Book details the dwindling of rural Kentucky

sociologist offers photos and analysis

gkocher1@herald-leader.comOctober 17, 2011 

RICHMOND — Kentucky is still rural, as evidenced by 310 million chickens raised for meat or eggs in a state of 4.3 million people. But a new book documents what's left behind as more people trade the countryside for jobs in cities.

Sociologist Kenneth Tunnell wrote and took the photographs for Once Upon a Place: The Fading of Community in Rural Kentucky. The idea for the book came to Tunnell as he drove his workday commute on the back roads from southern Garrard County to Richmond, where he teaches in Eastern Kentucky University's Department of Criminal Justice.

"I noticed abandoned farmhouses," he said. "I noticed barns in bad condition and getting worse. I noticed farms being developed and subdivisions going in with large, expensive houses on 3- to 5-acre tracts. I noticed the closing of public schools as students are consolidated in new, larger schools.

"And I noticed the closing of small, independently owned businesses that, at one time, were central to those agricultural communities — seed and feed stores, mom 'n' pop diners, even post offices."

The book was released in August by Xlibris, a "publishing services provider" in Bloomington, Ind., that helps authors become their own publishers. The book may be ordered through local book sellers.

Much of what Tunnell recorded has been visible for years, but his analysis and photos provide a context for government abstracts and private research. Amy Potts, rural heritage program manager for Preservation Kentucky, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving historic buildings, said that kind of work was important.

"As a person who works in rural preservation, I think anything that documents or provides research and information is of value," Potts said. "The rural landscape is definitely changing."

According to 2010 census figures released in March, most Kentucky counties that lost more than 5 percent of their residents were in rural Eastern and Western Kentucky; a few were on the Tennessee border. Those population losses were a product of out-migration and a low birth rate as younger people moved away to find work.

The consequences were far-reaching and show up in unexpected ways. For example, most rural counties have volunteer fire departments but, as the population ages, finding able-bodied people to staff them becomes more difficult.

Tunnell, 55, who grew up near Kingsport, Tenn., documented what he saw in color and black-and-white photographs taken during the past four years. The photographs depict out-of-the-way places, such as Disputanta in Rockcastle County. Also featured are such places as the Lancaster stockyards, razed in 2007 after 60 years in business.

Kentucky lost 22,000 farms from 1975 to 2008, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The loss is due to a confluence of reasons, from dwindling net farm income and soaring production costs to the aging of the farming community and fewer successors to maintain those farms.

The recession has put added stress on rural areas, where three-fourths of Kentucky farms depend on off-farm jobs for 50 percent or more of their income.

"I think the deck has been stacked against family farmers for a long time and stacked in favor of agri-corporations who are now essentially doing the farming in America," Tunnell said. "I hear and understand that there are people who would like to stay on the family farm, who would like to continue that way of life, but they may not have a choice."

Tunnell wrote about community connections lost as country stores and post offices fade away. The bank in Paint Lick closed, Tunnell said, and the customers now have to go to Lancaster to do business.

"They've been gathering places where locals hang out and fraternize and swap stories and talk about the latest births and deaths and tobacco prices and when it's going to rain again," he said. "As those local places go under, locals no longer have that place where they have always gravitated to swap stories and stay in touch with one another. You still see some in McDonald's, but to me it's not the same thing."

Tunnell acknowledged that the book doesn't provide solutions to problems in rural areas. He's not alone in that. The White House Rural Council released a report in late September that included many issues in 46 states but didn't offer a single conclusion or policy change to remedy problems faced by rural America.

Tunnell said other people have offered solutions, "and I defer to them."

He cited Kentucky author Wendell Berry, who has written extensively about conservation, local economies and sustainability. Berry, Tunnell said, has addressed "how we can sustain local economies and how we can produce things locally for the immediate community. Those good ideas need some financial support to make them work."

Tunnell said his primary purpose was to document what's happening, and to help readers realize a national problem:

"At the same time, I hope they get sort of charged up and begin to ask ... what can we do to stymie this? What can we do to support the family farmer?"

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