State Treasurer John Schroder shrugged last week saying he may not be to blame and he may not know quite what to do, but the financial problems caused by a generation of rural depopulation are fast becoming his.
He is in charge of the state’s checkbook. More rural towns and parishes are coming to the Bond Commission, which he chairs, looking for loans to pay salaries and everyday expenses.
On Thursday, Tensas Parish requested and received authority to sell $567,000 in bonds — the government’s way of taking out loans. That reduces how much is available for, say, building roads elsewhere.
“It jeopardizes the entire process,” said Schroder, likening taking out a bond to pay operating expenses to using a credit card to pay the mortgage.
On Wednesday, the Fiscal Review Committee, of which he is a member, looked at 16 once vibrant rural towns that are close to collapse. Town businesses lost their customers and residents lost their jobs in the last 40 years as how farming had been done for centuries transformed. Displaced workers received little help and little notice by a government bent on addressing urban issues and training for industrial employment near the cities.
“We lost 60,000 people, my understanding, last year in Louisiana. Where do you think those folks are being lost from?” Schroder asked the Bond Commission at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. “This city grew. The big cities have grown. People are leaving these rural communities.”
“We do bear a responsibility now that we know. You see a pattern. It is our responsibility to try to stop it,” Schroder said in an interview after the meeting. He wants legislators and officials to address the decline of Louisiana’s rural regions, which make up about 80% of the state’s land mass. He may get help from newly installed legislators.
“We’re seeing our small communities die before our very eyes, and we’re not doing anything,” said Rep. Danny McCormick, a rookie Republican from Oil City whose goal is to become the squeaky wheel that attracts attention to the state's history of benign neglect.
But he’s going up against a different way to farm that has evolved since President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously advised farmers to “get big or get out” and started shifting federal policy in the 1970s from government support to a more market-based policy.
“This idea of a solo farmer out there with his wife and a pitchfork isn’t really prevalent anymore,” said Michael A. Deliberto, an LSU agricultural economist. “It’s a couple brothers working together, or a farmer working several farms, or a small growers getting together, or a corporation.”
In 1960, before the shift in agricultural production, Louisiana had 74,438 farms that directly employed 101,880 workers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than half the state’s residents, 55.5%, lived in or near small towns where they sold supplies and services to the farms, provided a place for farmers to do their banking, see a doctor and educate their children, according to the U.S. Census.
In 2017, Louisiana had 27,386 farms that directly employed 23,019 workers in a part of the state where now only a quarter of the residents, 25.5%, live.
The number of farms in Louisiana has dropped 9% and the percentage of farm jobs has dropped by half in the past decade alone, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service census. The number of people living in the country dropped another 6.6% between 2007 and 2017. Meanwhile, the number of city folk, who congregate mostly along Interstate 10, increased by 14.9% during that same 10-year period in ever-enlarging urban areas.
The migration has left wide swaths of the state with higher unemployment, less income, shorter life expectancies and fewer high school graduates — all parts of the rankings formulas with sums that put Louisiana near the bottom of most lists.
Unemployment averaged 6% in rural areas and 4.3% in urban areas. The number of jobs has fallen every year but not so for urban areas. Poverty rates were 24.4% in rural areas in 2017. Urban poverty averaged 18.9% that year, making the state’s average 19.7%. Almost 21% of the rural population didn’t complete high school compared with the 14% average in urban areas, as of 2017.
America still feeds the world but does so with ever larger farms, often owned by corporations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 2.04 million farms and ranches across the nation in 2017, down more than 3% from 2012. Out of the total value of production of $389 billion that year, two-thirds of it came from farms making $1 million or more.
“You’re getting more consolidation,” said Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “It’s almost impossible to start a large farm without a lot of cash. It’s capital intense.”
I have a cousin, Anders, who runs a dairy with his iPhone.
The economics require higher yields on larger operations. Computer-based equipment with Global Positioning Systems, flying drones and other technology requires fewer people to work more acres.
But that leaves a lot of people in rural Louisiana, like the rest of America, with few options.
“Rural areas don’t have internet, good schools, high quality health care and that’s why young people are leaving,” Strain said. “And farmers are getting older.”
The average age of U.S. farm operators was 57.5 years in 2017, up from 54.3 years in 1997.
Bradley Zaunbrecher, an Egan rice, crawfish and cattle farmer, was the only Republican to challenge Strain last fall (Strain won easily). He did so, in part, to bring attention for the first time to young farmers being priced out of the business.
“Most family farmers don’t have enough land to support paying $400,000 for a combine to harvest corn, for example,” Zaunbrecher said when qualifying. “You have to have a vast tract to afford that. And that means factory farms growing commodity crops, rather than family farms and smaller, affordable start-ups for our young people.”
He wanted voters to consider efforts to expand access to loans for young farmers.
The three towns in Tensas Parish have either been taken over by the state or soon will be. St. Joseph is one of the towns now run by a court-appointed administrator with near dictatorial powers to cut budgets, raise fees, fire town employees and do whatever is necessary, though not politically popular, to get a town’s fiscal house back in order.
When Elvadus Fields Jr. arrived in 1961 as a federal farm agent, St. Joseph had 3,095 residents and its own state legislator. The town and businesses served Tensas’ 1,705 farms.
On Saturdays, Fields recalls a stream of cars on the main street, as farmers and their families came to town to buy supplies, have dinner and maybe catch a movie.
“There were farmers and families everywhere. There were stores, movies, even nightclubs,” said Fields, who is now mayor. “Every shop was open and every shop had customers.”
It happened slowly, but the big farms took over the family enterprises, and those operations didn’t need as many employees, he said. Tensas only had 231 farms in 2017 — a quarter of them more than a thousand acres. Without those jobs, the businesses started drying up and people started moving away, taking the tax base with them.
Bedford Falls turned to Pottersville, leaving about 900 residents in St. Joseph, one grocery store, one pharmacy, and instead of the cotton gin being the largest employer, now it’s the remaining parish schools, Fields said.
Once a guy stood on the back of a tractor dropping seeds, recalled Kyle McCann, who has done that job. Now, using GPS and computerized seed flows, those days are gone. Drones with infrared devices can identify deficiencies and chemicals handle weeds that had been removed by someone with hoe.
Tractors with 150 horsepower usually cost about $150,000 before any attachments are bought. A harvester costs about $500,000. A combine can pick eight rows of cotton instead of one.
“It has a big impact on those regions without infrastructure and facilities. You’re going to Winnsboro or Monroe to go to the Walmart or visit the doctor or even go to the movies,” said McCann, assistant to the president at Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation.
“There are some social aspects to it,” McCann said of those who remain. “Will they be able to provide the essential services? There are some very difficult bumps. It’s not been a smooth process.”
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Competition from large corporate plantations was partially responsible for chasing a 45-year-old off the farm. Like four other farmers interviewed and telling essentially the same story, he spoke on condition he is not identified because of embarrassment for having failed.
The father of four once made up to $150,000 a year farming cotton on 4,000 acres that he rented.
In one year, 2015, the price of cotton dropped and the rent price for land increased because a corporation approached the landlords and offered to pay more. His only asset was equipment he shared with two other farmers, and that wasn’t enough equity for the bank to loan him more money for the next season’s seed, fertilizers, chemicals and to pay the higher rent.
“It was like a trifecta in one season, and that pretty much put me out,” he said.
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Despite years of decreasing employment opportunities in farming, the state still has no plan on replacing those lost jobs. State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, wants Louisiana Economic Development to take a more active role in pushing industry toward rural areas where prices for property and homes are far lower than in urban areas.
“You have to show industry that there are incentives to locating in rural areas,” McFarland said. “Otherwise, they don’t know where to begin.”
State Rep. Francis Thompson said he would try to fund a rural development program during the upcoming legislative session that begins March 9.
In addition to increased economic development, Thompson said the state needs to focus on high speed internet as well as repairing and expanding rural roads and bridges.
Small communities need a hospital, a good school situation and some economic development — services only state government can provide, said Thompson, who has chaired the agriculture committee in both the House and Senate during his tenure in the Louisiana Legislature.
“I don’t worry about New Orleans or Baton Rouge; all the opportunities they have along I-10 and I-12 corridor,” Thompson said. “But there’s not been much talk about what is going on in rural areas, never has been, and we’ve now come to a point where we need to have that conversation.”
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