For all the criticism that Walmart and Amazon receive, both have transformed the way we shop by reformatting the infrastructure that carries them. Arkansas based Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton started with an idea of creating a store that was capable of delivering products at an affordable price to rural areas that could, at that time, only be purchased through the mail. Even as a child in the 70’s early 80’s, I remember being excited when the Sears Roebuck catalog came in the mail and filling out a wish list in it for my mom. Each line item containing all the things I hoped she’d buy me when she ordered my back to school clothes or Christmas presents. Even then, I was seeing the early demise of the company that sold everything through the mail from blue jeans to houses. As Walmart and its competitors grew, mail order companies like Sears and small local business, who couldn’t compete with Walmart’s prices, closed their doors. As both the size of the stores and the company itself has grown exponentially in past decades, the hole left by the closures of local businesses created holes and vulnerabilities in small, rural communities. This can be seen by the growth of Dollar General that builds modest sized stores with tightly packed aisles of low priced goods that service lower income, rural populations.
About a decade ago, the only grocery store in the county I live, burned to the ground. To make things worse, it took much longer than anyone expected for it to be rebuilt. For my neighbors and me, that meant the only places where we could buy groceries were at least an hour’s drive away. For those who live in more urban areas, fuel isn’t a huge expense because so many things are close. But for rural communities, fuel can be a major expense for those who have to drive hundreds of miles each week commuting to work or at least an hour to buy groceries. This creates a heavy burden on lower income people who need both reliable transportation and money for gasoline in their tanks. The paradox emerged that a county primarily supported by agriculture, had now also become a food desert. On top of that, the local food bank in an effort to assist those in need, had a hard time giving away fresh vegetables grown from local gardens because too many people needing assistance didn’t know how to cook them. The local Dollar General and Family Dollar stores subsidized that somewhat by adding a limited supply of dairy products and groceries to their shelves, but the fact remained the county was dealing with food shortage that it should never have encountered.
But the infrastructure goes farther than food. While I live in a rural area, it’s not like it’s a vast wilderness and I’m the only one here. There are hundreds of people who live in the surrounding area. But, it’s hundreds and not thousands and the landscape is one of valleys and mountains. So, for telecom companies, there wasn’t a high enough population density for them to find it profitable enough to add a few more cell towers. They saved money, and we remained disconnected.
But, in rural communities, the digital divide is a very real issue. Until December of 2022, my cabin had no cell service or high-speed internet access. The only way I could have something called high-speed internet was through a satellite company that both overcharged and underserved its customers. SpaceX’s Starlink system eventually replaced that service and both increased speed and reliability for less money. But, finally a rural broadband program found its way down my dirt road and now I have a fiber optic connection. Now I have internet that is three times as fast and I pay about half the price.
But, I still don’t have reliable cell service.
Amazon is now Walmart’s biggest competitor, but the company that started out as an online book store, seems to have more in common with the old Sears Roebuck. A heavy catalog has been replaced with a website, but regardless of whether you’re in downtown Chicago or log cabin in rural Arkansas, a click of a button delivers pretty much whatever you want straight to your front door. And while Walmart also has a thriving online business, the distinction that I believe is important, is that Amazon has incorporated independent sellers into its marketplace. If you have your own boutique store with local customers walking through the door, you can also use Amazon to sell your merchandise online. If you’re an author who hasn’t been able to find a publisher, you can use Amazon to create and sell hardcopy books to anyone in the world. The list goes on. It’s not that it removed the requirement to have to go to the store to buy something, it’s that they also created a decentralized infrastructure for producers of goods to be able to create and sell those things.
What’s less important is that Amazon can do this particular thing. What’s more important is that they created the technology to do it and even if Amazon closed its doors tomorrow, that technology will still exist. Napster, got shut down by the music industry lawyers. But the fatal blow to the music business model couldn’t be taken back.
What that means for someone in rural America with a reliable internet connection and a good idea, is that he now has an infrastructure to support that idea that might allow him to make a living without leaving the house.
But what about a rancher or farmer with a small operation? How can they use this same decentralized infrastructure to make a living? Selling gizmos or books is one thing, selling a few dozen steers ready for market is something else entirely.
What I know is that I don’t know the answer. But I do understand the problem. What is certain is that old agricultural systems do not serve rural economies today in the way that they once did. But, growing food is a necessary function of life and to make small farms and ranches profitable again is a hard problem, a rural community problem, an innovation problem, an engineering problem, an agri-business problem, a communication problem, and to solve it, would revolutionize rural America.
Maybe we should start thinking of our farms and rural communities in terms of organisms instead of machines and emulate nature instead of factories. Maybe we should start thinking in terms of symbiotic relationships. Look to the patterns we find in nature. The tributaries that form the great Mississippi River, the bare branches of trees in winter that feed into the trunk. Look into the structures of our own lungs to breathe air. Perhaps the answer was there all along.
If only there was some sort of institution out there that had a large concentration of people with expert knowledge on topics that are fundamental to these issues. People to research and work on these challenges who also have resources to test ideas and possible solutions. A place where they could tackle everything from rural economics to off-grid energy to regenerative agriculture. A place where they can not only learn how to innovate ideas that work, but also teach others how to do it. What would you call a place like that?
Oh yeah, a university…
Just imagine the number of students from not just the local communities, but all over the world who’d like a shot to study at a place like that.
Enter a university with roots as an agricultural school that primarily serves small town Arkansas and sits on the doorstep of this very hard problem. A university with a century old agricultural program, a university with a biology program, a university with a fisheries and wildlife program, a university with an engineering program, a university with a business program, a university with a communication program, a university with a hospitality administration program. A university with a large collection of faculty who collectively could work to innovate new solutions to a very real problem of countless communities that surrounds the university. A university that could function as a hub of thought, innovation and education for the area it was founded to serve.
Or it could mock cows grazing in a pasture, ignore the problems that face the communities its students come from, ease expectations on getting a degree and lease out the pastures so they can get a few more fast-food restaurants across the street and solve nothing.
The problem with modern universities is the same problem mainline churches had twenty years ago. The institution has lost the plot and forgotten its purpose. They’re panicked over falling numbers and instead of acknowledging their shortcomings and doing the hard work needed to prepare their ranks for the days ahead. They’re chasing trends instead of building paths forward. They’re reactive instead of innovative. They fight for market share instead of influence. They water down intellectual demands and discourse on their students to make university more palatable in the never-ending desire to increase enrollment. They focus on student retention and quietly lower the standards for entry while they slowly whittle away academics to justify the expenses they’ve made on buildings and ball fields. They ask questions on how to make programs “sexy” instead of “meaningful” and unintentionally destroy the very things that universities were designed to bring to the world. And then sit back dumbfounded as the communities they serve continue to decay.
Function follows form.