A native Kansan returns home to find that the broken promises of commodity agriculture have destroyed a way of life.
Most Americans experience Kansas from inside their cars, eight hours of cruise-controlled tedium on their way to someplace else. Even residents of the state’s eastern power centers glimpse its vast rural spaces at 85 mph, if at all.
But on recent trips back, I wanted to really see my home state—so I avoided I-70, the zippy east/west thoroughfare. The slower pace paid off in moments of heart-stopping beauty. At dawn, outside Courtland, wisps of morning mist floated above the patchwork of farms that gently rolled out all around me. Driving up a slight incline, I had a 360-degree panorama to a distant horizon. And that is when I realized what was missing. As far as I could see, there was an utter lack of people. The only other sign of human life was a farm truck roaring down a string-straight road toward the edge of the earth.
That’s the thing about rural Kansas: No one lives there, not anymore. The small towns that epitomize America’s heartland are cut off from the rest of the world by miles and miles of grain, casualties of a vast commodity agriculture system that has less and less use for living, breathing farmers.
U.S. census data tells the story. The population in most of Kansas’s rural counties peaked 50 years ago or earlier. The state’s annual population growth rate is among the slowest in the country, steadily falling from 1.2 percent in 1960 to 0.9 percent in 2016, with nearly all of that meager growth concentrated in a handful of eastern urban areas—Wichita, Kansas City, Topeka, and Lawrence.
Population is also growing in the areas around the state’s massive slaughterhouses and feedlots, which have built communities largely around immigrant labor. But that’s nowhere near enough to stave off the decline, which is only expected to increase more rapidly. Wichita State University forecasts Kansas’s annual population growth next year will fall by half again, holding steady at a paltry 0.4 percent for the next 40 years. Dozens of Kansas’s rural counties now average less than 10 people per square mile, while towns I remember from my childhood have almost completely collapsed. According to U.S. News and World Report, Kansas ranks 46th in net migration, and is losing 25- to 29-year-olds faster than any other state.
I wanted to know more. So I spent weeks visiting farms and main streets, and driving around the state’s back roads—more than 1,800 miles in total—to find out where everyone went, and why the last, remaining holdouts decide to stay. [ … ]