The Agrarian Dilemma
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.

My late father-in-law loved farming. Even growing up on a farm in southwestern Nebraska during the Great Depression did not temper his enthusiasm for what he was sure was to be his future occupation. Unfortunately, World War II put a major crimp in his plan, and upon his return from the war, he found himself serving the small farming communities in his region as a representative of the local gas company until his retirement. But he never stopped thinking like a farmer.

Growing up on a farm connects you and imprints in you the cyclical nature of life. As a city kid I certainly understood that there were four seasons and that each one was unique. But I never understood the seasons the way my father-in-law did. For him, each turn of the seasons brought new hope, new risk, new chores, new anxieties and new wonderment. He also had imprinted in him the idea that all of life is cyclical — you know, what goes around comes around. And therein lies what some call the “agrarian dilemma.”

When you believe that life is cyclical it often gives you a straightforward path to addressing many of life’s challenges. After all, no matter how long the drought lasts, you just know that sooner or later it’s going to rain. And conversely, no matter how hard or long it rains, sooner or later you will see the sunshine again. With such a cyclical orientation, a reasonable strategy to life’s challenges is to hunker down and wait it out. After all, sooner or later it will change for the better. And there, in fact, lies the dilemma.

Hunkering down and waiting it out works for those challenges that are cyclical. If I only had a nickel for every time I heard my father-in-law state, “It’s nothing that an increase in the price of corn wouldn’t fix.” Clearly, such statements reflected his belief that regardless of how low the price of corn dropped, sooner or later it would rebound. Accordingly, the trick was to reduce expenses, hunker down, and wait for corn prices to rebound.

But what if the challenges that you are facing are not cyclical? In fact, I would suggest that many of today’s challenges for our rural communities are not cyclical at all, but linear. In other words, what goes around doesn’t necessarily come back around. Let me give two brief examples. Thirty years ago when I was in college many of my friends opted out of college and went straight into the workforce. Looking back now, many of them were able to find well-paying jobs, enabling them to build a secure future for themselves and their families. But today with just a high school diploma such a successful outcome is much less likely. Clearly, education commands much more of a premium in the workplace than it used to, and all the hunkering down in the world won’t change that. Another linear pattern is the continuing replacement of labor with capital, and few industries exemplify this better than the farming industry. Continuing advances in equipment and agricultural chemicals has in effect squeezed the majority of labor out of farming over the past 60 years. It’s a linear trend in rural America that has led experts at this year’s annual agricultural outlook conference in Washington, D.C., to note that there are now 64 million people living in rural America, and 62 million of them don’t farm! Don’t look for a turnaround anytime soon.

So what does all this mean for rural Minnesota’s future? Simply put, I believe that many of the challenges we face today in rural Minnesota are more linear in nature than they are cyclical. As a result, simply waiting for things to turn around will not be an effective strategy. But I also believe rural Minnesotans are resourceful and creative in crafting the right solutions and strategies for their own communities. With good information and the right attitude anything is possible. I see that regularly as rural Minnesotans come together to discuss their collective future and take action in their cities and towns.

So step up, get involved, use good information and help craft the future of your community for yourself and your kids. Putting another soup bone in the pot and hunkering down simply won’t work this time around.