Rural Communities of Necessity

People in rural communities are beginning to join forces to defend their health and well-being against the inherent threats posed by concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. As I have written in the past, the most important reason I personally keep fighting the war against industrial agriculture is because of the people I meet in the process. I have believed for a long time the future leadership of rural America is emerging from among those who are taking the lead in protecting their communities against CAFOs. I am just beginning to fully appreciate the importance of the new relationships that are being forged among rural people who share this common concern for the future of their communities.


Over the past year, I have met with local anti-CAFO groups in Arkansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, and Ontario Canada. Each group is different but they all have one thing in common: they are all creating “communities of necessity.” Most of these folks didn’t form new relationships because they wanted to. They got together with neighbors because they felt they had to. They knew they would have to work together if they were to have a chance to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from the threats of CAFOs.


Rural American once had strong communities. It would have been very difficult for anyone who built a CAFO in a rural area in earlier times. It wasn’t socially or morally acceptable for one person in the community to benefit at the expense of others. Rural people were also very skeptical of “outsiders,” such as the corporations that are promoting CAFOs. They understood that more often than not, “outside investors” were intent on taking advantage of the “local yokels.” The strong communities of earlier times were created out of necessity and over time became important keepers or caretakers of rural social and cultural values.


When I was a kid growing up on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri, I lived in a strong farming community. The community was an interwoven network of people who knew each other mainly out of necessity. Most farms in those days couldn’t actually be farmed by a single farmer or farm family. Farming was a community affair. For example, there were crews, some up to forty men and boys, who traveled from farm to farm to fill silos. Each farmer brought along with their share of farm equipment and labor. For my dad, it was mostly labor—as there were three growing boys in the family. In the early days, the traveling threshing crews followed a steam engine that pulled and powered the threshing machine. The haying crews tended to be smaller because there was less equipment involved, but it still took a “crew” to put up hay. The men and boys worked hard, but a lot of socializing—horsing around—also took place at these gatherings.


The “farm wives” also renewed their community connections at time of harvest. Several women and girls would gather at the host farms on harvest days to help the host housewife prepare the noon meal for the harvest crews. The farm women also had their individual groups who gathered periodically to make quilts to keep their families warm in winter and to help each other can fruit or put up other winter preserves. On butchering days, they gathered to cut up the meat and make sausage. The work was often tedious and tiresome but the conversations helped to pass the time.


These networks of necessity were interconnected through local churches. Everybody knew everybody in their own churches as well as most folks in the other churches nearby. The parents of kids who went to school together all knew each other. Visiting on Sunday wasn’t limited to kinfolks but also included neighbors. People also visited at the country store and at the barber shop, the filling station, and the farmers’ cooperative exchange in town.


“Giving someone a hand” wasn’t limited to helping out during emergencies, but was given anytime someone “needed a hand.” These communities, created out of necessity, were communities that not only helped rural people make a living but also gave them a common culture and sense of purpose. Relationships are difficult by nature and disagreements naturally arose. But rural folks knew they needed to get along to get by in life. Furthermore, this strong sense of community added a sense of meaning and quality to day-to-day rural life.


But “times changed” in Rural America. The industrialization of agriculture removed the necessity for community-based farming. Individually owned field choppers replaced the big silo crews, individual combines replaced big threshing crews, and inexpensive hay balers replaced haying crews. Farmers were free to harvest their own crops whenever they choose, rather than wait their turn to be helped by the big crews of neighbors. Modern conveniences also eliminate the need for farmwives to share meal preparation and other housework.


Social circles in farming communities began to narrow and narrowed further as farms grew larger and surviving farmers became fewer. Some new people moved into rural areas—seeking low-paying jobs on factory farms or escaping high living costs in cities. Most people didn’t bother to get to know their new neighbors because they “didn’t need to.” Rural folks eventually became like “city folks”—not only not knowing but not really wanting to know their neighbors.


This loss of community left rural communities vulnerable to what I call the “economic colonization” of rural America by the large agribusiness corporation. The comprehensive corporate contractual arrangements that characterize CAFOs are the epitome of rural economic colonization. The ongoing ecological, social, and rural economic degradation of rural communities is the inevitable consequence.


However, people in rural America are beginning to awaken to what they have sacrificed in the name of independence and economic efficiency, including their vulnerability to exploitation. The threat of factory farms or CAFOs moving into a community has proven to be a powerful motivation for people to think about what they have lost and are about to lose–if they become a CAFO community. They are also beginning to understand if they are going to protect themselves from the threats of CAFOs, joining forces with neighbors to regain the power of community is an absolute necessity. They are just beginning to realize that forming and sustaining relationships with others, regardless of necessity, also is simply a better way of life.


There are still many places in rural America that have the possibility of creating and sustaining socially vibrant and economically viable rural communities. These communities still have clean water, clean air, scenic landscapes, and people who are committed to caring for the land and who care about other people—even if they don’t know each other very well. If these communities are able to protect themselves from CAFOs and other forms of economic colonization, they will be even better places to live in the future.


There is no economic or political power greater than the power of the people in a community. While the power of community may be gained through relationships of necessity, it can only be sustained through “relationships of choice.” We eventually must come to understand that we are social beings, and relationships, regardless of necessity, make our lives better.


John Ikerd