The Poppers are still predicting a shrinking state


December 14, 2010 - 12:00 AM

East coast academics Frank and Deborah Popper peeved a lot of Kansans in 1987 with an essay entitled “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust.” Kansas, they wrote, should be turned back to the buffalo.
The essay documented how the population of western Kansas had steadily declined and correctly predicted it would continue to do so.
The Poppers come back to Kansas from time to time. Last Saturday they were in Salina as featured speakers at the Kansas Farmers Union Convention. They recalled that they had decided to write about Kansas and the Great Plains because it was something they could do together. Deborah is a geographer at the City University of New York and Princeton. Frank is a Rutgers University professor.
“We never expected the essay to have the impact it does, never expected it still to be talked about 23 years later,” he told the KFU members.
Kansans he said, “…are part of the remaining tribe of the Mother Lode Aquifer …. some of the last romantic capitalists in America. (You) inhabit an area where the payoffs are not mainly financial,” he said. “The kinds of lives you live are the last bastion. It’s how and why the Plains were settled.”
He continued in that vein and said he expects more of the same from the 2010 census. Popper still thinks it would be a good idea to create a national park in western Kansas that vacationers on their way to the Rocky Mountains could enjoy.

IF THE PAST predicts the future, Popper is right. Not only is the population of western Kansas continuing to decline, so is the population of most of the other counties of Kansas. Allen County, despite its bountiful supply of factory jobs, is down about 10,000 from its peak.
But if Frank and Debbie Popper had looked at the farm economy of Kansas a little closer last week, they might have had second thoughts. While much of the Kansas economy, along with that of the other Great Plains states, felt the punch of the Great Recession, the farm sector is doing just fine, thank you.
As Moran farmer Gary Parker commented the other day, in the recessions of the past, farmers seemed to be hurt  the most. This time they’re on top of the heap. The weather has been decent. Prices have been great. Farmers are — at long last — making a decent return on their investments, earning a good wage for their labor.
There are fundamental reasons to expect this thrice-welcome trend to continue: the world’s population continues to grow and the booming economies of Asia generate wealth those populations are using to buy food they could not afford previously. That combination of more mouths to feed and more money to spend to feed them is part of the reason for high commodity prices — and two very good reasons to expect growing demand to make farming profitable again.
If this explanation for today’s farm prosperity is valid, the outlook for rural America — rural everywhere — is bright, not bleak.
This is not to predict the return of small farms and the population level that went with them; but it is to surmise that profitable farms will attract and hold young families.
Peering through their own lens, Frank and Debbie looked at western Kansas wheat farmers and saw “the last of the romantic capitalists.” But there is nothing fanciful about the big money being made by the growers of wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton in today’s market. The Poppers are right to observe that the main payoff for farmers and for the rest of the rural population (even including printers and reporters) is not “mainly financial.” OK, but today that sentence should be edited to read: “not ONLY financial.”
After all, the production of food and fiber meets fundamental human needs. Kansas and the rest of the Great Plains states have a vital role to play in that production. This is really much more than a Buffalo Commons. It is breadbasket to the world — and its coming back to its own.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.