A map accompanying an article Friday incorrectly identified rural counties with declining populations. Counties that lost population between 1980 and 1983 were confused with counties that lost population between 1970 and 1980, and vice-versa.
When Waldon Stigge was a boy, he and about 60 other farm kids attended the Lutheran grade school and their parents belonged to the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, one of the oldest in the state.
Waldon Stigge grew up, became a hog farmer and was named to the Lutheran school board. A few years ago they voted to close the school and send the last eight pupils to class in town. A private school was just too costly to run.
"The same thing happened with the Catholics. They had to shut down their school," Stigge explained. "Our churches get smaller, the congregations are made up of older people . . . . The changes are sad because we will never get these things back.
"The old atlases show these sections were fairly well populated years back," he said. "But now we have a lot of retirement-age farmers here who won't be replaced. For years, we farmers have been told that to be efficient we had to get bigger. Well, we did, and you see what's happening."
What is happening is a story repeated across much of rural America. The face of town and the shape of countryside are changing dramatically, spurred in part by recession in agriculture, in part by policies that have pushed farmers toward bigness and pushed others out.
Signs of wrenching change are everywhere. Some call it rural abandonment. Some call it depopulation. Some call it inevitable.
Here in Nebraska, the landscape is dotted with old farmsteads -- the buildings in abandoned disrepair, the land around them in cultivation. In the Dakotas, old farm homes, outbuildings and fences are simply torn down and the plow put to the land. In once bustling Iowa farm villages, storefronts stand vacant and boarded up on Main Street, symbols of failure, unlikely to revive.
East, West, the tableau is similar. Defunct dairy farms in western New York now house a new gentry from town. In Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, hillside farms that once sustained whole families lie idle amid wild brambles. So it is in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Kansas, wherever.
And now, as a crisis of collapsing land values, low farm prices and high interest rates intensifies, there are rising fears that a lethal spike is being driven into the family landholding patterns and the support systems that have made the family farm and rural town American bulwarks.
"If we fail to preserve the family farm we are breaking with the longstanding philosophy of our country," said Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University. "The prevailing philosophy always has been to provide opportunity . . . .
"From the land ordinances into this century, the philosophy of government was to foster a system of small family farms," Lasley said. "Out here, we are looking at a depopulation that accompanies the expansion of farm sizes. There are quite dramatic trends.
"The other side of that is the resettlement issue -- absorption of the displaced. Where do they go and what is society's capacity to absorb them? . . . How do we deal with the psychological problems of rural people being uprooted?" Population Drift
From those federal policies intended to foster the family on the land came an essential ingredient in the American ethos -- the belief that the purest virtues of family and labor for mankind's sake resided in the countryside and provided the nation with its greatest strength. True or not, the nation still feeds off those images.
But the patterns of landholding and the vitality of small rural towns are changing. The shift is most apparent in the Midwest Corn Belt. New data developed by Calvin L. Beale, a U.S. Agriculture Department demographer, show that since 1980 "solid blocks" of declining-population counties have shown up in central Iowa, northern Missouri and across central Illinois into Indiana.
"The more sparsely settled areas in the Plains states have held up best in the 1980-1983 period," Beale said. "But a lot depends on what an area had in the first place. If there is no hospital, no public support systems of that sort, people learn to go elsewhere for that kind of help. But when a county changes visibly, there is more of a sense of crisis and deprivation -- more so than in the county that started with little."
Beale's latest studies indicate that the dramatic growth of the 1970s in rural America nationally has ended. In the 1970s, rural areas grew 15.8 percent -- a rate 60 percent higher than metropolitan areas'. But between 1980 and 1983, due to recession and the farm crisis, rural growth dropped to 2.7 percent, compared with 3.5 percent metropolitan growth.
"I'm not implying that non-metro areas are back to the way they were in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time of exodus . . . , [but] we don't really know what will happen."
Even the usually upbeat Farm Credit System, the farmer-operated financing banks, forsees more big changes in the next decade. Its recent "Project 1995" predicts bigger farms, more part-time farmers and difficulty for rural communities in maintaining their economic base.
"Rural villages could become retirement communities for local farmers, eventually dying out as agriculture continues to adjust," the report predicted as one of the results of the current economic pressures. Community Dependence
These changes, of course, have occurred steadily across rural America for years. A study released just before the Carter administration left office in 1981 found that between 1950 and the mid-1970s, U.S. counties with agriculture as the main source of income dropped from more than 2,000 to less than 700.
The study agreed that there was a relationship between the number of farms and neighboring communities' vitality. But it also contended that the impact of the diminishing number of farms on local communities was overplayed. "Most rural communities no longer depend primarily on agriculture to shape their futures," the study said.
Today, that conclusion gets considerable challenge in areas where the links between farm and town are most deeply entwined. In the view of many, economic pressure is hastening changes put in motion by a range of federal policy decisions affecting agriculture since World War II.
"We have had this rush to modernize agriculture through land-grant college research, in which there is heavy public investment, through heavy public subsidy of farm credit, through shelters of the tax system," said Larry D. Swanson, a former director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
"Farmers have been encouraged to expand and increase production capacity, but only a portion of them have been able to benefit . . . . We're eating up our small and medium producers, and that means we lose so many farmers every year. We net out 3 to 4 percent per year, and you can see the system is set up to operate that way." 'Questions Aren't Being Asked'
Nebraska economists say they think that 10 percent of the state's farmers will fall by the wayside this year, as in 1984. As farmers go down, the suppliers, implements dealers, town businesses, tax bases and public services that rely on them go down.
"It all ripples out through the rural community. It is a scenario for some major depopulation," said agricultural economist Bruce Johnson. "Do we want that to happen? Is one farm operation per township what we really want? These questions simply aren't being asked.
"But it is much broader than the future of the family farm," he said. "The fact of rural America and the maintenance of a diverse setting is what we are talking about. We're now seeing a time of more structural change than anything in the last 50 years."
Swanson agreed: "If this continues over the next 10 years, we've effectively killed our rural communities. There's really no turning around. I don't know what we're gaining, but it isn't efficiency."
A recent study by Swanson of 27 completely rural Nebraska counties gave stunning evidence of the obvious. While half of the farms and ranches were lost between 1940 and 1978, the survivors got larger. Between 1950 and 1980, the number of people per farm declined from 3.7 to 2.7. The meaning: As farms got fewer, farmers generally were older and their young went elsewhere when farming opportunities diminished.
And as rural population declined, the need for services diminished. Swanson found one retail store for every 63 people in 1960. By 1980, there was one for every 78 people.
Put another way, the 27 counties studied lost 1,000 stores in two decades. Jobs lost, taxes lost, services lost, costs increased.
Similar changes are occurring in Iowa, the nation's No. 2 agricultural state, and the enormously rural character of the state is undergoing severe stress. Even though the nation as a whole is losing farms and farmers at a faster rate than Iowa, there is concern.
"Between 1900 and 1982, our farms fell from 225,000 to 115,000. But it is more dramatic in the United States, where we saw 6 million farms decline to 2.4 million farms," said Iowa State's Lasley. "Farm population has eroded along with that. It was 30 percent of the national population in 1920, and 2.5 percent today. In Iowa it was 42 percent in 1920, but around 13 percent today."
Lasley cautioned, however, that "all of rural decline is not due to agriculture . . . , and I don't know that the farm crisis is limited to farmers.
"In Iowa," he said, "we know that small business is getting bombarded. The current high interest rates are uniformly devastating on small businesses."
Then, turning reflective: "I don't know the root cause, but we sort of lost sight of what we wanted agriculture to look like. We let economics determine. We tested profitability, and we encouraged expansion through tax policy and agricultural research. But agriculture was ignored, and it was not seen as a resource on the national agenda, so rural people became less and less of a percentage of the electorate and they became The People Left Behind."
Ask Tom Vickers about that in western Nebraska. He is 48, a farmer-rancher in Frontier County, the product of a hamlet named Farnam that was in its day a bustling center of rural commerce.
Today, with farmers drifting away, it has 260 residents and few stores.
"On Saturdays, my mother would sell eggs at a town store," he said. "My dad and his friends would gather to talk at the barber shop. There was a movie house, a drugstore, a couple bars, two implement dealers and a car dealership, three real estate agents, a newspaper, three grain elevators. Most, as they got older, closed their businesses . . . , a natural attrition."
Vickers, now a state senator, added, "It's largely a matter of numbers. The houses have disappeared, the land is farmed. But there are less people out there, and that is the trend. Foolish to think it will be reversed, but problems develop when government changes the natural trend overnight.
"I'm not concerned whether I am operating next year," he said. "It's more of a concern about what happens to our infrastructure . . . where do we go, who pays for the schools, things like that. I love these grassy hills. Intend to hand them over to my son and grandson."NEXT: Hope in diversification