wait for the federal or state governments to step in and defend our basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All other rights are dependent on a right to life. If we have a right to life, we have a right to air that is safe to breathe, water that is safe to drink, and enough wholesome, nutritious food to sustain human health. The fact that those rights are not specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution does not mean they are excluded as constitutional rights. The 9th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Certainly, everyone has a right to make an economic living, but there are many ways to make a living that do not threaten the basic human right of others.

We also have the power to claim our constitutional rights. The 10th Amendment states that “Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The Declaration of Independence states that the fundamental purpose of government is to secure the rights of the governed. We have the power to restore purpose to government, if we begin at the local level. One person can’t change the balance of political power, but a small group of committed people can, particularly at the local level. Individual concerns can become community concerns. Communities of concerned people can link with other concerned communities to form community “alliances” committed to protecting their communities collectively.

As people change, communities change, and eventually, societies change. That’s the way change has happened and always will happen; one person, then another… one community, then another and another… one at a time. A major challenge is to find fertile places to start. This will be the theme of the next piece in this series: Reclaiming Communities of Necessity.

End Notes:

1 Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, RURAL AMERICA IS THE NEW ‘INNER CITY’, The Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, .
2 Wendell Berry, “Southern Despair,” New Your Times Review of Books, Reply to Nathaniel Rich, .
3 Margaret Wheatley, “Big Learning Event,” University of Wisconsin, Madison, .
4 John Ikerd, “The Economic Colonization of Rural America; Increasing Vulnerability in an Increasingly Volatile World,” .
5 Institute for Global Ethics, “Fast Facts,” .

You can learn more about John Ikerd’s works with links to his books at

See also Building the Agricultural City:

See John Ikerd’s website: