If you've already read Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, you already know everything I'm about to say... and much more.

Fellow small-towner Michael Woodring shares Dr. Brown's pessimism about Governor Daugaard's small-town economic development plans:

The railroads (the reason for many a small town on the prairie) have pulled thousands of miles of track, starting back in the late 70s or early 80s. Many of the grain elevators disappeared, or simply shut down, when the rails left. Small towns used to be the go-to place for the farmers in the surrounding area for supplies. Now, a farmer or rancher doesn't think much of driving an hour or two to pick up needed materials or equipment.

...Businesses wish to do business where people are—because that is where the money is [Michael Woodring, "Nostalgia vs. Reality in Small Towns," Constant Conservative, 2011.04.30].

Woodring omits one important factor in the disappearance of all that rail and all those elevators and nearby places to buy supplies. When a family could make a living farming less than 160 acres, a rural township supported a lot more people. Back in 1911, the trip to Sioux Falls or Mitchell was less convenient, but it was also less necessary, as small-town businesses had a much larger base of local customers to support and be supported by. I suspect many farmers and ranchers are thinking twice about driving to Aberdeen or Pierre for parts or groceries on four-dollar-a-gallon gas, but the hollowing-out of the rural market by industrial-scale monoculture means they have no choice.

Monoculture: that means growing just one thing. In 1900, each farm produced an average of 5.1 commodities. Corn, wheat, milk, beef, eggs... not bad eating, right in your rural neighborhood. In 1945, that number had declined just a touch, to 4.6. By 2000, the average commodities per farm had dropped to 1.3. That decline in variety of local production, along most much of the current commodity production going to feed cattle, cars, and corporations, could have opened the door for more grocery store... but that would have required all those grocery eaters to remain on the land. Farms get big, people move away, and Madison has just one grocery store.

Note also the compounding effects of industrial-scale mechanized farming. Bigger machines increase the cost of doing business. Farms had to get bigger to pay for the machines farming them. Machines thus crowded more families off the land, thus reducing the market for farm implements. Dealers had to have much more capital to support acquiring, selling, and servicing those bigger machines, thus crowding smaller dealers out of the market as well. The prairie thus becomes a giant factory floor for corn and beans and milk, with only a handful of workers needed to tend the machines.

Therein lies a contradiction in Governor Daugaard's economic development policies. He wants to boost small towns, but he embraces the industrial agriculture that hollowed small towns out. The frugal, self-reliant governor holds immune from cuts the big-dairy incentives that reduce the number of self-reliant dairy operators without growing production or local economies.

Our land is our greatest resource. Our forebears came to South Dakota and peopled all our Holabirds and Howards and Junii because they could make a living either producing things on the surrounding land or serving the people who did. Economics and politics favored bigger operations, which need fewer people and thus provide fewer opportunities in rural small towns. As Mr. Woodring would agree, fighting those forces will be hard. To revitalize South Dakota's small towns, either we need to put the land around those towns back in the hands of more people producing more things (can you say agrarian reform?), or we need to find some other resource (fresh air? cheap broadband for telecommuting?) to draw new homesteaders from Sioux Falls and Minneapolis.

Update 13:50 CDT: Not wholly unrelated: Feds sting Amish farmer for selling unpasteurized milk. Don't cross state lines, boys!