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Travis's Dilemma

His father wants him to take over the family farm in Kansas. But 18-year-old Travis Warner, who has just started college, isn't so sure. Will he join the exodus of young people leaving the rural Great Plains for opportunities elsewhere?

By Charlie LeDuff in Lebanon, Kan., and Patricia Smith. Photos by Steve Hebert

A few weeks before 18-year-old Travis Warner started college in August, he was busy doing what he was raised to do: working sunup to sundown on his family's farm in Lebanon, Kan. As they'd done countless times before, Travis and his father fed the pigs and sprayed fly repellent on the cattle. As they worked, a question hung in the air.

"Do you think you'll come back to rural America? And farm? Raise cattle? Raise pigs?" Randall Warner asked his son.

"Depends if I find something better in the next couple years," Travis replied.

"What could be better?" his father pressed. "What could be better than life on the Great Plains where the wind blows and you catch fresh air every day?"

"That's what I'm going to look for," Travis said.

The exchange between father and son speaks volumes about what is happening across the region.

From the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, the rural Great Plains have been losing people for 75 years—a slow demographic collapse. In nearly 70 percent of the counties on the Plains, there are fewer people now than there were in 1950. Population continued to plunge in the 1990s and has fallen even faster since the 2000 Census. In fact, of all the regions of the U.S., the Great Plains has by far the highest proportion of residents older than 85.

The reason is simply that young people like Travis are moving away.

"Over the last 100 years or so, many of these counties have been losing 50 or 60 percent of their young people each generation," says Kenneth M. Johnson, a sociology professor at Loyola University Chicago. The departure of young people means that a community also loses the next generation, Johnson explains. And over time, the effects are magnified.

This is how a town like Lebanon dies. The school closed 15 years ago. The old Lebanon bank has caved in. Main Street is a peeling veneer. The average age of town residents is 52.

The Next Generation

As towns like Lebanon fade, some places are trying to reinvent themselve. In 2000, Iowa tried recruiting immigrants to stem its population decline. Last year, it considered abolishing its income tax for residents under 30 as a way to attract and keep more young people.

And in a modern-day version of the 1862 Homestead Act, in which the federal government gave land away to encourage the settlement of the frontier, some towns are offering land at little or no cost to families willing to build a house and move in. In Washington, Senators Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are sponsoring the New Homestead Act, a federal program based on the same idea.

"Twenty-five years ago, there were 350,000 farmers and ranchers under the age of 35," says John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. "Now, there's only 70,000. We're not creating opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers to get into the business."

Travis's dad doesn't understand the ins and outs of the international trade policies and government subsidies that are changing the economics of farming, but he does see that large corporate farmers are taking over. And he knows that to make it nowadays "you work harder—sunup past sundown."

Travis wants to know more people than his dad and the salesman at the John Deere dealership. When he's at the farm, he says, the nearest pretty girl is 20 miles away.

"I like to work with people, I guess," Travis says, sitting in the cab of an old pickup truck. "Be around people. And we come out here every day. It's Dad and myself; that's not working with people."

He continues: "I told my dad he could retire and cash-rent the land to the big farmer, but then what's he going to do with his time? This is all he knows. Come out here and work daylight to dark. I don't want that."

'Best Kind Of Life'

Travis is now a freshman at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kan., 180 miles from home. He likes school, but it took some getting used to at first. Even small things were culture shock for him, like being able to walk 10 steps to the apartment next door to see his neighbors.

"At home, the nearest neighbors are four miles away," he says with a laugh.

The biggest difference between college and the farm is that for the first time in his life, he has free time. At home, when he finished with school and sports practice, there were still plenty of chores to do. By the time he was done, it was time for bed.

Will he return to Lebanon? He just doesn't know yet. His 24-year-old brother is an engineer in Germany, and his 22-year-old sister is a senior at Kansas State University, studying to be a physician's assistant.

If Travis doesn't return to the farm, his father says he'll start selling it off in pieces to the farmer down the road.

Randall Warner sums up his values: "God. Family. Work," as he counts them on his fingertips. "Heritage." That's what he's worried will be lost if Travis doesn't take over the farm.

"My whole life is wrapped up in this," he says while baling hay. "To tell you the truth, it can get a little monotonous. I've had four vacations my whole life."

Still, Randall Warner says, it's a good life.

"The best kind of life there is."