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Rural communities need more than new farm law

It's a rare month that doesn't bring news of the perennial decline of rural communities in North Dakota. The trends that have been dominant for decades have not changed, other than to slow or accelerate. The direction, however, is reliably the sa...

It's a rare month that doesn't bring news of the perennial decline of rural communities in North Dakota. The trends that have been dominant for decades have not changed, other than to slow or accelerate. The direction, however, is reliably the same: decline. It is unlikely any change in North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law will make a difference.

Unless rural towns are in the artificial economy created by the oil boom, or are within a 20-mile radius of the state's bigger cities, the forces that have depopulated agriculture-based small towns and counties have not moderated. Oil country has generated unprecedented prosperity, but at what cost in the future won't be understood for some time. Towns doing well in the shadows of urban centers are thriving as bedroom communities, not because of ag-generated jobs but because of the diversified economies of cities that are a short commute away.

Don't misunderstand. Agriculture is a mainstay of the state's economy and will always be a major factor in the state's economic health. But modern agriculture is not labor intensive in the sense it creates a lot of good-paying jobs.

The signs are unequivocal. Stories of failing rural churches are as common as falling down barns and abandoned farmsteads. There are so many rural fire departments and ambulance services at risk of going under that their stories don't make big news anymore. How many rural communities have tried to keep a local grocery store operating by forming a cooperative or by seeking a development grant? Some succeed, some don't, but all could not survive without some sort of subsidy. How many school districts have shut down or consolidated because of lack of students?

As much as the North Dakota Farmers Union and other like-minded individuals and groups cite the anti-corporate farming law as a savior of rural communities, the facts expose the myth. The changes in the countryside - fewer farms and farmers, shrinking small towns, struggling rural churches and schools - have occurred during the decades the law has been in place. It's cruel and dishonest to promote the fiction that the one-of-its-kind-in-the-nation law has stemmed rural decline. History reads otherwise.

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On the other side of that coin, the Legislature, governor and agribusiness interests have peddled their own fairy tale about the miraculous benefits repealing the law will bring to farm country. Won't happen. There might be more capital available from non-farm sources to finance dairy and hog operations, and few people will make a buck. But a lot more good jobs in dairy barns and hog sheds? Not likely. Surely not enough jobs to generate some sort of renaissance in farm-based small towns.

So all the allegedly high-minded rhetoric about either the upside or downside of the corporate farming law is so much bloviating when viewed in the context of an honest analysis of the state's farm economy. Whether the repeal stands as passed by the Legislature, or is successfully referred by NDFU and its allies, it won't make a dust devil's worth of difference.

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