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Rural Population Decline

by Zwackus Sat Sep 15th, 2007 at 10:53:31 PM EST

A recent discussion in the daily news forum got me thinking about the issue of rural population decline in developed countries.  I have a sense of the problem in Japan and the US, but I'm curious about the situation in other parts of the world, and I wonder what the community thinks about the issue.

Articles and discussion after the jump.

First off, an article about the situation in Kansas, from the Lawrence Journal/World News.  Lawrence is a university town in Kansas.

Rural Kansas, once the backbone of the state economy, is going through a series of painful changes, expert panelists told a Kansas University audience Thursday.

"The state of rural communities is tough," said Tom Gissel, who farms 7,000 acres with his brother near Larned. "We're aging and we're depopulating," losing schools, post offices and other services that hold the communities together.

-- --

"Kansas has a lot going for it, and not all Kansans subscribe to the gloom-and-doom paradigm," Brooks said.

But the tone of the presentation was far from optimistic.

"I live in a rural ghetto," said Pete Farrell, a Greenwood County cattle rancher. "Do you know what a ghetto is? It's where people are so poor they can't leave."

The situation in the US is a combination of abject poverty and demography - agriculture doesn't pay, there's not much of an economy outside agriculture, and a lot of young people wouldn't want agricultural jobs even if they did pay.

Anecdotally, my parents moved recently to Mountain Home, Arkansas.  My father had to drive three hours or so to pick me up at the airport in St. Louis, so I got to see a bit of the countryside on the way home.  Not very encouraging - lots of disused farms and land returning to nature.  Abandoned barns, decaying outbuildings, empty houses.

In Japan, poverty is not as much of a problem. The government and the giant nationwide agricultural cooperative make sure that farmers do well enough, economically speaking.  The problem seems to be that there are fewer young people than ever, and those few there are simply don't want to be farmers, especially in small, remote communities.

As much as people hate the Economist, they do sometimes produce worthwhile articles, like this one on Japan's demographic crisis.

It is in the countryside that demographic changes hit particularly hard. There the population has been falling for years, as younger villagers head for the city in search of work and play. Today, those over 65 account for two out of five people in rural communities, and three-fifths of all farmers. The future of farming in such places is in doubt. Growing rice, the staple crop, requires communal efforts in irrigation, flood control and the like. Mutual obligations in communities run even to organising funerals. So when young villagers leave for the city, everyone feels the loss. An earthquake on July 16th in Niigata prefecture brought the problem home; the 3,000 evacuees still living in shelters are predominantly elderly, unable to fend for themselves in their damaged houses.

The tiny hamlet of Ogama, in Ishikawa prefecture near the Sea of Japan, is responding most radically to population decline. (The community has three men and six women between the ages of 62 and over 90, down from a population of 50 a generation ago.) The survivors of this remote and stunning valley have canvassed an industrial-waste company from Tokyo and, if the prefecture approves, the valley--paddy fields, vegetable plots and cedarwood plantations--will disappear under 150 metres (500 feet) of industrial ash. The villagers plan to use the money from the sale to build new houses in the nearby township, to where the ancestral shrine has already been moved.

My own take on the rural situation in Japan is that the "bright lights of the city" effect is really strong.  Everybody wants to be part of "mainstream" Japanese culture, which is pretty monolithically defined as Tokyo urban culture.  Rural culture is the culture of old people, and rural life is the life of the old.  Some get involved in it, but most don't, and those that don't are lost to it forever.  In my area, young people don't go walking in the parks and hills, they don't go and enjoy the various natural wonders, and they don't care about the history of the area.  I occasionally see young couples at the various famous Chichibu temples.  They're almost always kited up in modern urban wear, the woman in ridiculous heels, the guys as often as not in some approximation of the hip-hop look.  They drive in, see things for a bit, then drive away.

As people leave the distant areas, they're just abandoned, with sometimes odd effects.  I'm not sure if this is a reprint of something posted in ET a while ago, but I think it's really emblematic of the situation here - Leech invasion makes residents see red

TOKYO (Reuters) - Long confined to the mountains, Japanese leeches are invading residential areas, causing swelling, itching and general discomfort with their blood-thirsty ways.

Yamabiru, or land leeches, have become a problem in 29 of Japan's 47 prefectures, according to the Institute for Environmental Culture, a private research facility in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo.

The little suckers are riding into towns and villages, hitching lifts on deer and boar whose numbers have grown due to re-forestation and dwindling rural populations.

An academic piece I randomly found on the topic of rural population decline cites the following factors in its abstract.

The factors that best explain differences in rural county population growth rates are

    * the level of employment diversification
    * average rural income
    * average education level
    * distance to a major city.

The analysis shows that:

    * Other things equal, counties with higher average incomes grow faster.
    * Counties with more highly educated populations grow more slowly since the incentive to leave rural areas increases with education.
    * Rural counties benefit from proximity to an urban labor market and from a more diversified local economy.
    * Younger populations are more sensitive to these factors than the population generally.
    * Local government fiscal policies have no effect on population growth. It seems that the although locally provided government services make a place more attractive to live in, the taxes needed to finance these services counteract the effect.
    * Higher average farm incomes tended to slow the decline of the county farm population.
    * Similarly, nonfarm populations grew more rapidly in counties with higher average nonfarm incomes.
    * Higher nonfarm incomes had no significant effect on farm populations, while higher farm incomes led to declining nonfarm populations. This suggest that nonfarm population growth does not depend on a strong farm economy, nor does farm population growth require a strong nonfarm economy.

The results of the study suggest that the welfare of rural areas does not depend on the welfare of the farm economy. There is evidence to suggest that rural areas will benefit from an effort to diversify the rural economy. However, more local government spending financed by local taxes will not lead to higher population growth.

First, I wonder if interested readers might post a little bit on the situation in their own country.  How are rural areas doing?  Why?

Second, I wonder what the community thinks about the countryside in general.  What do you see as the future of small towns and rural populations?  What role do you see them playing in the world of the future? Do you think they are doomed to disappear, linger on in a marginal state, or undergo a bit of rejuvenation?  What should their economic role be?  What balance is to be had between them and the unquestionable cultural superiority of the big cities?  How will peak oil and the coming resource shortages affect all this?

How about you?
. I live in a rural area, and have lived here my whole life. 6%
. I live in a rural area, but moved here from a more urban area. 31%
. I used to live in a rural area, but have moved away. 25%
. I was born in an urban area, and I've always lived in urban areas. 37%

Votes: 16
Results | Other Polls
the Pacific NW.  That's how it's called, probably because Portland, OR is only 40 miles away.  We still "farm" timber to some degree, and I predict that this type of agricultural endeavor will grow again in our area.

To our east, there is one of the great temperate fruit-growing regions, and it appears to be a fairly stable industry, both in terms of the producers and the product.  One thing that may alter the equation in the future is that this whole area is very attractive in many regards.  The orchard land is already substantially more valuable as a subdivision, but the impact has not been large thus far.  I would not care to predict, though.

There are some large organic operations in the region, too.  These seem to have sufficient margin to justify growth and diversification, as well.

You mention energy production.  One of the emerging synergies with the farmers is wind turbines on farmland.  Essentially, the farmer is practicing his normal agriculture on 95% of the farmland, while receiving rent for the turbines' space.  There are several developments of that sort within 80 miles to the East, and the only hindrance to this scheme is manufacturing capacity of the turbine companies.

I don't think that there will be a great rush in Washington and Oregon to raise corn for ethanol and what-not.  The farmers in the eastern sections of this region have to irrigate, and the water is expensive.  So far, they appear to realize that corn will take too many nutrients out of the soil and will cost much more for water.

Finally, our area is growing slowly, but part of this is due to an in-migration of retirees, and part is due to the desirability of the area for a home base.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Sun Sep 16th, 2007 at 12:55:03 AM EST
In May I went to the island off Yakushima, off the southern tip of the southernmost main island of Kyushu.

It was amazing to see how few young people there were there, aside from tourists.  I think the youngest person in the village where I stayed was 53.

(More striking was to see how hard the locals worked their gardens, rivers, beaches: gardening, farming, fishing, carpentry, etc.  I am talking about people into their 70s and 80s, who probably don't have to work that much to live, but who do so to save money, as growing and fishing your own food, and fixing your own homes, is obviously much cheaper than paying for it.)

By the way, too bad we never got to meet while I was in Tokyo.  The next time I swing through there, I'll ping you to see if we can't meet up in Chichibu or somewhere.

Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read or write.

by marco on Sun Sep 16th, 2007 at 05:48:43 AM EST
I have lived in many places, including rural ones, but was born and presently live in an urban area.

In Hungary and Slovakia, rural areas face the exact same problems as you describe: too little job choice, poverty, young people moving away. During communism, there have been from-above attempts to mend the problem, but they usually caused more trouble than benefits. Then the state did little since 1989. However, the counter-migration of middle- and upper-class people out from the city, and also the mass trend for weekend homes, limited the shift somewhat.

In East Germany, my impression is that the problem is much worse, with post-Reunification out-migration threatening to depopulate whole areas, despite the extensive reconstruction of villages and new construction of private homes with generous state support.

In West Germany and Austria, on one hand even farmers are rich, on the other hand settlement structure is so dense and/or tourism is as widespread that city various emigrants seem to balance those who leave, but there too, young people prefer the cities to farming.

I, like DeAnander, think that on the long run, it's major cities that are doomed. In the post-oil-economy, people might feel forced to move closer to the source of food just like after WWII.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Sep 16th, 2007 at 07:36:02 AM EST
I live in rural Somerset, UK. Up to thirty percent of the housing in some villages has been bought for second homes by Londoners. This keeps the price of property well out of the reach of any young people who may wish to stay there, even if they can find local jobs. Traditional farmers often struggle against agricultural imports, and the low prices paid by the big grocers like Tesco and Asda. The governments on both the county and nationl level are cutting services to rural communities as well. If the county closes a local school, then people with school age children have to move or drive their kids to school every day. If a local hospital is closed, the elderly are forced to find transport to ever more distant treatment facilities. I would say that most of Somerset is coping, but some counties, like Cornwall are really struggling.
by northsylvania on Sun Sep 16th, 2007 at 01:22:46 PM EST
I live close to London, so have no ability to comment except anecdotally, but what I hear supports your comments exactly.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Sep 16th, 2007 at 01:30:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The original reasons for the explosive rise of cities had to do with the need for labor to be need the factories. These tended to be near sources of water, both for transport and for power.

People went where the work was.

We now live in an environment where many people do jobs that require little in the way of expensive machinery. Indeed people frequently comment on how they can telecommute when the situation demands (say bad weather), so it is strange that the rural areas aren't seeing some growth.

Here in the US people are migrating to newly built exurbs mainly in the South and West while they are leaving towns in the midwest and northeast. The rationals given for this migration don't ring true. Many say things about the weather, but why is being locked inside with the air conditioning for four months a year better than being stuck inside during a snow storm?

I think it reflects a desire to start with a clean slate. There has always been a trend in the US to be pioneers and escape the past. Mechanized agriculture doesn't require many people. The situation for third world countries with subsistence agriculture is different. Here globalization and the shift to a money-based economy (needed to buy the accoutrements of modern civilization) are forcing peasants off the land.

The effect can be seen in the collapse of the Mexican rural farming sector as the country has been opened up to imports of corn from the US. This has caused a movement to the cities in Mexico as well as the surge in immigrants to the US. Everything is connected.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Sep 29th, 2007 at 02:16:46 PM EST
In the past, I think the flight from the northeast may have been started by capital flight.  Labor and big-government liberalism was strongest in the northeast and upper midwest, so companies fled those areas for the labor-hostile, ultra-conservative south.  As jobs moved, so did everything else.

Regulatory competition between states is a major issue in the US, something that causes everyone headaches but which can't be solved given the nature of federalism.

by Zwackus on Sat Sep 29th, 2007 at 09:07:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A fundamental problem with farming in Japan (and potentially in many other countries) is that under a system of international free trade, farming is just not a financially sustainable activity for the farmer.

This is definitely the case in Japan which has an extensive subsidy and tariff system to combat Chinese imports. (The South Koreans also have a similar system.)

This is all well and good, but it's another nail in the coffin. It's one thing to accuse the young of being "in thrall to the bright lights of the city" but when the alternative offered is to be, in effect, a strange kind of civil servant, shuffling papers to acquire subsidies with some hard physical labour and very long hours thrown in, why wouldn't they choose city life?

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sat Sep 29th, 2007 at 07:47:25 PM EST
Although farming is obviously a large part of rural population decline, it's not the whole thing.  Where I live, the children of people who own prosperous restaurants and shops also leave.  The children of the owners of construction companies leave.  Many, many people leave, whether there is a job and a life for them or not, whether their prospects in Tokyo are any better or not.
by Zwackus on Sat Sep 29th, 2007 at 09:04:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If economics really is the problem, than does anyone foresee a re-population of the countryside should agriculture become more economically rewarding?

Say oil prices make long-distance imports of bulk agricultural commodities too expensive, and imports of fresh fruits/vegetables impossible.   Furthermore, industrial mechanized agriculture goes out of style, either because it's too oil-dependent, or for ecological reasons.  All of a sudden, domestic agriculture, even in places like Japan, has a reason to exist, and there are jobs for people who will do it.  In this sort of situation, does anyone really think the countryside would be substantially re-populated?

I kind of doubt it.  I think the cultural/social factors are really, really strong.  Perhaps poor people would be imported to work on the farms.  But how many young people from the 80% of Americans who consider themselves "middle class", with dreams of upward mobility, college, etc., would choose to get into agriculture?

by Zwackus on Sat Sep 29th, 2007 at 09:02:46 PM EST

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