Poppers need to go beyond the obvious

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Remember the Poppers? They're the professors who, early in the '90s, came up with the term, "Buffalo Commons," to describe a vast portion of the Great Plains, including Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas.

Their premise was that since the region is losing population, it might be better to turn the land back to habitat for large buffalo herds.

Their writings caused quite a stir. The most dramatic confrontation was in McCook, where heated arguments between the Poppers and area residents broke out following a public forum.

Now -- nearly a decade later -- the Poppers are back. This time, in an article distributed by the Prairie Writers Circle, the Poppers exclaim, "American small farmers now appear to be at the far end of a vast economic shift that gives every promise of eliminating them."

As before, it appears it's not so much what the Poppers have to say as much as it is how they say it.

Those of us who live in the Great Plains know that population in our area is declining. We've watched it happen steadily over the past three quarters of a century.

We don't even dispute the Poppers' explanation as to why fewer people are needed to farm the land. Under pressure to produce food as efficiently as possible, farming operations have grown larger and larger, squeezing the small farmer out in the process.

What we do dispute, however, is the doomsday conclusions of the Poppers' writings. Yes, farms are getting bigger and bigger. And, yes, population is declining. But, in most respects, the people of the Great Plains have adapted quite well to the changes which are taking place.

Over the past half century, farms have grown much larger and more efficient, providing good returns for the bigger operators and farming jobs for those with ag skills.

While farmers have adapted -- by growing larger -- small towns have not done so well. Because there are fewer people to patronize small town stores and schools, the little towns are losing population rapidly.

If the Poppers want to help, they need to go beyond a statement of the obvious. Small farms are declining, they say. Well, we knew that. What we're trying to do is come up with solutions -- such as the ethanol developments in this area and new crop ideas, as presented earlier this month in Curtis by U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne.

We do face challenges. But, for those of us who remain, a fulfilling life is still quite possible on the Great Plains of America.

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