Sunday, August 8, 2010

Meade Kansas Demonstrates Changing Economy

I hope regular readers of this blog will indulge me one more post about Meade before I get back to regular topics. This will sort of tie together the trip for me. One more subject from the trip awaits--our tour of the old Thompson homestead, but that will come later.

Meade Kansas, both the city and the county, has become a home away from home of sorts for me. I began making trips there in 1975, the year after leaving Rhode Island. Several times a year while we lived in Kansas City, less frequently during the nine years overseas and in North Carolina. Now, during our nineteen years in Arkansas we've made perhaps twenty-five trips to Lynda's home town: mainly for holidays, funerals, and reunions. We haven't done the tourist thing to Meade, maybe not ever.

I've come to know Meade fairly well. I can't remember all the names of all the streets, but I can find my way to any place in town with no problem. I've spent time in the library and the courthouse, at the truck stop or the city park, and of course much time at Lynda's home church, the Meade Church of the Nazarene. I've watched changes come to the city as an outsider and wannabe insider.

In 1975 Meade was 90 years old. It had a quaint downtown district that stretched along US Highway 54 and Kansas Highway 23, the crossroads that came to the town after it was built. A mix of brick and wooden buildings gave the town some character. A few were vacant, and some had changed tenants each time we went back. The economy was based on agriculture, and Meade's 1800 people seemed reasonably prosperous.

At some point there was an oil boom. Farmers leased drilling rights to various companies, who brought in workers and drilling commenced. Several productive wells were brought in. About the same time the confined hog raising operations began in the county (none real close to Meade or the other communities). The population rose, they say, to around 2,200, though this may never have been at a census time.

Now, Meade's population is around 1,600, based on a two-year old estimate. The recently concluded census may prove it to be somewhat less than that. It seems most of the buildings in the downtown area are now vacant or, if fitted for multiple tenants, and less than half the building occupied. So much population has moved away. One man told us that 90 percent of the high school grads leave the town. Ten years later some return to raise families in what they know to be a good, wholesome place. But there's not much around to attract new families to the area.

Another part of the economic problem for Meade is the reasonable closeness of alternative markets. Dodge City and Liberal, cities of perhaps 30,000 each, are around 40 to 45 miles away. That's close enough with today's good automobiles and pick-up trucks, even with the cost of gas fairly high, that no one thinks twice about making a four or five hour shopping excursion to the place of greater choice and better prices. The technology of transportation has hurt Meade's economy, to the benefit of Dodge and Liberal.

In the countryside, outside of the towns, I noticed one big change from prior years: much more corn is being grown. Meade County has always had a variety of crops. Winter wheat always seemed to dominate, but farmers also planted corn, milo, soy beans, sorghum, and probably others. The dryland farming of the past seemed to favor winter wheat, however. Now, everyone seems to be growing corn as the main crop, mostly irrigated corn. I'm sure the reason is to feed the expanding ethanol market.

You can't blame farmers for growing what's being purchased, or what appears to have a brighter future. We should worry though about all that groundwater being extracted, probably from the Ogalalla Aquifer. Again, technology is the driving force of the change, in this case coupled with public policy. The technology to make ethanol is now developed enough that it sort of makes sense with the government subsidies applied, and so the farmers are adapting.

Ethanol might be a temporary phenomenon, fueled by technological advances and public policy. But what about the changing demographics? It seems to me that is, to some extent, also a function of technology. The technology of good transportation to go back home fairly frequently. The technology of good and cheap communication to stay in touch frequently. The technology that allows the bigger cities to provide the greater mix of entertainment and jobs that lure people there.

I don't know what the future holds for Meade. There should always be a town there, maybe about the size it is now. I hope so, and hope it thrives for many more years.

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