Defending Rural Communities against Economic Colonization[1]

John Ikerd[2]

When I was growing up in south Missouri in the late 1940s and1950s, it was a time of relative prosperity and hope for the future of rural America. Rural communities had survived the Great Depression and World War II and were still good places to work, live, and raise families. Tractors replaced horses on farms and new technologies were not only increasing agricultural productivity but were taking the drudgery out farming. Grade-A dairy herds brought an unprecedented level and stability of farm income to the small family farms in my area of Missouri. The economies of farming towns all across the country were stronger than they had been in years—perhaps ever. The post-war boom in the general economy brought hope for continuing rural prosperity.

There was little indication of the eventual negative impacts of the post-war economy and agricultural technologies on the future of rural America. A preoccupation with economic well-being born of the Great Depression eventually grew beyond economic sufficiency to become a national addiction to economic growth. The post-war agricultural technologies that at first seemed a blessing would become a curse for family farms and rural communities. Over time, the rural hopefulness of my youth degenerated into a growing sense of hopelessness and dread.

A recent Wall Street Journal article labeled rural America as the “New Inner City.” It began, “For more than a century, rural towns sustained themselves, and often thrived, through a mix of agriculture and light manufacturing. Until recently, programs funded by counties and townships, combined with the charitable efforts of churches and community groups, provided a viable social safety net in lean times. Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places. Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings.” [3]

What happened to change the future of rural America? I believe rural America is suffering the consequences of prolonged period of “economic colonization.” This term typically is used in reference to neoliberal or industrial economic development in nations previously colonized politically. Today, economic colonization in rural America and elsewhere around the world is being carried out by large, multinational corporations. Much like colonial empires of the past, rural communities are losing their sovereignty as corporations use their economic and political power to dominate local economies and gain control of local governments. Irreplaceable precious rural resources, including rural people and cultures, are being exploited – not to benefit rural people but to increase the wealth of corporate investors. These corporations are purely economic entities with no capacity for concern or commitment to the future of rural communities. Their only interest is in extracting the remaining economic wealth from rural areas. This is classic economic colonialism and it is happening in America.

Today’s economic colonization is defended by the argument that rural people are incapable of developing their own economies and must rely on outside investment for economic development. That corporate investments will bring badly needed jobs and local income and will expand local tax bases. That economically depressed rural communities will be afforded the opportunity for better schools, better health care, and expanded social services, and will attract a greater variety of retail businesses. These are the same basic promises made to political colonies.

In cases where promises of prosperity have failed to persuade the people, corporations have resorted to economic favors promised to local leaders or outright “bribery.” If all else fails, they simply refer to commerce laws to claim the economic right to force their way into communities where they are unwanted. These are the same basic strategies colonial empires have used with the indigenous peoples of their colonies throughout history. As in the past, the fallacy of the promises of prosperity are revealed by the reality of poverty. Like slavery, political colonization eventually became morally unacceptable to civilized society. Colonization has never been about civilization; it’s about economic exploitation. However, the economic colonization of rural areas continues virtually unchecked everywhere, including rural America.

Whether intentional or coincidental, industrial agriculture has been the primary means of colonizing rural areas. As with other industries, the industrial practices of corporate agriculture invariably erode the fertility of the soil through intensive cultivation, poisoning the air and water with chemical and biological wastes. Corporate contracts replace thinking, caring farmers with tractor drivers and hog house janitors. Once the natural and human resources of rural America have been depleted, the corporations will simply move their operations to other areas of the world where resources are more productive and land and labor costs are cheaper. Rural communities will be left with depleted soils and aquifers, streams and groundwater polluted with agricultural chemical and biological wastes, and farmers who no longer know how to farm.

Wendell Berry summarized the current plight of rural America in a recent letter to the book editor of the New York Times: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.”[4] There are good reasons for the growing sense of impotence and dread, and even anger, in rural communities. In desperation, some indigenous rural Americans are fighting back by all possible means—in what might be their “last stand.”

In spite of persistent denials by the “agricultural establishment,”[5] the ecological, social, and economic crises in rural America are all clearly linked to the industrialization of American agriculture. Cultural anthropologists and rural sociologists have compiled more than 70-years of research documenting the adverse impacts of industrial agriculture on rural communities in the U.S. Walter Goldschmidt’s classic 1944 research, As You Sow[6] “showed that large scale, especially industrial, farm structures in one community were associated with adverse community conditions. Smaller-scale, owner-operated farms in the other community, were associated with more vibrant, diverse economies and with higher standards of living.”[7]

In a 2006 meta-study, commissioned by the State of North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, summarized the research in 56 articles in peer-reviewed journals assessing the socio-economic impacts of industrial agriculture on rural communities. [8] The study concluded: “Based on the evidence generated by social science research, we conclude that public concern about the detrimental community impacts of industrialized farming is warranted. In brief, this conclusion rests on five decades of government and academic concern with this topic, a concern that has not abated but that has grown more intense in recent years, as the social and environmental problems associated with large animal confinement operations have become widely recognized.”[9] Another meta-study in 2009 concluded: “Economically speaking, studies over the past 50 years demonstrate that the encroachment of industrialized agriculture operations upon rural communities, results in lower relative incomes for certain segments of the community and greater income inequality and poverty, a less active ‘Main Street,’ decreased retail trade, and fewer stores in the community.”[10]

Concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs are the epitome of industrial agriculture. A 2½-year study focusing on “industrial farm animal production” (meaning CAFOs) was commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust. The 2008 report concluded: “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves.”[11] They added: “The negative effects of the IFAP system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore. Significant changes must be implemented and must start now.” Five years later, in 2013, an assessment of the industry’s response to the Pew Report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that few if any positive changes had been made.[12] Meanwhile the scientific evidence supporting the initial indictment continues to grow.

Finally, a 2016 independent study by an International Panel of Experts in Sustainability described the evidence condemning industrial agriculture as “overwhelming"[13] – cited more than 350 studies. The study concluded: “Today's food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.” [14]

In summary, we now have more than a half-century of “sound science” and real world experience to support an indictment of industrial agriculture for polluting our air and water, threatening public health, displacing family farms, depressing rural economies, and destroying the quality of life in rural communities. Industrial agriculture has failed to provide enough nutritious, healthful food for everyone in the U.S. and has no intention of producing food for the poor and hungry people of the world. The scientific evidence confirming the economic colonization is clear and compelling, but federal, state, and local governments have all failed to act to protect rural people and places from corporate pollution and plunder. In fact, our government is aiding and abetting in the corporate economic colonization of rural America.

However, public awareness of fundamental problems in the industrial food system are growing. In defense, the “agricultural establishment” has mounted an ongoing multimillion dollar national propaganda campaign to defend the domination of so-called modern agriculture.[15] However, this campaign is little more than a temporary “holding action” against growing public concerns about industrial agriculture in particular and concentrated animal feeding operations in particular. The agricultural establishment is simultaneously using their economic and political power to build a “legal fire wall” to preclude effective restraint or regulation of industrial agriculture. Their legislative agenda has grown progressively bolder as public awareness and public resistance to industrial agriculture has grown.

Their pro-corporate political campaign is following the legislative agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC—a politically powerful conservative “think-tank.” The ALEC statement of “agriculture principles” begins: “The proper role of government involvement in agriculture is to limit and remove barriers for agricultural production, trade, and consumption... In developing public policy options… policymakers should recognize that the United States currently possesses the safest, highest quality, and most innovative food system in the world.”[16] Regardless of the legal ramifications, the intent of the ALEC agenda is clear.

During the 1990s, 13 states passed laws to make it easier for farmers and food producers to sue anyone for libel who criticizes the safety or healthfulness of specific foods or systems of production—often called “food disparagement laws” or “veggie libel laws.”[17] Even if such cases don’t prevail in court, as with the Oprah Winfrey case, these laws continue to have a chilling effect on potential food critics – including government officials and university scientists. “Ag-gag”[18] laws are another example of generic ALEC legislation. Eight states have enacted laws that forbid undercover filming or photography of any activity on farms without the consent of their owner. The laws are targeted specifically to whistle-blower employees who have documented animal cruelty in factory farming operations. These laws have been declared unconstitutional in states where they have been challenged, but the intimidation of legal uncertainty remains.

The early “right to farm” laws, beginning in the 1980s, were enacted to minimize the threat of nuisance litigation and prohibitive state and local government regulation of “normal farming practices.”[19] The early laws seemed justified and relatively benign. The ALEC agenda is to turn the family farmers’ “right to farm” into corporate agriculture’s “right to harm.” Recent laws go far beyond those initial laws by prohibiting effective government regulation of any farming practice or agricultural technology the agricultural establishment deems to be a “normal farming practice.” Some states have adopted “right to farm constitutional amendments,” which will make them much harder to change when the public becomes aware of their abuse.[20]

The most recent “right to farm” laws limit monetary awards to plaintiffs in successful nuisance suits against CAFOs. An agricultural operation can still be sued by its neighbors, if it creates a “legal nuisance.” However, if neighbors win their law suit, the economic damages awarded by the court cannot exceed the depreciation in market values of plaintiffs’ property and any medical expenses of plaintiffs that can be linked directly to the agricultural operation. [21],[22] Punitive damages may be either prohibited or limited to a percentage of economic damages. More importantly, once the initial nuisance suit is settled, the factory farm is treated as a “permanent nuisance,” meaning it can continue to operate as usual and cannot be sued again.

These and other state and federal exemptions of industrial agriculture from regulation seem to be paving the way for a long run strategy of establishing “agricultural zones” where industrial agriculture can operate virtually free of any regulation by government or private legal actions by neighbors. For example the Indiana Land Resource Council has proposed “Model Agricultural Zoning Ordinances,” based on how “counties in other states have developed their zoning ordinances to minimize conflicting uses and ensure that agriculture remains a strong component of the county's economy.”[23] The ordinances would minimize potential conflicts by prohibiting new non-farm residences in areas zoned for agriculture.

Wisconsin Right to Farm Law paves the way to transform rural areas into industrial agricultural parks—without the protective regulations of other industries. The Wisconsin Purpose Statement: “The legislature believes that, to the extent possible consistent with good public policy, the law should not hamper agricultural production or the use of modern agricultural technology. The legislature therefore deems it in the best interest of the state to establish limits on the remedies available in those conflicts which reach the judicial system. The legislature further asserts its belief that local units of government, through the exercise of their zoning power, can best prevent such conflicts from arising in the future.[24]

The Iowa Right to Farm Law is even more clearly supportive of rural economic colonization. “It is the intent of the general assembly to provide local citizens and local governments the means by which agricultural land may be protected from nonagricultural development pressures. This may be accomplished by the creation of county land preservation and use plans and policies, adoption of an agricultural land preservation ordinance, or establishment of agricultural areas in which substantial agricultural activities are encouraged, so that land inside these areas or subject to those ordinances is conserved for the production of food, fiber, and livestock, thus assuring the preservation of agriculture as a major factor in the economy of this state.”[25]

If such agricultural zoning laws are enacted, rural areas will become increasingly toxic places to live and eventually the remaining independent family farmers will be driven out of their homes. Organic farms and other sustainable farming operations would be driven out of business by pesticide and GMO pollen drift and polluted irrigation and drinking water. The only people left in agriculturally zoned areas will be low-paid, hired laborers who were willing to work on industrial agricultural operations only because they were desperate for jobs. The wealthy landowners and corporate investors would live elsewhere. Current family farming communities will be turned into industrial agricultural “sacrifice zones,” saturated with agricultural chemical and biological wastes, where corporate agriculture can pollute and plunder at will.

So where is the hope for the future of rural America? To quote Margaret Wheatley, a leading thinker on institutional and cultural change, the hope is in the “clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action.” [26] I think most rural people simply don’t understand, or perhaps don’t want to believe, what is happening to their communities. If they understood, I believe people in local communities would take action. People act whenever they feel forced to defend themselves against nature—windstorms, floods, fires. People will also take action whenever they feel compelled to defend deeply held social and ethical values. Honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect! “These five core ethical values are common to many cultures, regardless of race, age, religious affiliation, gender, or nationality,” according to the Institute for Global Ethics.[27] The arrogance and indifference in the location, operation, and lack of regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFO, violates every one of these core ethical values. Whenever people comprehend this blatant disregard for the values of basic human decency local communities are compelled to take action.

The ALEC political agenda for agriculture would not only violate our core moral and ethical values but would violate our constitutional rights. Admittedly, the Constitution doesn’t mention the right to clean air, clean water, and safe, wholesome food. However, our rights are not limited to rights specifically named or enumerated in the Constitution. The 9th Amendment states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” These “other” rights, in addition to those named, are to be “retained by the people.” Some of those other rights were later added to the Constitution, such as the prohibition of slavery and women’s right to vote. The Supreme Court has interpreted other rights to be implied by enumerated rights such as the right to privacy and freedom of assembly.

The American Declaration Independence names some rights that were so “self-evident” they were not enumerated in the Constitution. It states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” What can be more important to the basic right to life than the right to clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and safe food to eat? The fundamental purpose of government is to protect these basic rights to life.

Obviously, our government isn’t fulfilling this responsibility but is giving priority to the economic rights of corporations over the constitutional rights of real people. To claim our rights to clean air, clean water, and wholesome food, we must change the current balance of political power. One person can’t change the balance of power, even at the local level, but a small group of committed people can. Individual concerns can become local community concerns. Local communities of concern can link with other concerned communities to form “alliances” communities with a common commitment to protecting their own communities, and all communities, from economic colonization. As people change, communities change, and societies change. That’s the way change has happened and will happen; one person, then another… one community, then another… one person, one community, then another… one at a time.

People here in the Driftless communities of Wisconsin have a unique and valuable natural resource to protect, as people who live in the area are well aware. They also have a precious social and cultural resource to protect. This is the cradle of the organic food movement in the Midwest, the home of the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Services (MOSES), which hosts the largest organic farmers’ conference in the nation. It’s the home of Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic cooperative, and perhaps has more independent organic farmers per square mile than anywhere in the nation. These precious natural and cultural resources are all placed in peril by the threatened encroachment of concentrated animal feeding operations into the Driftless area—regardless of whether the CAFOs are “certified organic.” CAFOs are the epitome of industrial agriculture and open the floodgates for corporate economic colonization.

The battle to protect the Driftless is not only a battle to protect the spawning grounds of the post-industrial, sustainable food movement but is a battle to protect rural America from the pollution and plunder of economic colonization. Each local confrontation with industrial agriculture is not only an opportunity for a local victory but is an opportunity to awaken public opinion to the necessity for fundamental change. Each local battle is an opportunity to strengthen alliances within and among local communities and with like-minded advocacy organizations. State alliances can connect with other state alliances and evolve into national alliances. Perhaps a comprehensive legislative agenda, such as the ALEC agenda, can be developed to protect rural America from economic colonization. A national right to farm law, specifically excluding industrial agriculture, could be written to take precedent over existing state right to farm laws. The constitutional rights of people must take priority over the economic rights of corporations.

Meaningful change is rarely quick or easy. The economic and political power of the corporate, agricultural establishment is formidable, and the defenders of economic colonization are organized and well-funded. The personal relationships and commitments essential for empowered local communities and community alliances are difficult to form and to sustain. We Americans have a long history of striving for self-reliance and independence, making it difficult to admit that we sometimes need to rely on each other. That said, we also have a long history of coming together, even making government work, whenever it has been essential to do so.

According to the Declaration of Independence, governments are established for the purpose of securing the God given rights of the people. The 9th Amendment of the U.S Constitution states that unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are retained by the people. The 10th Amendment states that “Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” We the people have the power to claim our constitutional rights, if we have the courage to do so.

Our federal, state, and even local governments have failed to use their power, or perhaps don’t feel they have the power, to protect the people from industrial agriculture. In either case, we the people must find ways to use the powers granted to us by our constitution to claim our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—clean air, pure water, and safe, nutritious food. It’s time for rural people, and Americans in general, to muster the courage to actively oppose the economic colonization of rural America. Again quoting Margaret Wheatley, “There is no power for change greater than a community taking its future in its own hands.”[28]


[1] Prepared for presentation at a community event, “Industrial Agriculture in the Driftless; How Do We Protect Our Communities?” Boscobel, WI, January 20, 2018.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism-a Matter of Common Sense, Essentials of Economic Sustainability, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle-the Pursuit of Happiness, all books available on Books and Kindle E-books.

Email:; Website: .

[3] Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, RURAL AMERICA IS THE NEW ‘INNER CITY’, TheWall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, .

[4] Wendell Berry, “Southern Despair,” New Your Times Review of Books, Reply to Nathaniel Rich, .

[5] The Agricultural establishment includes the large agribusiness corporations, major commodity groups, American Farm Bureau Federation, USDA, and most State Departments of Agriculture and agricultural colleges.

[6] Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow; Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness, (New York: Harcourt Brace Company, 1947).

[7] Wikipedia, “Goldschmidt Thesis,” .

[8] Curtis Stofferahn, “Industrialized Farming and Its Relationship to Community Well-Being: an Update of the 2000 Report by Linda Labao,” North Dakota, Office of Attorney General, Bismarck, ND. .

[9] Stofferahn, “Industrialized Farming and Its Relationship to Community Well-Being,” p. 30. .

[10] Pew Commission Report on Industrial Animal Agriculture, “Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production on Rural Communities,” 2008?,

[11] Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production: “Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America,” 2008, , full report, .

[12] Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “Industrial Food Production in America; Examining the impacts of the Pew Commissions primary recommendations.”

[13] Andrea Germanos, “'Overwhelming' Evidence Shows Path is Clear: It's Time to Ditch Industrial Agriculture for Good Common Dreams, Thursday, June 02, 2016,

[14] IPES – Food, International Panel of Experts on Sustainability, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, June 2016, p. 3,

[15] Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, “Spinning Food,” Friends of the Earth, .

[16] ALEC, “ALEC Agriculture Principles,” .

[17] Wikipedia, “Food Libel Laws,” .

[18] Wikipedia. “Ag-Gag,” .

[19] Wikipedia, “Right to Farm Law,” .

[20] Missouri Constitution, Article I , Bill Of Rights, Section 35, November 14, 2016 .

[21] Ed Cox,, Agricultural Law for Iowa and Missouri, .

[22] National Agricultural Law Center, “States’ Right to Farm Laws- Iowa,” 2016, .

[23] Indiana Land Resources Council, “A Guide to Local Land Use Planning; Model Agricultural Zoning Ordinances,” 2014, .

[24] National Agricultural Law Center, States’ Right to Farm Laws – Wisconsin, 2015 Act 392, .

[25] National Agricultural Law Center, States’ Right to Farm Laws – Iowa, 2016 Reg.Sess., .

[26] Margaret Wheatley, “Big Learning Event,” University of Wisconsin, Madison, .

[27] Institute for Global Ethics, “Fast Facts,” .

[28] Margaret Wheatley, “Big Learning Event,” University of Wisconsin, Madison, .