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  • John Ikerd

When Walmart Leaves Rural America…

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

The town “still boasts imposing brick buildings as a memory of better times. But the glow of coal’s legacy has cooled, as the boarding up of many of the town’s shops and restaurants attests.” This description of a coal mining town in Appalachia might just as easily describe a typically farming town in Middle America. The description is from a recent article in US edition of The Guardian: “What happened when Walmart left?” The place abandoned by Walmart was McDowell County—an economically depressed county in rural West Virginia. If current trends are allowed to continue, this may also be the future of farming towns all across America.

Coal mining was the economic foundation of McDowell County. When coal miners were replaced by technology—giant digging and hauling machines—many local residents were left without jobs or any other economic means of making a living in the county. It wasn’t only the mining jobs that were lost, but all of the other jobs needed to meet the varied needs of the miners and their families. “McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today. That depleted population is today scattered widely across small towns and in mountain hollows, accentuating the sense of sparseness and emptiness.”

Farming was the economic foundation of many rural counties in the Middle America. As farmers were replaced by agricultural technologies—machines, agri-chemicals, livestock confinements—many local residents were left without jobs or other economic means of making a living in the community. It wasn’t only the farmers who lost their livelihoods, but all of the others local residents who had met the various economic needs of the displaced farm families. Farming communities all across America have seen the devastation and have sustained the erosion of rural people caused by the industrialization of agriculture. The depleted rural populations today are scattered widely across small towns and the rural landscape, accentuating the sense of rural economic depression and social disintegration.

The economic demise of mining towns is just more visible and more easily understood. When flying over the mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia, the environmental devastation is clear and compelling. Looking down at the green center-pivot crop irrigation circles on the High Plains creates a very different image—a false image of vitality.

Both enterprises are mining nonrenewable natural resources. Coal mining is simply more obvious than water mining. These industrial farming operations are also mining the natural fertility of the soil, the only sustainable source of productivity. The demand for coal is slowing, environmental restraints of coal fired power plants are growing, and alternative energy sources are on the horizon. Meanwhile, demand for agricultural production is growing, industrial farming is heavily subsidized and virtually unregulated, and there are no alternatives to soil, water, or food. The erosion, degradation, salinization, and desertification of farmland may be occurring at a rate even faster than the depletion of coal.

Another major difference is that Coal mining is unsustainable by nature, but farming is unsustainable by choice. The earth’s reserves of usable and economically recoverable coal are finite and eventually and inevitably will be depleted. Soil, water, and solar energy are renewable resources that are capable of sustaining a resourceful, resilient, and regenerative agriculture indefinitely into the future. Unlike coal mining, today’s extractive, exploitative industrial system of farming is a matter of choice, not necessity. Regardless, the economic and social consequences of coal mining and industrial farming are much the same for rural communities.

Walmart got its start in the 1960s by moving into farming towns that were in early stages of economic decline—also the early stages of agricultural industrialization. The prosperity brought to farming and farming towns by World War II was fading. Local merchants were offering lower quality products at higher prices in an attempt to maintain their profit margins. Sam Walton understood rural people and saw an opportunity for continuing expansion and growth of Walmart in the face of rural economic decline. Walmart would offer better quality products at lower prices to rural people.

Early on, Walmart would not locate a store in a town with more than 15,000 people or more than 500 miles from Bentonville, Arkansas. Obviously those days are long past. Walmart found there were people in urban areas who also thought prices in their communities were too high. Walmart’s expansion strategies obviously have changed but its philosophy remains virtually unchanged. Walmart prospers from serving those with declining economic opportunities. Lower prices are their key to better living—but only as long as prices and sales are high enough to maximize profits and growth for Walmart. When that’s no longer the case, Walmart closes stores and leaves town.

Many rural people still celebrate when Walmart comes to town. However, we now know the eventual consequences for new Walmart communities. Quoting from the Guardian article, “Much has been written about what happens when the corporate giant opens up in an area, with numerousstudies recording how it sucks the energy out of a locality, overpowering the competition through sheer scale and forcing the closure of mom-and-pop stores for up to 20 miles around. A more pressing, and much less-well-understood, question is what are the consequences when Walmart screeches into reverse: when it ups and quits, leaving behind a trail of lost jobs and broken promises?” In the Guardian article, the people in McDowell County expressed a deep sense of betrayal, depression, and loss of hope for the future of their community.

Communities abandoned by Walmart obviously are left with few surviving local retailers to supply the basic needs of people in the community. By the time Walmart leaves, a community is no longer seen as a logical place to start a new business venture. Walmart only leaves when the “economic carcass” of a community is pretty well “picked clean.” However, the people are also left without the social connections and sense of community that becomes centered on shopping at Walmart, once other local retailers are gone. There is no common local place for people to see and visit with their neighbors as they drive off in different directions to find the nearest remaining Walmart-like store in the area. There are no local businesses left to replace Walmart’s PR-motivated contributions to the Girl Scouts, Little League, county fair, local food bank, or other charitable causes. The Guardian article focuses on the deep sense of personal or even spiritual loss by local residents, which few might have expected from the closing of a Walmart Supercenter.

The basic point of this post is that if we do not stop and reverse the ongoing industrialization of American agriculture—with its miles and miles of corn and soybeans and giant animal factories—rural communities all across America can expect their Walmart to leave town. They can expect the same deep sense of economic, personal, and spiritual loss the local folks felt in McDowell County, West Virginia. Walmart came to much of rural America because rural America had bought into the extractive, exploitative system of industrial agriculture. When Walmart leaves rural America, it will be because there is nothing of economic value left for industrial agriculture or Walmart to extract or exploit.

However, the people in rural American have a choice. There are better ways to farm and better ways to develop rural economies. They can choose to replace industrial agriculture with an ecologically sound, socially just, economically viable—socially responsible agriculture. Then, Walmart can leave town, along with industrial agriculture, and people in rural American will be glad to see them both gone.

John Ikerd

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