Iowa is the U.S. state most associated with farming; it produces more corn and soybean than any other state, and 92% of the land is designated for agriculture. As farming practices change, the urban landscape changes with it. The population of Iowa has been experiencing a transformation. Whereas Iowa used to be composed of evenly-dispersed farming communities across the state, it is now comprised of rapidly expanding major cities and shrinking small towns. This trend of urbanization is self-perpetuating: as the rural population shrinks, it becomes harder and harder to live in a rural area.
In recent decades, farm operations have gotten bigger and bigger, and new technologies have made it so that fewer and fewer people are needed to operate them. Unable to compete with enormous operations, small family farms have been forced to sell their land and move away from their rural community to find work. As a result, the small towns that once revolved around farming, with the local businesses that were primarily supported by farmers, are disappearing off the map. One example of a disappearing town would be Mt. Sterling, which in 2012 voted to discontinue its status as a city when its population dwindled to less than forty people.
More and more young people are moving away from these small towns to bigger cities in order to seek education and work, and as result, over the past thirty years the median age in Iowa has increased by seven years. This population loss has made the very existence of small towns unsustainable. As schools lose enrollment and stores lose business, the people who remain are forced to travel greater distances for education, medical care, and basic amenities, the stress of which may eventually drive them to move to a bigger town.
This process of urbanization means the loss of the benefits typically associated with small town life. Small communities possess a greater amount of social capital, a factor that contributes to overall well-being and quality of life. Small towns are also usually thought of as having unique built environments, typically with historic main streets and community gathering spaces that cultivate a sense of place. A prime example is the town of Slater, where during the Christmas season a somewhat misshapen Christmas tree is stuck into a hole in the asphalt right in the middle of Main Street. This is just one of the quirks that can be found in the small farming communities of Iowa. In contrast are larger, growing cities in Iowa, such as West Des Moines, whose built environments are primarily composed of chain retailers that are indistinguishable from cities in other states. Provided this pattern of population movement across the state continues, It seems Iowa’s small town lifestyle may soon become extinct.
Have you ever lived in a small town? Were you forced to move away to find employment or education?
Credits: Images by Molly Carpenter. Data linked to sources.