Are Cities Becoming As Obsolete As Farms?


Listening to the news from Haiti, I was surprised to hear officials in its earthquake-leveled capitol say what a blessing it was that thousands of people have left the city seeking refuge in rural areas, and how it would be better if they stayed there.

That sounds heartless, but I agree.  The movement of population has been throughout history from rural areas to cities and inevitably that migration proves fatal. The “growth” of the dispersed but strong Etruscan economy to the final rot of ancient Rome is a great example. But that kind of migration goes on always, and still today, all over the world. The Chinese are the latest to flock naively from farm to city in search of a better life.

I can’t understand why people always opt for crowding together in cities. The easy explanation is that they are just following the money trail. All my life, I have responded:

“But you can make money in the country, too.”

Answer: “Most people don’t want to work that hard.”

“But it isn’t really any harder work. Once I worked as a furniture mover. I’d a thousand times rather make hay and pitch manure.”

Answer: “You only have to work eight hours a day in town and get your weekends off.”

“Since when?  And even if farmers do work longer some days, they also are free to take days off in the off seasons. ”

Answer: “City workers have job security. A farmer doesn’t.”

“Don’t make me laugh. No one has job security.”

Answer: “City workers make more money on the average.”

“Their cost of living is higher too.”

Answer: “City workers have more cash, regardless. They can more easily afford new cars, fancier clothes, and vacations to Florida.”

“I like my rusty pickup, my old clothes, and I don’t want to go to Florida.”

Answer: “Well, you’re just obstinate. Everyone knows that.”

As far as this obstinate person can figure, people leave the countryside because they are encouraged to do it.  Social prejudice says that only “yokels” stay out in the “backwaters” of society.  The good jobs are all in cities. But why can’t good jobs be out in the country, too, especially in this computer age?

People streaming from the rural areas to cities do so by government and business fiat, in my obstinate opinion. In every civilization’s early days, even poor people own land. The rich people want it and can get it every time by offering enough money. The poor people take it: the fatal bribe.  An economy that loves building bank towers into the clouds is happy about that. It needs a large population of consumers, people who don’t produce anything of their own but must buy all their food, clothing or shelter.

This all works very well for awhile. Some people get continually richer; a far greater number get continually poorer. It will never make the papers, but I bet many Haitian leaders are secretly thankful for earthquake.  It is helping to solve an acute overpopulation problem for them. Better than people doing the genocide, as in Somalia.

Yes, let us hope that the Haitians will have enough sense to stay out in the countryside and build a life for themselves there. But of course they will need help, real help. The money powers of Haiti will have to come out in the countryside too and help build a true economy with and for these people.

Can it be done? I think so. Here in the U.S., we are starting to reverse the usual trend of civilization. We are building a kind of dispersed society where rural can’t be distinguished for urban. Urban agriculture and rural office buildings are both on the increase.


David, underlining what you are saying: I know personally several very large farming operations where the son, or particularly the grandson of the farmer who built the big farm have little inclination to be as industrious as Grandfather was, and are squandering away the money.

David, I think what is happening in Detroit is most amazing too, and very very significant. I have a hunch this is the first of our modern big cities to portend the decline of our civilization. Gene

    Gene, further to the shrinking of a once great city there is the other end of the industrial spectrum which is industrial agriculture. At the recent fruit and vegetable convention I attended, a farmer ( I dread to give him that title) who runs a 6,000 acre fruit operation claimed to be able to produce the same quality fruits as those grown locally.Although I knew it was a huge sales pitch and a scare tactic for other small producers I could not understand why he operated such a huge operation. More research into his corporate holdings would reveal more but I’m not interested. As i am going through the process of land assesements for my own ag land I am thinking far ahead and wondering what kind of risk is a farmer or a prospective farmer taking on when he increase his holding where the amount of future buyers shrink due to the size of the farm? The big phrase in business these days is to “mitigate risk”. Large farm succession percentages are low, which means the probablility of large farms can only last 1 maybe 2 generations. We see this occuring already. Both the U.S. and Canada governments are trying to bring people back to the land but I fear too few will take advantage of the call because they may not be able to lease that new Cadillac they had their eye on. I smell another book for ya or maybe I didn’t buy the copy of one of your other books that explain this conondrum.

Yesterday, driving home from work I listened to a story on the most recent developments in Detroit City. Apparently Detroit will be shrinking its present foot print, returning the land back to agriculture or its natural state. Right now Detroit takes up approx. 150 sq miles, they want to shrink the footprint down to 90sq miles. I think such an event is amazing. There are alot of conclusions that can be derived from such an event.

Kyle asks “Does anyone make a living as a small farmer without being forced into some added-value enterprise that caters to yuppies?”

I have noticed that inflation and fuel prices and corporate greed are rapidly leveling the playing field. Local raw milk is now price competitive with store milk. I think apple cider will be next year, from watching grocery store prices. I think we have almost reached the point where the gigantic food corporations are like big dumb slow dinosaurs. Small farms are like the little smart mammals in the shadows, waiting to devour the dinosaur eggs. Soon, the only way they will be able to compete is by using the force of government regulation to squash small farms (Fat chance of that, with both right wing survivalists and left wing greenies on the same side of issues such as NAIS)

Kyle-It depends on how you define making a living. I do the self employment think combined with small farming. It gives you some freedom to decide which of your needs to meet yourself and which to pursue with dollars.

BTW Gene, I never thanked you for saving me and my wife from making a lot of dumb decisions on our farm years ago.
Thank You!

David, As another example, when my wife and I and two very small kids were living on a fellowship of $3200 a year in grad school in the 1960s. we EVEN THEN saved $320 of it and put it in the bank. Both in city and in country living since then, we have always saved at least 10% in good times and in bad. Saving money is mostly a decision not to spend money. You know what is cruelly funny about that? Today, when we had hoped that social security plus interest on our savings would keep us going, the Federal Reserve has reduced interest on savings to almost zero. So what the hay, I have to keep on working. I’m glad I can. Gene

    Gene, thanks for the reply. After thinking about savings and talking to my wife I think the definition of savings has to be clarified. Pension contributions to a 401K or here in Canada RRSP is not considered savings to me. It is an expense. Some may say that is savings, but I see this money as defered expense. Your right about savings, it is money not spent. Accountants call it retained earnings. That money needed for a rainy day. Always a possiblity of alot of rainy days in the present economy.

Get this; my wife and I have a city combined income of $130,000. Pretty good don’t you think? Yearly savings, $6,000 (4.6% of income). Vacation, 3 weeks. Frustration level, too high. Our 3 boys have little to do and explore. Can’t afford to take them to sporting events or get involved with local sports. I was at a fruit and vegetable convention recently and the farmers dressed just fine. Looked pretty good, no out of date styles accept for my mennonite friends( which aren’t really out of style, they just choose not to follow every new man made fad). When I move to the farm I will have the winter off or work part time while getting ready for the next growing season. Is saving 10% of my income difficult on a farm? If someone reads this response maybe they can tell me.

    David writes, “Is saving 10% of my income difficult on a farm?”

    Not at all! We made about $12,000 last year, and I managed to stick about $1,000 of it in an envelope that I store in a hidden drawer.

    10% of nothing is still nothing… 🙂

      All I can is What? I’m scratching my head on the income. Is this considered net income meaning after expenses? How is this income defined. God Bless you for making it on such an income.

      David, you’re right: it’s net income after expenses. What you’d put on your 1040 as “Adjusted Gross Income” when you file. Most of the expenses are on Schedule C and F.

      One of the keys to living simply is to have at least one business. I can have a reasonable computer (only four years old, and still doing everything I need it to do) and a reasonable digital camera (three years old) because these come from pre-tax income.

      Also, it helps to live in a country with reasonable health care. In the US, at least a quarter of our income would go to insurance.

Kyle writes, “As I flip through the pages of Acres USA, I’m always struck by how dependent American small farmers are on the affluence and urbanization of society… Does anyone make a living as a small farmer without being forced into some added-value enterprise that caters to yuppies?”

Excellent point, and yet, what can you do about it?

There will be class differences always, and they’ve only accelerated during the past hundred years or so of cheap energy. I see a return to feudalism, with the middle class split up into a few lords and a lot of peasants, but there will be room for a tiny middle-class of people who own the means of production of food.

Then there’s the growing “black market” for food that doesn’t meet industrial regulations. Stuff like raw milk and home-butchered meat that is illegal to sell, but has a huge demand out there. The more laws they make, the more “criminals” they create. Meanwhile, food mega-factories continue to sicken and kill thousands, driving those with some extra funds to the “wholesome food black market.” This is a real opportunity for the small farmer who can keep under the radar, but it will put the medium-size farm out of business, which seems to be the goal.

I hear you, Kyle, that these are not long-term solutions. But serving the yuppie market with value-added artisanal and farmstead products is a viable transition strategy until the oil runs out and the semi-trucks stop arriving at the grocers, and the local community becomes grateful that the small farmer was able to see it through.

    Excellent points, Jan. You say “what can you do about it?”

    I think the short-term answer is what you’re doing, and the backup plan is to get better people elected to government and work toward a tipping point. If I lived in Russia or China today, I’d be more or less optimistic, based on the qualities and actions of their governments. The west will follow suit if the kleptocrats choke on their own funny money before they manage to start world war 3.

    I’m a strong believer that we have no resource problems, only ones of political will (rather, voter will). There’s no reason thriving small farms can’t be the backbone of an advanced industrial economy. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind loading your CSA shares onto a magnetically-levitated freight train to reach a wider audience at lower time and cost 😉

    Wasn’t this the problem of the 1970s? Everyone went “back to the land” to escape armageddon, but it was always about surviving, and never turned into a positive vision for developing the country. Then we got Reagan. This time, it’ll be Mitt Romney.

    There’s so much good food activism these days, but very little of what Charles Walters offered. Every time a guy like Michael Pollan goes on TV and doesn’t talk economics is, in my opinion, a wasted opportunity to help people see a bigger picture. Maybe I should go complain on his blog!

Some interesting food for thought here.

I do think you’ve got to look at why de-developing countries get empty countrysides and rings of shantytowns around their urban centers in the wake of free trade agreements.

Not too long ago, that Mexican family waiting in the WIC line would have been growing corn for tortillas and saving money to improve their little house. Along comes NAFTA, bringing the price of agricultural goods down to the level of the US mega-farm, and all the little guys get crushed. It’s all about economics, not social issues.

As I flip through the pages of Acres USA, I’m always struck by how dependent American small farmers are on the affluence and urbanization of society. Maybe I’m wrong, but do real people go looking for brie and microgreens? Does anyone make a living as a small farmer without being forced into some added-value enterprise that caters to yuppies?

I contrast that with my grandfather, who through WW2 made a nice living with 40 acres of hay. When the price of corn started dropping and land values and taxes started increasing, they sold the farm and he spent the rest of his life operating a cutting machine in a printing plant (still a more honest living than most people have today).

There was a time when American cities (at least in the midwest) provided some vital services. You should see some of the industrial corridors in Chicago. Most of them are gone, gutted or collecting dust, but until pretty recently, that city was nothing but manufacturing. Now everything useful is made poorly in China, the world’s #1 steel mill went from Indiana to India and the average urban dweller is no longer a union machinist, but an out-of-work real estate agent with a diminishing ability to pay for microgreens.

Small farms and industrial cities should both be a permanent and dominant feature of the economy, not 10-year fads dependent on the whims of the stock market. Farmers need customers, tractors and other inputs. Urban people need food. I’m not accomplishing anything by griping, and more power to anyone with the guts and creativity to make a living on a small farm. I would just hope that anyone would take an interest – at least at the voting booth – in things like tariffs, infrastructure-building and parity price that are needed to get us all off this rollercoaster.

The tighter you squeeze, the easier it slips thru your fingers. Words bosses and the gov need to live by.

To all of the commentators above: what a delightful exchange of opinions. Michael Irving and Jan Steinman, you are not a doomer Michael, but just being realistic. It is one heck of a problem trying to relocate people. They have to do it themselves and have hope that they can do it. It has to happen slowly and with a true freedom of economic activity, or it will happen fast with violence. Rich people run the government and rich people do not want to give up even a little of their riches to help build a dispersed society. It is one hell of a problem. Anna, yes, we can do it. Or enough of the right kind of people can do it in a free society. You did it. Carol and I did. Thousands of people are doing it. Darrel Allen, I also thought the computer revolution would bring a more dispersed society a whole lot faster than it has, but rest assured it is happening. It was amusing to me that when Washington DC closed down from the snow storm that thousands of government workers found out that they could get much of the work done at home just fine. Actually, the workers knew that all along, but the boss still gets nervous about people working at home where he or she can’t keep an eye on them. Eventually the whole work culture will realize that if you give a worker REAL computer work to do and a goal, he or she can do it at home even better than at the office (less distractions) Work is measured by accomplished, not in hours put in. Gene

I think that if we’re willing to scrimp and save a bit, more people can go back to the land than you think. I saved my pennies for a few years, and then found a piece of property that was primarily swamp and steep hillside with a few nice flat acres. It was $600 per acre, with no house. We dragged a forty year old trailer onto the property (got it for free, spent $2,000 getting the driveway in shape and having the trailer hauled in). Now our housing expenses are less than $40 a month (property taxes.) With the money we’ve saved, we’re building a little outbuilding (much better insulated) for winter use.

I think that my experience is within the price range of a lot of people. There are a lot of places where land prices are still pretty cheap, especially if you’re willing to make do with less than perfect.

But what of gentrification? Who can afford to go “back to the land” these days?

We’ve been trying to interest people in co-operative farming shares for years, but we can’t offer it at a value that makes sense for most people, even though it’s much less than a suburban house in most areas.

Unless farmland price crashes, it’s hard to get back to the land. And if it crashes, what will happen to the poor sods who had mortgages on their farms?

It’s easy to say, “Go back to the land!” It may even be the *right* thing to say. But it’s not so easy to do.


I don’t know what the situation in Haiti is regarding those people who are flooding out of the city back into the country. Will they be met with resistance once the country people learn they will have to share the little they have? What is the land ownership situation there? Is there any possibility for the returning people to establish a bit of land for themselves presuming they will reach the country without two coins to rub together? There in the tropics they have some chance to find food on the trees even during the winter, however, Haiti is already devastated environmentally. How will the natural world support them?

Here in the US a similar situation exists, although not so desperate. People who have come on bad times as a result of some misfortune (job loss, health care bills, mortgage foreclosure, etc.) might want to get out of the city but where are they to go? They can’t move back on the land, they have no credit and land prices are astronomical anyway. Most of them don’t have families in the country to fall back on. Most people don’t have the entrepreneurial skills necessary to start and maintain a viable Internet business. Many of the manufacturing start-ups in the country collapse after a short time so there will be few, if any, factory-type jobs available. As you note, the original migration to the cities was by government and business fiat. I would suggest there is now a government and business fiat aimed at keeping people in the cities where they are readily available to meet the needs of the bosses. If a significant portion of the population is in a precarious situation financially so much the better for the bosses. People wondering where the next dollar is going to come from are less likely to be demanding about pay and benefits.

I know, I know, too contrary, too doomer. Sorry.

Michael Irving

    “… If a significant portion of the population is in a precarious situation financially so much the better for the bosses. People wondering where the next dollar is going to come from are less likely to be demanding about pay and benefits.”

    I do think there are some folks who are beginning to think differently on this. People are tired of working for next to nothing, understanding that there is no job security no matter what tune you dance to for the bosses’ sake.

That would be a much better use of government stimulus money than their current attempt to “create jobs.”

thetinfoilhatsociety February 21, 2010 at 8:13 am

Interestingly, China has instituted a program for training people how to be entrepreneurs, and has spent something like a billion dollars to train half a billion people. 25% of them have gone back home to the country and started their own businesses. Of those, most are successful, and are employing their neighbors. I heard an interview on BBC about this; they interviewed a few of the business owners and one even said “well it’s more hard work than working in a factory was, but I work for myself now and it’s better than working for someone else”

Can’t put it any better than that.

What about doing some kind of microfinance here in the States like is done in India and Africa to get small farms/local businesses going?

I’ve felt something very similar about the part of Appalachia where I live. People here are dirt poor, especially in rural areas since tobacco stopped being subsidized. So all of the smart young people flee to the cities — and not just to the local cities but to cities beyond Appalachia’s borders. Yet, I’ve had absolutely no problem making a living on the farm…over the internet. Why can’t we teach young people how to start internet-based microbusinesses to bring money back into economically depressed rural areas?

Gene I have been saying this as well ever since my wife and I went to the city right after graduating from college. We both grew up in rural Maine (most of Maine is). We got our taste of city life, it lasted 3 years. We moved back to where we were raised and love evey minute of it. You are ABSOLUTELY correct when saying in this day and age people can have jobs in rural areas because of the internet. This hasnt taken off like I thought it would. I have met a few people who work from home thru the internet but I thought I would see a larger group of people make the move to the country. Cities are not nice places to raise a family, its actually MORE expensive to live in cities (taxes, rent,food prices) than to live in rural areas. I think most people are deathly afraid of being independent for themselves.

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