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Small Towns in Iowa Thrive Near Large Farms

A study by Iowa State University (ISU) rural sociologists suggests that small towns in Iowa benefit from the presence of large farms

A study by Iowa State University (ISU) rural sociologists suggests that small towns in Iowa benefit from the presence of large farms.

“Our findings suggest there is a modest favorable effect of large-scale agriculture on quality of life in the 99 Iowa communities we studied,” says Steve Sapp, professor of sociology. “That’s not especially surprising, given the close relationship between Iowa’s rural communities and agriculture.”

Sapp conducted the studies with Daniel Sundblad, a recent ISU graduate student who is now an assistant professor of sociology at Berry College in Georgia.

The studies were funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Research Institute, with a goal of learning key factors affecting the viability of small towns in Iowa and satisfaction of its residents.

For several decades, the issue of relationships between agricultural scale and community quality of life have been studied around the country.

“The generally favorable association of larger agricultural scale and community quality of life has tended to occur mainly in the Midwest, and that was true with our studies,” Sapp says. “Similar studies in other regions of the country have tended to associate larger agricultural scale with decreased measures of quality of life.”

Quality of life assessments were based on residents’ impressions of government services and community services. It also included participation in local clubs, ratings of neighborliness, socioeconomic data including income, poverty rates, crime rates, infant mortality rates, unemployment rates and gaps between rich and poor.

One small town (below 10,000 population) in each of Iowa’s 99 counties was selected that was not located next to a large city and relied mainly on agriculture for jobs and income. Surveys were conducted of 150 randomly located households located in or near the community.

In those towns, researchers evaluated changes from 1994 to 2004, using county-level data and local surveys. “In that 10-year period, for the most part incomes rose, poverty rates declined, crime rates declined, infant mortality rates declined, unemployment declined and gaps between rich and poor closed in association with increases in the scale of agriculture in their county,” Sapp says.

Most of the positive changes were also evident when looking specifically at commercial hog operations. The greater the scale of hog production in the county, the higher quality of life ratings from the community, the research team concludes.

Scale of agriculture was defined as a composite of the average number of hogs per hog farm, the average number of cattle per cattle farm, total agricultural sales per farm, percent of sales in the county from large farms, total value of farmland in the county and the percentage of land in crops in the county.

“This approach sought to capture aspects of large-scale agriculture devoted to meat and raw commodity production in a county,” Sapp relates.

Overall, the county-level data and local surveys supported the view that large-scale agriculture, and hog production in particular, have a modest but favorable effect on quality of life in Iowa rural towns.