Recalling our definition (country living is residing on the land and making a living from the land), what conditions are required for prosperous country life? What kinds of country producers would most successfully support a regional economy based on country living? What resources would those producers needs to be successful?
Such questions are not easy to answer within the current paradigm of rural economic development. The paradigm is based on urban, industrial issues that do not necessarily transfer over to rural development. For instance, most urban and industrial economic development is concerned with jobs and property values. The urban labor force needs jobs. Urban property owners need to maintain property values. Urban government needs an employed labor force and high property values to bring the taxes that support government services and programs. When the urban, industrial development paradigm is brought into discussion of rural development, the "rural" tends to disappear. In a survey in 2005 of rural community development professionals of the Northeastern US (including Pennsylvania and West Virginia), respondents included the word, "rural", in only 10% of their answers to a query about the most important issues facing their region (National Association of Community Development Extension Professionals, "Economic and Community Development; Issues and Priorities for Extension and Research; A Survey of Extension Professionals in the Northeast", p. 4). The USDA's rural development programs are oriented toward quality of life issues, rather than producer issues, and often involve lending for housing, businesses, and community facilities (such as hospitals).
The urban, industrial paradigm is revealed in the way Cornell University's Community and Rural Development Initiatve, a program growing out of Cornell's land-grant university mission, describes the problems facing rural New York:
Rural New York in the last few decades has suffered long-term economic decline, population loss, and erosion of its job base. Traditional rural industries are being replaced by tertiary service sector jobs, while manufacturing and agricultural sectors continue a slow decline, both in total employment and total output. (Cornell University, CaRDI website, 2005).
Obviously, there are many federal and state programs that target agriculture--certainly part of rural development. The USDA, state land grant universities, and county and community development commissions endeavor to help farmers become prosperous. There are, in addition, uncountable international programs, United Nations programs, and foreign national programs to support and develop agriculture outside the US. I don't mean to suggest that these efforts don't know what they are doing; they obviously do. The question is whether what they want to do in rural areas concerns what we have identified as the essence of country living.
I suggest here that jobs, population level, and quality of life facilities are not the major issues with which we should be concerned. They can be important, depending upon what is happening to the producers and the service providers; but they are not as important as issues concerning the conditions of residing on the land and making a living from it. I identify these issues as:
- Land ownership
- Product selection
- Production support
- Marketing support
- Long-term stability of country living land-use patterns
- Country living values
Let's take up these conditions, one by one. In this article, I will only briefly review the first four conditions, because they are well treated in the history of economics and rural life. In later articles, I will discuss the last two conditions as more important to our theory of country living.
Successful producers need (a) to own some, but not all, of the land on which they produce. Land ownership provides legal authority to decide what to do with the land that is necessary for successful entrepreneurship. They also (b) must be able to rent or lease additional land to expand production as needed and to cease renting as necessary. Studies have shown that, historically, non-owning tenancy confers advantages in responding to market changes. Market changes, in prices and in consumer preferences, can be very rapid. Country living producers imperil their entire livelihood if they sink all their money into land ownership.
Promoting the ownership of land is more important than promoting job formation for the prosperity of the countryside. Increasing and improving access to land, through ownership and leasing, for small farms is a major recommendation of the National Commission on Small Farms report, A Time to Act (1998, p. 17 PDF format). Without sufficient land ownership as the basis for farming and other land-based production, job promotion simply ends up being a welfare program. Land ownership must also not be subverted by taxation and costs associated with land-use and environmental regulation. The land owner needs considerable freedom to invest and use land for production; without this freedom, entrepreneurship is defeated and land ownership becomes a burden rather than an opportunity.
Determining what products a countryside can successfully produce and market is a difficult process. Historically, local competitions in farmers' fairs, in craft competitions, and industrial shows have been very important. The farmers of a region plant different varieties of produce and raise different varieties of animals. When they compete in fairs, they are able to judge which varieties are best. Similarly, craft producers, such as weavers, potters, distillers, cheese makers, and wood carvers have to compete in local shows to determine which products are best. When best products have been determined, then a regional economy can be built around them.
A successful country producer region will have enough producers producing the same product that social institutions to support that production can be established. I will discuss this more below, but here only mention as an example banks and credit institutions. Without enough producers raising a crop, for instance, peaches, lenders would not obtain the experience needed to support producers capably and wisely.
At the same time, a producer region needs some diversity in its regional product mix. If it specializes on only one or two products, a downturn in the market for that product would sink the entire regional economy.
In America, the USDA, agricultural research stations, and the land-grant universities have been important in the product selection process. They have assisted in determining the range of possible crops and animals that can prosper in a region and in adapting them to the region, but farmers have not been successful without local farmer competitions to determine the best varieties for their region.
I have already identified secondary producers, who add value to raw products, as important contributors to a product. Production also needs other kinds of support, such as, and not implying an exhaustive list: knowledgeable financial and insurance institutions, equipment sales and repair, land development contractors, property title and property security protection (a government function), labor brokers, transportation facilities, fellow producers with whom to seek advice, weather forecasting (another government function).
This infrastructure cannot be assembled when there are only a few producers. For this reason, some regional specialization is necessary to build up the level of demand for productive support services that would support such institutions.
Barn in Fog, New Jersey. Photo by Robert Socha. Used by permission.
Minimum necessary infrastructure: road, electricity, telephone.
(Click on image for full-size in pop-up.)
In addition to direct production support, the region must have an infrastructure of communication, energy, and transportation, including such familiar services as mail and package delivery, electricity, roads (and railroads and airport), telephone, and internet.
Marketing is the conunudrum that has historically ruined many farmers. When demand for products is up, farmers produce more and compete against one another in the marketplace (either directly or indirectly through wholesalers). Their competition usually drives down the prices, depriving them of the benefits of increased demand. The important historical solutions to this problem were (a) to limit supply to the market by banning imports, (b) to organize growers or producers into marketing cooperative ("Sunkist" and "Land O'Lakes" are brands for well-known cooperatives for marketing oranges and dairy products, respectively), and (c) create commodity grades to create uniform prices (across grade). These solutions do not need comment.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, some states helped their artists and artisan producers by setting up state-run stores and marketing organizations. I do not know how successful these were (or are) in actually keeping the artists and artisan producers afloat.
There are other kinds of marketing support that deserve mention. One problem faced by the farmer (or artisan or artist or manufacturer or bottler, etc.) is that the farmer lives and produces away from the consumer and the market in which the products are sold to the consumer. Traditionally, "middlemen" solved this problem. Today, a wide variety of distributors, cooperatives, grocery chains, and restaurant chains move the products from farmer to urban customer.
It is of more interest to our issues that new kinds of agricultural producers, such as organic growers and producers of dairy and animal meat products, are returning to local, face-to-face producer/consumer marketing. Some farmers participate in consumer supported agriculture, in which customers share some of the farmers risk, including marketing. Buying cooperatives also make possible subscription marketing of products.
A Theory of Rural Life
1. What is Country Living?
2. Social-Economic Classes.
3. Conditions for Successful Production.
4 pt. 1. Land-Use Stability.
4 pt. 2. Landscape Preservation.
5. Country Living Values.
6. What Are Values?
7. A Home Place.
8. Education and Identity.
9. Marketing the Countryside.
10. Conclusions and Recommendations.
(Revised, April 3, 6, 10, 11, 2007.)