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The Depletion of Rural America

By Alexis Lathem

I do a lot of cycling around Vermont, where I live, and lately, on back roads riding through farm country, I see a lot of “Keep American Great: Trump 2020” signs. They are enormous, brazen, and shameless. Although, Trump has no chance of winning in Vermont, I see no Biden signs (though BLM signs are as common as flags in a July 4th parade.)

As someone who has adopted a rural lifestyle, who believes in the promise of village life, where societies are organized on a human scale and adapted to local environments, the 2016 election has caused me a crisis of faith. Farmers and rural residents across America elected a presidential candidate who never even claimed to have an agricultural policy, who bulldozed through communities to build his golf courses and gaudy resorts, a NY real estate mogul who is clueless about rural issues, food systems, or farming. How is it that this man’s messaging resonated with rural voters, with whom they share only their anger at “Washington”– justified on the part of rural America, but certainly not on the part of a narcissistic one percenter with gold toilet seats?

We are fortunate in Vermont in that our small towns are vibrant. The storefronts are not shuttered as they are in small towns across the country. Agriculture has survived but it has changed here over the last twenty years. Dairy production is concentrated into two watersheds, and only a few large farm operations, with consequences not only for water quality. The stench of a CAFO is not the quaint smell of yesterday. Farmers were pressured to get big or get out – by the banks, the agribusiness corporations, and extension agencies– compelled to increase production to make up for low prices, which only depress prices further, thus they have been on a never ending treadmill. The bucolic image of the Vermont landscape, dotted with cows grazing on hillside pastures, the red barns and silver silos, has given way to the surreal landscape of multi-million dollar barns the size of airplane hangars, plastic-wrapped hay bales that look like giant marshmallows, and landscapes not only without cows but without people, where undocumented workers hide in the shadows. It is the difference between, as Also Leopold described the two, the farm as  “place to live” and the farm as “food factory.”

In the late 1990s I worked as an advocate for Rural Vermont, a non-profit that was born in the farm crisis of the 1980s when Vermont’s prosperous dairy industry came crashing down in one farm bankruptcy after another. At the time, when the first 2,000 cow dairy barns were under construction,  Rural Vermont saw that the move towards getting bigger – towards greater industrialization, more debt, and greater corporate and technological dependency– would not be good for small farmers or for farm communities. We opposed GMOs. A member of both the international Via Campesina, and the National Family Farm Coalition, with the Farmers Union, we promoted a supply management system that would stabilize prices and eliminate the need for subsidies and we opposed the globalization of food systems. But many Vermont dairy farmers were suspicious of us, seeing us as an “environmental” group bent on imposing more regulations on farmers and more government.

“You’re looking at three of four generation of depletion,” said Curt Meine in a New Yorker article, a historian at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “ Depletion of rural communities, rural landscapes, rural soils and water, depletion of the land and local economies. And you have the brain drain that followed it. This is why we have this deep urban – rural divide. We have concentrated and exported the wealth. Ever one sees it, but neither party has wrestled with it. One party exploited it, the other party has ignored it.”

After the 2016 election, Wendell Berry defended rural America on the pages of the New York Review against the idea that a nostalgia for the rigid categories of race, sex, and class of the past in rural areas was enough of a force to win a presidency. Berry acknowledges that “racism, sexism, and nostalgia have counted significantly in the history of rural America,” but he argues that it voted for Trump out of economic despair, not racism. “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.” But the free market, get bigger-or-get-out farm policies that in effect destroyed the economy of small independent farmers, were embraced by American farmers who identified the free market with less government and saw “Washington,” with all its “onerous” regulations, as the problem.

I live in the only rural state that in 2016 did not vote for Trump, where he received the lowest percentage of votes than in any other state in the union. (In my own town, Bernie Sanders received more votes than Trump, though Sanders wasn’t even on the ballot.) But in the most rural parts of the state, voters went for Trump. Even those farmers who depend upon undocumented workers voted for him. As one farmer stated in an article in our local paper, he didn’t take seriously the candidate’s talk about building a wall and deporting migrants. “That was just talk.” Now he is afraid that, if he loses his workers, he will not be able to keep his farm afloat. “One – two weeks, max,” he said.

I have been puzzled by Americans who seem to vote against their own interests. But that is not as troubling as the election of a demagogue. What are we to think about this gullibility, this willingness to scapegoat America economic woes onto minorities? Did farmers accept the claim that climate change as a Chinese hoax? How did they overlook his ridicule of a disabled reporter, or his  “grab them by the pussy” remark, or his referring to his former wives as “vaginas”? How is any of this consistent with conservative values?

Rural voters may have been motivated by economic despair when they voted for Trump, but they voted for a candidate who was the source of the birther movement, who called Mexicans “rapists,” and vowed to ban Muslims from the country. And this time, they have abundant evidence of his overt racism. I do not know how any of these facts could be unimportant to someone who is not racist.

And more than three years later, we have seen worse from him than this. He has praised neo-Nazis who have murdered innocent people on the street in broad daylight, he has all but dismantled a system of asylum and human rights law that has been in place for almost a century, and he has brought us, by inciting violence and racist hate, to violence and looting in the streets.

After all the failed promises, those Trump signs are still brazenly displayed in farm country. The candidate who promised to “end this war on the American farmer,” upon election, appointed a Secretary of Agriculture  (a climate change denier who, during a drought, famously held a vigil to pray for rain) who told those farmers that they would have to “get bigger or get out,” saying, “I don’t think in America for any small business we have a guaranteed income of profitability.” This had been policy long before Trump, but the differences was, as one Wisconsin dairy farmer put it, “They’re not even trying to hide it anymore. They’re telling us flat out: you’re not important.”

And over the next three years Iowa farmers would lose their exports due to Trump’s trade wars, dairy farmers would find themselves dumping their milk because of shuttered restaurants and schools under a chaotic leadership during a pandemic, milk prices would hit rock bottom, and farm bankruptcies and suicides would be on the rise.

Much attention is paid to the importance of the Black and Latinx vote, but it may well be the rural vote that, once again, will decide the outcome of this election. In 2016 the red/ blue divide demarcated most clearly the line between rural and urban America. Liberals and progressives have narrowly focused on Trump’s trade policies but it is not NAFTA or the loss of exports to China that caused the farm crisis. It is food and agriculture policy more generally, a system that requires a farmer to sink millions of dollars into debt before he can earn his first sixteen dollars for a hundred pounds of milk, who must depend upon the Chinese market for soybeans rather than the food needs of his own community to earn his living. We have ignored these issues only to see the depletion of rural America – economic and moral – strike back at us most viciously, by helping to install a monster in the white house.

Most surely, under his rule, we will continue to see the depletion of rural America.  But our complacency, if we return to some level or normalcy with the end of four years of horror, will not put an end to it, or restore the farm as place to live.

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