Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

The phenomenon of dying rural towns


April 17, 2019

The other day I was in a town about 100 miles from here. Townsend used to be a dynamic place, but there are a lot of empty storefronts there now.

The phenomenon of dying rural towns is becoming more obvious all the time. Deer Lodge, for example, used to be well to do. The Anaconda smelter, the saw mills, the railroad, and the phosphate mine were all available as good employment. The firms paid their labor well and the employees were relatively comfortable in their lives.

Options are few for people who lose their jobs in a small town. The families usually have to move, and in leaving they take a couple children out of the local school, plus the support of local retailers.

Coupled with the lack of work, the financial situation of the agricultural facet of local economies also contributes to the social erosion. Low prices and a chronic drought have had their way with ranchers and farmers these last few years.

By facilitating travel, the interstate highway system began the demise of small town Montana. Over the years, prices and weather have taken their toll on the spending ability of ranchers and farmers.

Together with the economy itself, the declining population of rural areas is having a more lasting effect. The days of large families are gone, and both the grade schools and high schools are suffering from a lack of students.

Another factor is rather sad. A couple of ranchers my age have told me that their children want nothing of the cattle business or the responsibility of owning a large property. They don't want to work 80 hours or more a week and still live a life of financial frustration.

The custom of sacrificing oneself just to keep a property in the family for future generations isn't appealing to them. That tradition is being slowly lost to short-term thinking and desire for a quick return for a person's efforts.

On family properties, the long-term goals are nebulous and more abstract than a simple profit/loss statement. "Survival" is a synonym for "success" in agriculture, and it takes a full generation to be realized.

It's difficult for a ranch to pay for itself, much less purchase more property. The high cost of production, dry weather, and a weak market all demand caution. The two important facets that affect profit and loss are prices and rain, over which the producer has absolutely no control. He or she can only hope – often for more than fifty years, with a few good years interspersed among the poor ones.

When agrarian properties leave the original ownership and have to be sold, the neighbors will be hard put to purchase the acreages, given the costs of operation and other debts. That will leave the land available to wealthy purchasers from large urban centers.

These people operate on short term, empirical goals, and the properties become simple investments, purchased with cash, and not the dedication and sacrifice of generations. Tradition and respect for the land itself aren't compatible with regular businesses. Profit is the only thing.

Outside owners give little support to local retailers. They purchase in large volumes from cheaper sources, and very rarely do they hire any local help.

In the interest of quick return, companies sometimes opt for working the tourist market and turning the property into a resort. Workers in the recreation industry are poorly paid and suffer from seasonal fluctuations when they're laid off during the off season.

With all the brouhaha about cattle putting an end to the world via global warming, I find it ironic that the golf courses built on old cattle pastures and meadows cause much more environmental damage than do cattle. The ground becomes near toxic from the huge quantities of herbicides and fertilizers spread on it. Once, while golfing, I took my shoes off and went barefoot. The green keeper saw that and ordered me to put them back on. He explained that there was so much weed spray on his course, it was very unhealthy for a person to go without shoes.

There are tree groves on the family ranch in Helmville. They were planted by our great grandfather 150 years ago or so, and were the property to be sold, the buyer would possibly cut all the ancient trees down to get more grass - or even to build a golf course.

Good or bad, I think the loss of agrarian heritage and tradition is inevitable. It will be a slow process, of course, but the current situation for ranchers and farmers is not that positive. The floods in the Midwest will have a negative effect on our cattle prices this fall since a good number of our feeder calves are sent to that area.

So, if our rustic Damocles sword doesn't fall too quickly, the families will be around for another generation or so.


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