News Article

Rural Illinois Changes Recalled

By Aces Staff
Jun 17, 2003

June 17, 2003

URBANA—As he cleans out his files after 33 years at the University of Illinois, rural sociology professor Andrew Sofranko comes across items that indicate the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“I was looking at some records from the 1970 U.S. Census, which indicated that there were just over 100,000 farms in Illinois. The question at that time was ‘what can we do to save the family farm?’ According to the latest Census, we have about 71,000 farms in Illinois and, after a hiatus, we are back to asking these questions again.”

However, the answers have changed over the decades that the Pennsylvania native has served in the U of I’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. A Peace Corps veteran, Sofranko arrived on campus in April 1970 fresh from earning his Ph.D. at Penn State University. He joined a rural sociology group in the then-Department of Agricultural Economics that was one of the most respected in the world. Colleagues like Fritz Fliegel, Harvey Schweitzer, John van Es, and Jerry Robinson either had or were establishing important reputations in both scholarly and extension work. Another colleague, Dave Lindstrom, was interested in rural youth—keeping them in the community along with their skills and aspirations and how rural school quality could help this goal.

“Each summer, we hosted a church/campus institute that focused on rural communities and their problems,” he said. “It was primarily attended by ministers of rural churches who wanted to learn more about not only the problems in their communities but how to address them.”

Identifying and meeting the challenges of Illinois’s rural communities was the focus of Sofranko’s work with U of I Extension. Along with van Es, Sofranko logged many miles traveling to community meetings to share U.S. Census data about a county or a community and tell them how to use it to get a better understanding of their people and communities.

“This was in the era before computers became common and we used hand-made maps to show various demographic characteristics of an area and shared the Census information with people,” he said. “In the early 1980s, computer use became more widespread and the local communities could do a better job of getting that information themselves. What we used to go out and tell them, they now get on their own. Local newspapers have also played a big role in this transition.”

Another joint Sofranko-van Es project involved research on farmer adoption of no-till practices. Their research showed that the quickest adaptors of no-till, which in the early 1970s was a fairly controversial practice, were southern Illinois farmers.

“First, they were influenced by George McKibben, an Extension specialist at the Dixon Springs Research center. He was like a prophet in the wilderness. I don’t know if he ever got the appreciation he truly deserved for his efforts,” said Sofranko.

What McKibben’s preaching didn’t achieve the topography of the region and the profit motive accomplished.

“We discovered that the southern Illinois early adaptors were looking for something that would allow them to bring sloping land back into production,” he said. “So a practice that was so attractive from a conservation perspective—stopping erosion—may have had the opposite effect in southern Illinois.”

During his first two decades on the faculty, Sofranko was also deeply involved in a number of international agriculture projects in places like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Zambia, India, Brazil, Nepal, Rwanda, and Pakistan. Often this involved short stints overseas and for a number of years Sofranko and other faculty and Extension specialists frequently spent six-week or greater stints overseas.

“One of the remarkable side benefits of these activities was getting to work with some of the international experts in the College such as Bill Thompson, Jack Claar, Russ O’Dell, and Marlowe Thorne,” said Sofranko.

A constant during his career, however, has been a focus on rural Illinois and its challenges. For many years, conventional wisdom held that the way to improve rural Illinois communities was to increase prices for commodities or government payments to farmers. In one sense, it was a trickle-down theory: better income preserves the family farmer, who then spends money in local communities thereby reinvigorating the economy.

“For a long time, we thought if we held the family farm that we would help the rural economy. That turned out to be a mistaken assumption. Over the years, a lot of rural areas haven’t fared well even though the farmers around them did,” he said,

“Today, the consensus is not only that we cannot do much about continued concentration in production agriculture which leads to fewer farms, but also that increasing farm incomes does not necessarily save small communities.

Recent studies show that the average annual income for a farm family is about $54,000.

“That’s the good news,” he said. “It appears that economically farm families are doing all right. The bad news is that only about $12,000 of that figure comes from the farm.

“This is the biggest change I’ve observed in my career—the increasing importance of off-farm income to producers and the resulting impact on families and communities.”

One of the best ways to actually preserve the family farm in light of this, he said, would be rural economic development that creates jobs that can be filled by men and women who want to stay in farming but need a significant amount of non-farm income.

However, Sofranko wonders how effective that might be in the long run. Many of the families that choose to stay on the land are willing to settle for a small return on a large capital investment.

“One Extension county advisor told me once that there were some people who were content to make $35,000 per year on an $3-4 million investment,” Sofranko recalled. “What happens when those people die out or retire? That’s probably when some major agricultural changes will take place.”

Another Sofranko study in recent years came across that phenomenon in western Illinois, which has a high proportion of farmers beyond the normal retirement age who indicated that they had no desire to quit farming anytime soon.

That study was part of Extension’s Value Project, a Council for Food and Agricultural Research (C-FAR)-funded program. Another study for the program revealed a wide array of sideline businesses launched by farm families to bring outside income to the farm, including everything from pet grooming to tax preparation to custom field work.

“Time after time we see farmers adapting in myriad ways,” he said. “One is, of course, to quit farming, but others have been able to cobble together unique ways of remaining on the farm.”

Sometimes, research can find striking parallels in agriculture practices in disparate societies. While in the Peace Corps in Africa, Sofranko became interested in a production system that featured a larger number of small, widely scattered plots tended by one farmer. One of his Ph.D. students studied these small, fragmented pieces of land among farmers in Rwanda. A few years ago, while preparing another survey among Illinois farmers, he decided to put in some questions regarding how many parcels of land Illinois farmers were working and the level of geographic disbursement.

“In Rwanda, the typical farmer had nine parcels of land on average with total acreage of five acres, “he said. “To our surprise, the Illinois survey showed about the same average number of separate parcels, though here the acreage per parcel was higher. We call this land fragmentation and it has implications not only for producers who farm widely scattered parcels, but for rural bridges and roads upon which farm machinery is being moved.”

One key to the future of rural Illinois, Sofranko believes, will be getting farmers involved in economic development in their communities. Agro-tourism holds out promise as it brings in tourists or hunters who spend money in local communities. Many farmers, too, are interested in ethanol production, even willing to put up money in order to get an ethanol plant in their area.

“Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of a new relationship between agriculture and the economy of rural communities,” he said.

Having taught his last class and advised his last student, Sofranko’s final days at the U of I, where he now serves in the Department of Human and Community Development, largely consist of sorting old files and memories. At the same time, he looks forward to the future.

“In a few months, I hope to become involved with Habitat for Humanity, building something,” he said. “I think it will be great to go home at the end of the day knowing that instead of shuffling papers or going to a committee meeting that you had actually built something.”

Although not as tangible as a house, it is fair to say that Sofranko’s 30-year career has left behind a better rural Illinois that has at least a fighting chance to once again defy the conventional wisdom.