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Travis's dilemma: his father wants him to take over the family farm in Kansas. But 18-year-old Travis Warner, who has just started college, isn't so sure. Will he join the exodus of young people leaving the rural Great Plains for opportunities elsewhere?


College freshman Travis Warner has to decide whether or not to take over his father's farm. As the number of family farms in the U.S. has fallen, the population of the rural Great Plains has gone into a steep decline. In 1940, farmers made up 18 percent of the U.S. labor force. Today the figure is 2 percent.

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE 18-year-old Travis Warner started college in August, he was busy doing what he was raised to do: working sunup to sundown on his family's farm in Lebanon, Kan. As they'd done countless times before, Travis and his father fed the pigs and sprayed fly repellent on the cattle. As they worked, a question hung in the air.

"Do you think you'll come back to rural America? And farm? Raise cattle? Raise pigs?" Randall Warner asked his son.

"Depends if I find something better in the next couple years," Travis replied.

"What could be better?" his father pressed. "What could be better than life on the Great Plains where the wind blows and you catch fresh air every day?"

"That's what I'm going to look for," Travis said.

The exchange between father and son speaks volumes about what is happening across the region.

From the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, the rural Great Plains have been losing people for 75 years--a slow demographic collapse. In nearly 70 percent of the counties on the Plains, there are fewer people now than there were in 1950. Population continued to plunge in the 1990s and has fallen even faster since the 2000 Census. In fact, of all the regions of the U.S., the Great Plains has by far the highest proportion of residents older than 85.

The reason is simply that young people like Travis are moving away.

"Over the last 100 years or so, many of these counties have been losing 50 or 60 percent of their young people each generation," says Kenneth M. Johnson, a sociology professor at Loyola University Chicago. The departure of young people means that a community also loses the next generation, Johnson explains. And over time, the effects are magnified.

This is how a town like Lebanon dies. The school closed 15 years ago. The old Lebanon bank has caved in. Main Street is a peeling veneer. The average age of town residents is 52.


As towns like Lebanon fade, some places are trying to reinvent themselves (see "One Town's Rebirth," p. 13). In 2000, Iowa tried recruiting immigrants to stem its population decline. Last year, it considered abolishing its income tax for residents under 30 as a way to attract and keep more young people.

And in a modern-day version of the 1862 Homestead Act, in which the federal government gave land away to encourage the settlement of the frontier, some towns are offering land at little or no cost to families willing to build a house and move in. In Washington, Senators Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are sponsoring the New Homestead Act, a federal program based on the same idea.

"Twenty-five years ago, there were 350,000 farmers and ranchers under the age of 35," says John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. "Now, there's only 70,000. We're not creating opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers to get into the business."

Travis's dad doesn't understand the ins and outs of the international trade policies and government subsidies that are changing the economics of farming, but he does see that large corporate farmers are taking over (see graphs, above). And he knows that to make it nowadays "you work harder--sunup past sundown."

Travis wants to know more people than his dad and the salesman at the John Deere dealership. When he's at the farm, he says, the nearest pretty girl is 20 miles away.

"I like to work with people, I guess," Travis says, sitting in the cab of an old pickup truck. "Be around people. And we come out here every day. It's Dad and myself; that's not working with people."

He continues: "I told my dad he could retire and cash-rent the land to the big farmer, but then what's he going to do with his time? This is all he knows. Come out here and work daylight to dark. I don't want that."


Travis is now a freshman at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kan., 180 miles from home. He likes school, but it took some getting used to at first. Even small things were culture shock for him, like being able to walk 10 steps to the apartment next door to see his neighbors.

"At home, the nearest neighbors are four miles away," he says with a laugh.

The biggest difference between college and the farm is that for the first time in his life, he has free time. At home, when he finished with school and sports practice, there were still plenty of chores to do. By the time he was done, it was time for bed.

Will he return to Lebanon? He just doesn't know yet. His 24-year-old brother is an engineer in Germany, and his 22-year-old sister is a senior at Kansas State University, studying to be a physician's assistant.

If Travis doesn't return to the farm, his father says he'll start selling it off in pieces to the farmer down the road.

Randall Warner sums up his values: "God. Family. Work," as he counts them on his fingertips. "Heritage." That's what he's worried will be lost if Travis doesn't take over the farm.

"My whole life is wrapped up in this," he says while baling hay. "To tell you the truth, it can get a little monotonous. I've had four vacations my whole life."

Still, Randall Warner says, it's a good life.

"The best kind of life there is."


* Ask students how different experiences in the early Lives of Randall Warner and his children might have influenced them to view farm Life from such different perspectives, producing what might be called a "generation gap" in farming.

* Did exposure to a wider world (more access to the media, perhaps) provide Travis with a desire to see what Lay beyond his family's farm? What else might have influenced him?


* Note Iowa's consideration of abolishing income taxes for people under 30 to get them to stay in the state. SpLit the class in two and have students take sides on this issue:

* Should governments use the tax system in this manner? Or should government just Let nature (and the economy) take its course and allow rural towns and small farms to slowly disappear? What are the pros and cons of each approach?


* What do you think are the pros and cons of reLativeLy small family farms Like that of RandaLL Warner versus Large corporate farms?


* Have students write a 10sentence exchange that might take place between Travis and his father about the farming life.


* A provision of the New Homestead Act would pay up to 50% of college loans for recent graduates who live and work for 5 years in rural counties that have lost popuLation. Maximum payments are $10,000.

WEB WATCH Facts Department of Agriculture map. Click on any state to see that state's farm data. Scroll down.


1. Last year, in an effort to induce young people to stay in the state, Iowa considered

a making coLLege education free for those who agree to stay.

b abolishing income taxes for those under 30.

c giving free trips to those under 30.

d subsidizing crop prices for young farmers.

2. In another move to attract new residents, some towns in the Great Plains are

a offering land at little or no cost to families willing to build a house and move in.

b trying to lure foreign farmers with promises of Low-cost loans and free transportation.

c providing farm families with low- or no-cost utilities.

d providing farm families with free medical care.

3. Today's efforts to Lure people into farming the Plains states is reminiscent of a federal Law passed in 1862, the

a Farm Settlement Act.

b Agricultural Renewal Act.

c Food for America Act.

d Homestead Act.

4. Farmers in the Great Plains states are facing competition from

a Large corporate farms.

b government-sponsored farms in other countries.

c large farms on East and West coasts.

d the processed food industry.

5. If Travis Warner decides not to come back to the family farm after he finishes college,

a he plans to help pay the salary of a worker his father will have to hire.

b other family members will move to the farm to help out.

c his father will sell off the farm.

d the state will put his father in a program designed to help farmers keep farming.


1. What do you think helps explain why large corporate farms are thriving while smaller farms, like that of the Warner family, are declining?

2. Farmers in Africa and other low-income regions complain that government subsidies paid to American farmers undercut their prices unfairly. Should the U.S. cut back on subsidies or continue paying them?



1. [b] abolishing income taxes for those under 30.

2. [a] offering Land at little or no cost to families wiLLing to build a house and move in.

3. [d] Homestead Act.

4. [a] large corporate farms.

5. [c] his father will, sell, off the farm.


The number of farmers in the U.S. has plunged in the Last 60 years, even as farm output has soared: Many family farms have been absorbed into larger farms, which tend to be owned by "agribusiness" companies. Larger farms are more efficient; combined with other factors, that has led to a huge increase in agricultural, production.



When Rory Petska, 18, was growing up on a ranch in Valley County, Neb., he and his friends assumed some day they'd move away. "Everybody talked about it," he says.

In those days, Valley County, in central. Nebraska, seemed to be one of the many Great Plains communities that was dying. From World War II to 2000, it had lost almost half its population. The grocery stores closed, as did most mom-and-pop gas stations, and the local dairy processing plant.

But these days, Rory, now a freshman at the University of Nebraska in Kearney, sees a bright future in his hometown of Ord, the county seat. He wants to move back after college. In fact, he wants to take a stab at ranching, a job many young people in the region no longer seem interested in.

"I got a tittle older, and I realized how much I like the small-town atmosphere," Rory says.

But it's not just Rory who has changed. In the last five years, Ord has worked hard to reverse its decline and make itself more appealing.

The town has hired a "business coach" to help teach local stores how to sell their goods over the Internet and to match retiring shop owners with aspiring ones. Schoolchildren learn how to start their own small businesses, so they will not grow up to think the only job opportunities are at big companies in Omaha or St. Louis. And graduates of Ord High School who have moved away receive mailings telling them about job opportunities back in town.

"We're trying to come up with ways to keep our young people here or encourage them to come back when they want to raise their families," says Nancy Glaubke of the Valley County Economic Development Council.

It seems to be working. The population decline has stopped. More people are moving to Ord than leaving, and in this decade, Valley County's population is likely to show its first increase since the 1920s.


By Charlie LeDuff in Lebanon, Kan., and Patricia Smith. Photos by Steve Hebert

Charlie LeDuff is a correspondent for The Times, based in Los Angeles.
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Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Nov 27, 2006
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