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 November 19, 1999

On Thanksgiving, take a minute to remember the farmers

We have a bountiful choice available for our Thanksgiving dinners, and a strong Front Range economy means most of us will be thankful for the past several years’ successes.

Every November, my friends and I take time to hunt pheasant and quail in Nebraska, and this season we included a trip to South Dakota. As Denver’s talk show signals fade out along I-76, we click over to local rural AM stations, where the auction prices of corn and cattle and farming ads dominate the airwaves.

As we cruise past the endless cornfields bordering I-80, it always strikes me how little things change out there. My eyes welcome the lack of tract homes and new shopping centers. Over many years, the biggest commercial addition to the small Nebraska town we visit has been a new McDonald’s, replacing the local “Haystack” hamburger stand. A Comfort Inn rose at the highway exit, forcing the Circle S motel to finally put in some new carpet.

The tone of the radio commentators also seldom changes. It’s a message of survival; the conservative voice of rural America calling – not for handouts – but for someone to understand their plight.

A few years ago the talk around the cafes was the impossibly low price of beef. This year, nearly every commodity is suffering, with weak prices for all that corn, wheat and soybeans.

My friend Bill moved from Boulder years ago to a small farm in Nebraska’s Sandhills, now a convenient hunting stopover for us not far from the South Dakota line. Up the road is Winner, a small town in Tripp County that recognized the money to be made from hunters.

A giant rooster pheasant greets you at the town entrance, and colorful pheasant banners and flags fly from every lamppost. The Winner Chamber has a hunting guide listing some 31 guides, farms or outfitters that cater to hunters. Developing the image as a sportsman’s “paradise” has been Winner’s and much of South Dakota’s answer to economic diversification.

But hunting alone will never solve the farm crisis.

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City reports prices are low in part due to farmers’ own technological advances. With favorable weather throughout the Farm Belt (this year we hunted with our truck air conditioners on), there are huge U.S. and worldwide crop supplies. The Asian crisis created weaker buying as well. And the strong dollar makes U.S. farm exports more difficult.

In the past 50 years, small rural farms have been in a free fall. Farm-dependent counties plummeted from some 2,000 in 1950, the Fed reports, to about 556 now. An estimated $16.6 billion in direct government payments this year will support farm income.

Rural America is searching for new economic engines, but even the Fed admits little is known about which industries hold promise. To attract new business and workers, there must be new roads, bridges and municipal systems. But it’s a Catch-22. With declining taxes, farm communities face tough decisions.

Rural businesses also have a shorter menu of capital options, the Fed says. The opportunity for market innovation exists, but are the nation’s banks really looking?

Our bird hunt, despite the unusually warm weather, was successful. We enjoyed Winner’s hunter hospitality enough be plan a second trip in December.

But answers to the enormous changes that U.S. agriculture faces are, the Fed says, a “tall order.” Federal and state governments will be unable to ignore the problem. And despite our metro-area boom, it’s a story all of us need to watch, too.

We have a bountiful choice available for our Thanksgiving dinners, and a strong Front Range economy means most of us will be thankful for the past several years’ successes.

Every November, my friends and I take time to hunt pheasant and quail in Nebraska, and this season we included a trip to South Dakota. As Denver’s talk show signals fade out along I-76, we click over to local rural AM stations, where the auction prices of corn and cattle and farming ads dominate the airwaves.

As we cruise past the endless cornfields bordering I-80, it always strikes me how little…

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