| September 12, 2013

Ideas for reinvigorating rural Oklahoma

Virginian Joel Salatin describes himself as a "Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist farmer." Farmer Salatin not only lectures about farming techniques that boost profit with lower input, he is also a prolific speaker on the legacy of the family farm. He calls for a shift to the household economy to increase individual and family freedom.

Salatin operates a family store two hours outside of Washington, D.C., where he primarily sells chicken and pork. Customers must come to him as he won’t throw a chicken in the mail to you. He is a firm believer in keeping food and the money that buys the food in the local economy. Twenty years ago, most of his customers were back-to-the-earth hippies whereas now the fastest-growing customer segment is the homeschooling family.

In his book You Can Farm, Salatin describes the budding homesteader who wants to escape the rat race of city and suburban life to a more pastoral setting. However, this is just a partial explanation for why people relocate to rural areas. The surge in customers buying from local farmers or even digging in the dirt themselves is about reclaiming their freedom. As they watch more and more of their hard-earned dollars go to all levels of government, families naturally analyze how they can either increase income or reduce expenses.

When they buy from a local farmer, customers buy a high-quality local product while creating a relationship in the community. If they choose to farm themselves, they are shifting part of their grocery budget into self-production. As they acquire new skills (that cannot be learned in school) and teach their children these skills, they are increasing their household economy in a manner that cannot be taxed.

An often-forgotten fact is that if you shift an expense into home production, the good is paid with after-tax income. So, if the price of a good is $1, the real price to acquire the good must also include the federal and state taxes you pay on that income. You still pay those taxes if you, for example, produce your own food; however, you will have more after-tax income freed up to spend on other goods or you can rely on less income.

By increasing self-reliance, families are effectively reducing reliance on government services, which is good for society. It is clear that the family unit is the cornerstone of a prosperous and durable civil society — but it is also the solution to reducing government dependence. With the largest share of state and federal budgets going toward Medicaid and ridiculous talk of further Medicaid expansion, if families seek to minimize their tax burden by shifting goods and services they purchase into home production, perhaps we can move the needle by reducing the role of government in our lives.

Those interested in shifting their own dependence on the grocery store and other market-provided services to household production or even relocating to a more rural area may ask, “How do I do that?” It appears there are mechanisms available similar to those utilized during the westward expansion of the early 1800s that will help repopulate and revitalize our dying rural areas.

Once-vibrant farming and industrial communities, many of America’s rural areas are now ghost towns in great need of economic overhaul. One innovative policy enacted by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in 2011 aimed at attracting families to rural areas of the state. His plan established Rural Opportunity Zones where families and individuals who relocated from outside of Kansas to rural counties could apply for a five-year exemption from the state’s income tax.

Another rural economic development plan is the FreeME initiative that seeks to spur business and job growth in Maine’s distressed counties by fully eliminating the personal and corporate income tax as well as the sales tax for businesses and individuals in select economically distressed counties. Another solution might be to have towns that may foreclose on a farm instead sell the farm to a family for one dollar. Additionally, with much farmland being bought up by land trusts which grossly restrict the development potential of the land, surely there are private investors who might be interested in rural re-development. Perhaps state economic development agencies could help lure private investors who would invest in large foreclosed farms by, say, taking a 1,000-acre farm and redeveloping it into ten 100-acre farms. Private investors could revenue-share with the farmers but, unlike land trusts, would not put burdensome restrictions on the development of the land.

Joel Salatin firmly believes that rural areas will not prosper unless strong families repopulate these areas. Accordingly, he often lectures on ways to instill the value of work in young children. Such a basic value must be learned, and mothers and fathers are best suited to teach their children that value by setting an example in the home. As Hollywood megastar Ashton Kutcher recently professed, “I’ve never been better than any job I ever had.” There is indeed great dignity in work. It is unfortunate that the young men who recently murdered Christopher Lane in Duncan did not have a productive and fulfilling outlet for their minds and hearts that day.

For those who would like to hear Salatin speak about “reinvigorating the notion of the Jeffersonian, intellectual agrarian,” he will be one of the keynote speakers at the State Policy Network’s Annual Meeting this month in Oklahoma City.

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