I have spent the week driving around Iowa. Among those I met were Clear Lake hog farmer Chris Petersen and Hiawatha restaurateur Jennifer Goodlove. Take a look at their stories, and more.
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CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Chris Petersen, a third-generation hog farmer who says "I bleed rural" and tears up at the fate of family and friends, has found a way to keep his small holding going, and avoid the exodus that so many are making. His grown son and daughter have, too.
But meanwhile, Petersen is at war with the big companies that he says are destroying the culture of smaller places like Clear Lake.
The big picture: While his is a dramatic rendering of the state of American agriculture, Petersen has a point — across industries, the U.S. has become a country of monopolies.
As we have reported, some economists say this concentration of market power is gumming up the economy, and is largely to blame for decades of flat wages and weak productivity growth.
Farmers like Petersen are on the receiving end of all this concentration. Just in the five years from 2007 to 2012, the number of U.S. hog farms declined by 25%, the Agriculture Department says.
The heyday, in Petersen's memory, was the 1970s, when "rural America was ungodly vibrant." Sixty cents paid per pound of hog gave farmers a healthy profit, he said.
When Petersen says "they," he means Big Ag, which in his view is plain greedy. It is trying "to run us out," he says, banging the table with his fist.
In 2001, Petersen went bankrupt. After that, he changed his business model and began to raise a premium hog known as a Berkshire, a breed whose meat he compares with Kobe beef. They fetch twice the price of the standard hog.
We hear much about two enormous U.S. and global trends — urbanization and aging. In most countries, people are fleeing to the city, and the population on average is getting older.
Why it matters: When you think of family farms and rural America — the bedrock of much of the country's traditions — those communities survive as a piece of the micropolitan orbit. The micropolitans "are the anchor socially, culturally, economically," says David Swenson, an economics professor at Iowa State.
Two examples: As you see above, Cerro Gordo County's 65-and-over population surged to 20.6% in 2016 from 11.8% in 1970, according to data compiled by Swenson. In Dickinson County, one out of four people are 65 or older, compared with 14.2% in 1970.
"Many of the towns are caught in a cycle of blight and degradation," Swenson told me. "They don't necessarily have a Plan B."
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty
Things got a little out of hand? Not to worry. Here is the top of Future for the week:
1. A new age of epidemics: How we live affects the spread of disease.
2. The squeeze of monopolistic platforms: Big Tech has a familiar pattern.
3. Gutenberg's legacy: A new flood of information roiled politics back then, too.
4. Rebooting high school: Across the country, fixing what teens learn.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
HIAWATHA, Iowa — They announced the championship soup of Linn County this week, and the winner for 2019 was Jennifer Goodlove's incredibly scrumptious green bean potato bacon.