No one lives in rural Kansas any more — many counties have fewer than 10 people per square mile — and the state ranks first for 25- to 29-year-olds who leave. Why? Wheat. For The New Food Economy, Kansan Corie Brown drove across Kansas, all 1,800 miles of it, to see how Kansas has become a victim of its own farming success.
Everywhere, I felt the absence—of people, of commerce, even of sound. The silence was broken only by a vintage pickup truck pulling up to the Downs grain elevator, huge mounds of excess grain piled high on the ground all around it.
That image—abundance at the center of a depopulated landscape—sums up the reality of rural Kansas. Yes, the harvest continues to be bounteous. But it masks a harder truth: Kansas’s plentiful grain crop has come at the expense of nearly everything else.
Why? The costs of growth.
Since 1980, the average Kansas farm has expanded in size from 640 to 770 acres—and yield increased, too, thanks to investments in machinery and chemicals. Between 2003 and 2016, Kansas’s farmers improved their wheat yields from 48 bushels/acre to 57 bushels/acre and enjoyed some record harvests, according to Mykel Taylor, a K-State agricultural economist.
But those extra bushels per acre likely required exorbitant financial investment. During those same years, Kansas’s average annual expenses per farm more than doubled, rising from $130,000 in 2003 to a whopping $300,000 in 2016, according to Taylor. And now, commodity crop prices have fallen off a cliff. Commodity wheat, for instance, fell to $3.37 per bushel in 2016 after averaging $6.50 per bushel across the previous eight years.