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Gravity, Iowa and Dordogne, France: A Bucolic Double Portrait

How do efficient U.S. farming practices compare to Europe’s cheaper methods?

August 25, 2001

How do efficient U.S. farming practices compare to Europe's cheaper methods?

The town of Gravity sits on high ground in southwestern Iowa. It once had 1,000 people and a Main Street, two blocks long, lined with two groceries, a drugstore, a jewelry store, a dance hall, two taverns, a movie theater, a bank, insurance offices, barber shops and farm implement dealers. A high school stood down the street, and there was a gas station in the valley below town, next to the highway.

Today, Gravity has 218 people, mostly elderly. Main Street is derelict. Three empty stores lean on each other at one end of the street, waiting to be torn down. A bank, closed a decade ago, stands vacant at the other end. The stores in between are long gone. Weeds grow through the foundations of shops that once served a close-knit little community. The gas station is closed. So is the school, shuttered since 1959. The only “business” is a non-profit cafe that a few women run on a volunteer basis, just to give people somewhere to meet.

Some neat white houses remain, with generous porches and gliders for summer sitting. But they are surrounded by tattered mobile homes or the kind of shanties that always seem to have three rusted cars and a pickup truck parked in the littered yard. Some houses burn. Others just cave in.

Across the midwestern United States, hundreds of little towns like Gravity are shrinking and dying. Corn grows where neighborhoods once stood, the countryside reclaims towns, as surely as the jungle overwhelms the Mayan ruins of Mexico. As with the Mayan ruins, Gravity and the other little towns like it are a lost civilization.

Not long after visiting Gravity, I was driving through the eastern Dordogne Valley in France, through the little towns near Aurillac. Set in rolling countryside away from the highway, these little places are pretty and nondescript, looking in their French way like Gravity used to.

Each has a school, a bank, a post office, a station, a butcher shop and a grocery. In one town, the main street widened out into a square anchored at one end by Cathy’s Café, where the eponymous Cathy and her terrier Lucky presided over the town’s social life.

Across France and the rest of Europe, you’ll find a thousand healthy little towns like these. Some, in the more scenic areas, thrive because the young people who grew up there return in later years to retire. But mostly they survive to serve the farms that surround them.

In these villages, there is no clear dividing line between town and country. Farmers with loads of hay drive their tractors through the center of town — or stop off at Cathy’s on the way back to the farm.

Why should the small towns of Iowa decay into the soil while the villages of Europe flourish? Why indeed? After all, both the United States and Europe have support prices for many crops, setting floors that guarantee a minimum income. But the European prices are set high, usually above market levels, assuring farmers in France and other European countries not only a minimum income but a living wage.

The American prices, by contrast, are set low, usually below market levels (and there are no support prices at all for livestock or chickens). The result is that, when the market price falls, the farmer’s income falls with it. Farmers do have the guarantee of a minimum price, but it’s not enough to support a family, pay off the debt to a bank, or buy new machinery.

Of course, there are many other contributing causes. Better highways and better cars draw small-town residents of Iowa into county seats to shop.

Then, a Wal-Mart opens nearby — and shops on Main Street, already weakened, give up. Young people leave and don’t come back. The school is consolidated into a larger school in another town, and young families stop moving in. A mine closes. A railroad abandons its passenger service. The bank, burdened with too many bad loans on overextended farms, goes broke, and another bank moves in to buy and reopen it.

But the real reason can be summed up in one word: efficiency. It’s a word that is becoming more important every year, as global lenders and global markets demand ever higher profits, ever lower costs, ever greater efficiency.

Machines often are more efficient than people. Big stores are more efficient than small stores. Mass production is more efficient than craftsmanship. It often is more efficient not to do a job at all than to do it inefficiently.

And so the small farmers go broke — or lose their farm to the bank or flee into town in search of a decent life for their families. This has been going on for decades, as small farms have been consolidated into larger farms.

A farming family that once had all it could do to farm 160 acres, and made a decent living from this land, has been succeeded by a well-capitalized farmer. He farms 2,000 acres with the aid of a million dollars’ worth of equipment in a shed — and a computer in the house to monitor the corn futures market in Chicago.

When a farmer retires or goes broke, there’s always another farmer nearby, or a rich dentist in the county seat, ready to buy him or her out and create one bigger farm where two farms used to be.

This is what really happened to towns like Iowa’s Gravity. As farms grew bigger, the number of farmers and their families shrank. Towns that existed to serve the people who lived on a hundred small farms have no purpose and no customers when the same land is farmed by two or three families, especially when these families buy their machinery and fertilizer from giant corporate suppliers hundreds of miles away. Gravity’s problem is that its reason for existence has simply vanished.

Adapted from "Global Squeeze. The Coming Crisis for the First World Nations" by Richard Longworth. Copyright © 1998 by Richard Longworth. Used by permission of the author.