America’s Farming Crisis, Laid Bare by Midwest Floods

A deeper problem lies beneath recent stories of swelling rivers, soggy small towns, and feel-good relief efforts.
America’s Farming Crisis, Laid Bare by Midwest Floods
Image: Scott Olson / Getty Images

The fields where my grandfather and his brothers once played football are currently covered by several feet of water.

My grandpa Bert was born in a small Nebraska town called Oakland, a couple hours north of Lincoln, just down the road from Senator Ben Sasse in Fremont. Like much of northeastern Nebraska, these towns are now in crisis, battling the historic flooding that has devastated the state’s farms and ranches, killed three people, and dislocated thousands.

Currently the state estimates $439 million in damages to infrastructure, $85 million in damages to homes and businesses, $400 million worth of cattle lost, and $440 million of crops destroyed, placing the total damages, by my count, at around $1.3 billion.

Floods lay bare that which was already true. This is what the Genesis Flood does, of course, and it is also how Peter describes the coming judgment at the end of all things. He likens it Noah’s flood, going on to say, “the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10).

Athanasius argues that miracles are often a kind of supernaturally accomplished acceleration of natural events: Nature will, given enough time, turn water into wine—rains will fall and nourish grape vines, the grapes will be harvested, and then eventually ferment to become wine. Jesus simply sped the process up at the wedding in Cana. Events like a flood, then, might be read as an inversion of a miracle—a rapid acceleration of the unmaking of the cosmos following the events of Genesis 3.

Sadly, I cannot help but see this quickening destruction happening in my home state. The flood has soaked thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses to ruin in places that already struggled with a trajectory of economic decline and despair brought about by forces outside their control.

To understand the impact of these catastrophic floods in Nebraska—what they will mean for the communities in the weeks, months, and years after the rivers recede and the roads clear—we have to look at the state of the farmers, the men and women who have loved this place even when no one else did.

Whether they can recover will depend not only on how the “bomb cyclone” runoff hit their land over the past week, but how they have been hit by the pressures of the agriculture industry over the past several decades. Their devastation brings a loss to all of us, no matter where in the country we live.

One fifth-generation farmer from northeastern Nebraska told The New York Times, “There’s not many farms left like this, and it’s probably over for us too, now.” His family has been on their land since the homesteading days of the 19th century.

This is the rotten fruit yielded by post-war agriculture in America and, more generally, a growing disdain for small, rural places. For decades, people have referred to my home state and its neighbors as “flyover country,” an ugly term for a forgettable patchwork of green and brown stretching across the Midwest.

That it is beautiful is something they will never know. They will never stand on a country road early in the morning and watch the sun come up over open fields, never know the pleasure of talking to someone in town whose family has been there for generations and who knows the entire history of the people and the place for at least the past century. And so the people who live in these places remain afterthoughts.

Because of this indifference, we have been blind to how big ag executives and politicians have made themselves rich on the backs of America’s farmers and ranchers. They have told farmers to get big or get out; to take on more and more debt; to spend more and more on simply putting a crop in the ground.

This regime may be working for Monsanto and the various politicians their lobbying dollars have bought. But for farmers, people tasked with caring for the land and feeding the nation, it has been ruinous. In the past five years, farm incomes in the United States have fallen by half. Last year the number of farms filing for bankruptcy spiked by 19 percent. Most farms are losing money; median farm income was negative $1,325.

These economic realities transformed rural communities like the ones now underwater in Nebraska and neighboring states. Along with financial despair came an uptick in farmer suicides, drug-related deaths, and the dispiriting awareness that the rest of America didn’t understand or appreciate their way of life.

In the aftermath of this year’s flooding, many Nebraskans will show the generosity and persistence that defines this place and many others like it. And, no doubt, many media outlets will focus on these stories as a way of featuring hope in the midst of despair. This is not a bad instinct, even if it often collapses down to a vapid sentimentalism that doesn’t actually help America’s farmers. But rural America needs more than the occasional profile highlighting its ordinary decency.

Rural America needs churches and pastors that will make long-term commitments to the small places of our nation. A good friend of mine is a rural pastor in the Midwest. He tells me that around 90 percent of the people within an hour’s drive of where he lives are not in evangelical churches on Sunday. We don’t typically think of rural America when we think of unchurched places, but we should.

Rural places need urban and suburban neighbors who recognize that the life of the land is the life of the nation. The lives and livelihoods of those who care for the land are good and beautiful and deserving of our protection.

Good intention and sentiment will not be sufficient to address the problems facing my home state. They demand an economy that recognizes the dignity of farming and reveres those who care for the land. Without that, these natural disasters come not as a disruption of an otherwise thriving society, but as a cruel blow to places that have been pushed to the brink by the indifference and even malice of the wealthy and the powerful.

That we are seeing the danger is good. That it took a flood to draw our attention to the decline of these places is sad.

While rural America needs things from urban and suburban America, its decline hurts city-dwellers too. The ancient Greek thinker Xenophon said that, “Farming, more than any other calling, seems to produce a generous disposition in its followers.” When we lose those who care for land and animals, we lose people who could teach us about generosity, attentiveness, and how to affectionately tend the life of the world.

My grandfather was the son of an immigrant farmer named C. G. Fredstrom and his wife Elise. C. G. battled depression and economic uncertainty for 40 years on a rented farm, yet still managed to raise eight children who walked with God all their days. That I am a Christian today is partly due to the fidelity of a good Nebraska farmer and his even more remarkable wife who held the household together during C. G.’s darkest spells.

People like my ancestors and like those still farming in Nebraska today, who see and value their place, who weave their lives together with the land and the animals under their care, can teach all of us something about how to see and value one another.

It is often true that the first step toward loving one’s neighbor is simply noticing them, and good farmers are nothing if not attentive. That we have made it harder to be a good farmer is tragic in itself. That we will not benefit from the tutelage of good farmers like C. G. Fredstrom going forward is a possibility. And that possibility may be the greater tragedy.

Jake Meador is a fourth-generation Nebraskan and lives in Lincoln with his wife and three children. His forthcoming book In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Worldwill be released on June 25. Follow him on Twitter @jake_meador.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.

July/August
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Read These Next
close