Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Consolidation and the Family Farm

A chapter from "Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind" by Grace Olmstead
American farm

The following is an excerpt from Gracy Olmstead’s new book Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind (Sentinel: 2021), 272 pages.

It is early May. Trees in Emmett are turning green, the sides of the road are lined with cattails, and magpies occasionally skitter across the road as I drive toward the Emmett bench, where Tracy Walton is planting corn in his fields. I see Tracy waving from his red tractor as he moves through a tilled field, and I pull to the side of the road. He stops and waits for me as I trudge through the dirt. Tracy wears a faded but clean T-shirt, a baseball cap, and sturdy work boots as I walk up to him and shake his hand.

“Can you take notes while we drive?” he asks.

I nod and climb into the red tractor. It has seats for two people, air-conditioning, and a GPS system. Unlike the variable planting rhythms of the past, Tracy’s tractor helps him track seeding depth and spacing as he works his way through the field. Straight, evenly spaced rows once depended on the skill and attentiveness of the farmer—but these days, GPS-enabled tractors create arrow-straight lines of seed, all uniformly planted and spaced.

I had spent the past month calling Emmett farmers from my little house in Virginia. Many didn’t return my voice- or emails. Those who did often sounded suspicious and unsure. After several failed attempts at scheduling interviews, I began mentioning my grandfather at the outset of every phone call.

“I grew up in Idaho,” I’d say. “My grandfather is Wally Howard.”

Voices immediately grew warm. “Wally!” several exclaimed, followed quickly by the question, “So how did you end up out there in Virginia?”

Many farmers seemed skeptical that a writer from a big city would be interested in the workings of a small agricultural community. Indeed, the more I talked to these farmers, the more I realized how invisible local farm communities can feel in the face of a concentrating agricultural industry and a clueless, disinterested public. Many are used to keeping their heads down and working tenaciously, no matter how tough things get. But many crop and dairy farmers know firsthand that this powerlessness can eventually result in collapse.

Farmers usually wait to plant corn until the soil temperature is at least fifty degrees; at that point, the corn seed generally takes three to four weeks to germinate. The corn seed will absorb 30 percent of its weight in water, and seven to ten days later, the seed’s coleoptile—a protective plant tissue that encloses the emerging shoot—will spring upward from the soil. The inner leaves of the corn stalk will slowly unfold and begin photosynthesizing the sunlight above them. In the fall, the corn will be ripe for harvest.

Idaho farmers grow 70 percent of the hybrid temperate sweet corn seed produced around the world, in addition to seeds for carrots, onions, turnips, lettuces, alfalfa, radishes, clover, sugar beets, and Kentucky bluegrass. Seed farming usually has a slightly different rhythm than other farmers’ growing season—lettuce, for instance, will be harvested after it has flowered and its light-gray pappi have emerged. Sweet corn seed won’t be harvested until a month or two after it would be harvested for market: farmers wait until the moisture of their corn is approximately 30 to 50 percent, then use specialized harvesting equipment to keep the corn husk intact as protection for the kernels within. After the corn is processed, it is dried for an additional seventy-two hours, then cleaned, sorted, and packed.

Seed cultivation is an ancient practice, one traditionally controlled and led by farmers. They have long worked to develop plants with reliability and durability, plants that can provide sustenance for their communities. The cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and grains we eat today are the result of this grassroots-driven process.

Nowadays, however, seeds are another realm of agricultural production that has been transformed by monopolization and its resultant emphasis on corporate profit over ecological diversity or local health. Many of today’s farmers buy hybrid seeds from agribusinesses who curate specific traits within their seeds: increased yield or disease resistance, for example. Farmers like Tracy have contracts with these seed companies to cultivate their product, which the companies will then sell to other farmers.

In the 1930s, hybrid seeds drastically changed the rhythms of seed preservation and cultivation in the United States. In the 1940s, Dr. W. F. Owens discovered cytoplasmic male sterility in sugar beets, leading to the development of a high-yielding sugar beet hybrid, and the discovery of monogerm seed in 1948 eliminated the need for the hand-thinning once required for open- pollinated multigerm cultivars. When high-yielding hybrid corn entered the market, new seed companies sprung up to sell this corn every year to eager farmers. Over the next few decades, the Green Revolution encouraged farmers at home and abroad to abandon traditional methodologies in favor of new innovations like high-yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers, and agro-chemicals.

As seed biotechnology developed, large agribusiness companies began buying up smaller firms in order to accumulate more intellectual property rights. While there are still seed banks owned by the government, land grant universities, and small seed companies, the world’s largest germplasm library belongs to Monsanto (and therefore to Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018). In order to access that store of germplasm, companies have to license it—but, as Kristina Hubbard writes in her 2009 report “Out of Hand,” it is very expensive to license genetics from these firms. At the time her report was published, “at least 200 independent seed companies [had] been lost in the last thirteen years alone.”

Tracy farms eight hundred acres along the Emmett bench, just down the road from where Grandpa Dad used to farm. He has grown corn, teff (an Ethiopian grass with seeds that are used for flour), and sugar beet seed for seed companies over the years. Domesticated sugar beets are considered a biennial, with roots forming the first year and the stalks and seeds forming the second season. Farmers plant stecklings (the name for small, late-planted biennial root crops) the first year, then harvest and overwinter them before replanting the following season for seed production. Farmers will plant the stecklings in male (pollinator) and female strips. The male plants have multigerm flowers with fused seeds, which can create several seedlings upon planting. The female plants, by contrast, produce monogerm flowers with one germ per seed. To ease the backbreaking work of sugar beet thinning, farmers save and use only the female (monogerm) seeds. As we slowly move through the cornfield, Tracy points to the irrigation ditch next to us and tells me that Grandpa Dad (who he calls Walt) dug it himself. In the corner of the field, he says, there was once a giant tree underneath which Grandpa Dad used to eat his lunch every day. I can hear the fondness and reverence in his voice. Tracy grew up around these “old-timers.” As a member of the Gem County Farm Bureau, he has worked to preserve their memories and farm stories—the pieces of local culture they cultivated in their lifetime. The bureau tapes old farmers talking about their lives, walking around their farms, and proffering advice to the next generation. They call these local legends “the Gems” of Gem County.

Farmers here have always been close. In the old days, there were a lot more farms on this bench, and they were smaller operations, usually farming between sixty and one hundred acres. They were the original subsistence farms of the West: focused on self-sufficiency, fostering a diverse swath of animal and plant life.

But now, Tracy guesses, there are likely fewer than six dairies in the area, and they are much larger operations. Crop farmers like himself are less common, and their businesses cover more acreage. Many folks in this river valley, over the past several decades, have gotten big or gotten out.

Tracy grows a very diverse array of crops for the modern farmer: corn, hay, wheat, soybeans, sugar beets, alfalfa, and teff. Much of what Tracy grows depends on the contracts he receives—with other local farmers or with agribusiness companies. Many large commodity crops, such as wheat or corn, can be stored at local grain elevators as farmers wait for the market price to rise. Farmers can then sell their crops to local processors or to grain terminals who will ship the commodity overseas. In the past, Tracy has sold corn to local dairy owners Joe and Lucy Lourenco as well as to large agribusinesses Lansing Trade Group and the J.R. Simplot Company. Idaho is the second-largest U.S. producer of hay and the top-ranking producer of organic-certified hay in the country.

Despite Tracy’s years of hard work and farming experience, however, recent growing seasons have been fraught and difficult. Prices are low, yet seed is increasingly expensive as the seed market rapidly consolidates in the hands of a few companies who dominate the industry. “This is the year where you do everything right and hopefully break even,” he tells me, a look of grim determination on his face.

Doing business with big seed companies is often difficult for farmers: while the exact verbiage of their licensing contracts is confidential, it has been reported that they contain strict stipulations regarding insect management, chemical use, and sales (if the farmer is growing seed to be used as seed). Farmers no longer own the seed they plant in their fields; the fate of their crop is often highly dependent on the decisions of companies far removed from their local context. Monsanto forbids farmers from saving or sharing their seed and asserts their right to inspect farmers’ property upon request. One seed company owner told Hubbard that Monsanto has audited its licensees every year and “knows what you got in the bank and what’s in your fields—everything we know, they know.”  In 2013, The Guardian reported that Monsanto had sued hundreds of small farmers in an effort to protect its intellectual property rights. Tracy admits to me that, even though he tends to be pretty libertarian on most issues, he does feel that the seed industry should receive more oversight. He sees falling commodity prices and surging seed costs as an unfair burden on farmers seeking to “feed the world.”

But farmers have little choice these days: four seed companies now dominate the brand-name seed market, accounting for more than 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales. Philip Howard of Michigan State University published seed industry consolidation charts in 2008 and 2013 that depicted the stark acceleration of acquisitions and mergers throughout the seed industry since 1996. His 2018 chart shows that the so-called Big Six—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and BASF—have become the Big Four: Bayer, BASF, ChemChina, and Corteva. What’s more, many of these companies do not just sell seed—they sell the “companion chemical” necessary to grow that seed. As Claire Kelloway explained in an article for Washington Monthly, “even as farmers are paying monopoly prices for a diminishing selection of seed strains produced by [a] handful of giant corporations, they also are paying monopoly prices for fertilizers and pesticides, often to the same corporations.”

Mergers and acquisitions in the world of agribusiness have transformed more than the worlds of seed and agrochemicals. Today, just four companies control 84 percent of cattle slaughter, 65 percent of pork slaughter, and 53 percent of chicken slaughter, according to Pacific Standard. Dean Foods and Smithfield Foods dominate the dairy and pork industries, respectively. And both grocers and brand-name products have been consolidating for the past few decades. Many have decried the “illusion of choice” available to modern consumers, as the thousands of colorful brands lining grocery store shelves belong to a mere handful of companies, such as General Mills or Coca-Cola.

But this lack of agribusiness diversity also hurts farmers: as Kelloway and others at the Open Markets Institute have demonstrated, consolidation of agribusiness often hampers the ability of farmers to make a fair profit.

“In many rural communities, a farmer raising animals for slaughter has the ‘choice’ of selling to only one slaughterhouse,” Austin Frerick, deputy director of the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale, wrote in 2019. “And because Tyson is often the only buyer in town, it calls the shots, dictating everything from the facilities a farmer builds on her farm, to the feed she uses, to the price the farmer receives for full-grown chickens.” Industry consolidation affects these farmers’ bottom lines, their ability to adopt more sustainable practices, and their ability to fairly pay their employees. But there’s also a trickle-down effect this consolidation creates for the local community, Frerick notes: “Because farmers and other rural workers make less money, they also spend less money within their communities, creating a ripple effect that negatively impacts other local businesses. As a result, rural communities are hollowing out. Young people are leaving in droves, and the folks left behind are struggling to make ends meet.”

“No more milking cows,” Lucy Lourenco tells me over the phone.

Her voice is resigned, relieved in some ways. Lucy was Grandpa Dad’s neighbor and friend, and so I grew up hearing stories about her, particularly about her love for her animals and her dairy. But this decision has been a long time coming.

Lucy and Joe Lourenco emigrated from Portugal in 1984. They were only nineteen and twenty-four years old, respectively, and newly married. Neither could speak English. They spent the first few years of their life in the United States working in California, planning to save up $20,000 and return home to Portugal. But after a few years, they began dreaming about starting a dairy. Idaho seemed like the perfect place to begin such a venture, so they bought property on the Emmett bench in 1992, next door to Grandpa Dad and the Waltons, and have lived and worked there ever since.

Grandpa Dad was the first person to welcome Lucy and Joe to the neighborhood. Lucy remembers him coming up the driveway with a friendly smile, his hands clasped behind his back as he talked to them. Other folks would look at them oddly in days to come, perhaps because of their thick accents, Lucy surmises. But Grandpa Dad was always kind to them, she says. They would invite him over for dinner and make him traditional Portuguese fish soup, and they often shared their homemade chouriço—a sausage made with paprika, garlic, salt, and pepper, and marinated in Portuguese red wine—with Grandpa Wally, and my father, Rick.

Grandpa Dad loved having Joe and Lucy next door. He was proud of their resolve and work ethic. The old, wizened farmer became friends with the young Portuguese couple who taught themselves how to farm, how to speak, read, and write in English. “He was a motivated person and hardworking,” Lucy tells me. “He was not one of those people with fancy equipment; he didn’t make us feel like we had nothing but junk.” The first tractor Lucy and Joe bought was a tiny antique and cost them $500. They often had to make do with less, or with older equipment, while money was tight. But I have a picture of Grandpa Dad in his twenties, sitting atop a broken-down tractor and plow that he’d jerry-rigged to attach to a team of horses. He knew what it felt like to make do with less, to build prosperity out of someone else’s junk.

Now in her fifties, Lucy’s black hair is streaked with a bit of gray, but she is as feisty and determined as ever. You can still see in her the nineteen-year-old bride who was determined to start a new life in a new country. On her kitchen wall is a framed calendar page from February 1993, which she refers to as “the month that almost killed our dream.” The Lourencos had just settled in the valley and started their dairy. But the day before a truck was supposed to pick up their first milk delivery, a snowstorm blasted through the valley, burying their long driveway in snow. Lucy and Joe did not have any snow-shoveling equipment, so they chipped away at the deluge with shovels, making little to no headway. The snow continued to bury their farm, threatening to bury their fledgling dairy with it. Thankfully, it rained just in time. The snow melted away, the truck was able to pick up their milk delivery, and they were saved.

Lucy saw it as a good omen for the future—God’s blessing on their enterprise—so she tore out the calendar page and saved it. “We started with forty cows and barely made enough money to eat,” Lucy says. “But it’s a beautiful business.”

Lucy and Joe typify the incredible grit and resiliency that immigrants to this and other regions of the United States have demonstrated throughout the centuries. They also have experienced, however, the loneliness and difficulty associated with agricultural entrepreneurship. In 2019, Lucy and Joe decided to sell their dairy. They were ready for a less stressful career path. They got rid of all their milking cows except twenty, which they used to feed some of their young stock. They then sold their remaining cattle—steers, heifers, and bulls—the following year. They now plan to continue crop farming their six hundred acres, growing corn, grain, and hay. Joe has always preferred crop farming to dairying anyway.

“Everybody thinks we sold because we’re broke,” Lucy says. “But we were just tired.” Lucy handles all the bookkeeping and finances. She’s always kept the accounting in order and makes sure they have money saved for the bad years. Selling the dairy enabled them to pay everything they owed, and now they feel like they have a clean slate. The dairy may not have reaped the harvest Lucy and Joe expected when they first started farming here almost thirty years ago, but it is helping them enter a new season—one in which they hope to be less stressed and more self-sufficient.

Dairying is an increasingly challenging enterprise for farmers throughout the United States. Dairy is Idaho’s top agricultural industry: its exports bring in approximately $320 million per year. But in recent years, overproduction has taken a toll on dairy’s profits all throughout the United States.

Although milk prices have historically not remained at low or break-even levels for more than a year, milk has now sold under break-even prices for multiple years, according to University of Idaho Extension agricultural economist Ben Eborn. This trend has prompted farmers to dump millions of gallons of excess milk in fields, manure lagoons, or animal feed. Between 2000 and 2018, the United States lost half of its dairy farmers, and more are going out of business every year. The state of Wisconsin lost seven hundred dairies in 2018 alone.

The dairies that are going out of business are primarily small. In Vermont, which has lost nearly one-third of its dairies over the past decade, the vast majority that have closed down had fewer than two hundred cows. But even while these small operations disappear, the number of Vermont dairies with seven hundred or more cows has doubled in the last five years, according to the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.

Dairy farming here in Idaho used to be a local industry. My grandpa Wally remembers driving a dairy truck when he was in high school, helping deliver fresh milk to Emmett’s townspeople. Susan Dill’s grandfather was one of several dairy owners in and around Emmett. In the 1960s, one Meridian, Idaho, farmer recalled, there were eight dairies on his square mile. “Only people my age remember the beautiful valley and the small, well-kept farms,” he told the PressTribune.

These days, the state has fewer dairies than ever before—approximately five hundred in all—but production is as high as it has ever been. Rather than servicing a local clientele, today’s dairies supply large food producers and manufacturers like J.R. Simplot, Idaho Milk Products, Glanbia Foods, and Chobani. The average Idaho dairy cow produces 58 percent more milk today than it did in 1980, according to Idaho Statesman reporter Zach Kyle; and in order to meet its food needs, Idaho’s crop farmers are producing more field corn and alfalfa than ever before. Dairy feedlots have proliferated throughout the Magic Valley region of the state, producing the equivalent in raw sewage of 17 million people. Just as with crop farming, dairies have used technology and industrialized farming methodologies to make more with less: to increase efficiency and output, maximize profits and production.

But the result of these changes has not been prosperity; it’s been crisis. In the last couple of decades, even though Idaho dairymen have doubled their production, they are making 38 percent less than they were in 1980, adjusted for inflation, while dealing with rising costs for labor, fuel, fertilizer, and chemicals. Dairies worry about the same issues of consolidation, monopolization, overproduction, and rising costs that their crop-farming peers are struggling with. And none of this takes into account the ecological toll this massive milk production has had on nearby rivers, groundwater, and reservoirs due to the combined runoff caused by feedlots’ nitrogen, phosphorus, and antibiotic-heavy manure and by fertilizers used in fields.

I first talked to Lucy about her dairy in 20015. But as milk prices plummeted and dairies across the United States went under, her enthusiasm for the work waned—not because she didn’t love the dairy, but because she knew she and Joe couldn’t keep up. They were struggling with low prices, the stress of their work, and the difficulty of finding good workers. The cows take no days off, and so farmhands have to be present every day to care for them. Workers must feed the cows and give them fresh, clean water (some farmers rotate their cows on fresh pasture, whereas others—Lucy and Joe included—supply their cattle with grain, corn silage, and hay feed). They must clean the feeding, staying, and milking areas of the dairy on a daily basis, replacing soiled bedding so that the cows do not develop mastitis or other illnesses. Milking equipment has to be kept clean so that the milk is hygienic. The cows have to be up-to-date on vaccinations as well as deworming and delousing programs. And dairy cows generally need to be milked twice a day (once every twelve hours), seven days a week.

Lucy and Joe have employed undocumented immigrants on their dairy farm in the past. Like many other farmers in Idaho, they’ve seen the work ethic and reliability of these workers, who often come to work for a season and then travel home with their earnings. These workers, one dairyman told a local Idaho news channel, “are our best employees. They’re loyal, they show up for work and they do the job.” Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said in 2020 that he believes about 90 percent of workers in the Idaho dairy industry were born outside the United States.

As the Boise area continues to grow exponentially, some local migrants are leaving agricultural work for construction work, according to several farmers and orchard owners I talked to. Work on a construction site may pay similarly, but the hours are often better, and the jobs are less seasonal than crop and fruit farming.

Many farmers in the United States may struggle with powerlessness in the face oof corporate control, but farmworkers are at the bottom of the agricultural food chain and bear the brunt of the system’s current injustices. Farms and agribusinesses across the United States have taken advantage of undocumented laborers, paying them unfairly and refusing to offer them benefits, health insurance, overtime, or days off. Fieldworkers on many large farms are at high risk of injury, heat stress, and pesticide-related illness. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2016, farmworkers are some of “the least politically powerful employees in the nation.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey found that farmworkers’ average annual incomes ranged from $12,500 to $14,999.30. Yet, despite unfair pay and instances of maltreatment and poor work conditions, many farmworkers avoid protest or pushback. They fear losing their jobs, their homes, or even being deported.

Lucy and Joe sympathize with the plight of undocumented laborers, because they were once undocumented themselves. After they decided to stay here in the United States, they became legal residents. But they recognize in many of their farmworkers the same determination and hope they had as a young married couple pursuing their dream.

“Lots of people used to come for six months, work hard, save their money, go back home, and support their families,” she ex- plains. “But now, it’s very rare to find people that are illegal in farming. A lot less are coming.”

In addition to decreased numbers, Lucy and Joe found that fewer and fewer laborers—be they natives to this area or migrant workers—are interested in the hours and work required on a dairy. Lucy says they always tried to pay a fair wage and were willing to negotiate with workers. But dairy work involved weekend hours and little vacation time. Neither of those requirements appealed to the folks they needed to hire. A few times, workers simply stopped showing up to work: Lucy and Joe called them to find out they’d acquired a job somewhere else and weren’t planning to come back.

There is little prospect of upward mobility for the average farmhand as such—few promises of promotions, retirement, or vacation time the way there might be at a traditional company. For the farmhand who could save up enough funds via work to purchase land, there might be a good deal of interest in getting practical experience on the farm, stewarding the land and caring for animals. Alas, it is likely impossible for the average farmhand today to save up enough to purchase their own farm property— let alone all the equipment, animals, feed, and other supplies necessary to run it. Farm wages are far too low, the cost of land far too high. What Lucy and Joe were able to accomplish more than thirty years ago increasingly feels like an impossibility.

Lucy always had a gift with the cows and loved caring for them. When the Lourencos’ first son was born, the dairy’s calves began to get sick, and Joe couldn’t figure out how to cure them. He hired a nanny so that Lucy could help him in the barn, and she nursed the calves back to health. Many times, a cow began birthing in the middle of the night, prompting Lucy to pull her boots on over her pajamas and head outside. She always kept their bedroom window open a crack, no matter the weather, just so she could keep an ear peeled for any cries of distress.

Instead of aspiring to a home in the suburbs with a two-car garage, a couple of steady nine-to-five jobs, and every weekend off—perhaps a more typical rendition of the American Dream—the Lourencos dreamed of this farm. Their dream required nursing sick cows and birthing calves in the middle of the night, tending crops in the sweltering summer heat, scrimping and saving every penny in order to keep the farm alive. It meant a great deal of sweat and toil, braving the roller coaster of farm ownership in today’s economy. It required bravery, agility, and business savvy.

But it’s also meant working on land they own, developing a business they feel pride in, and living in a place where they can watch the sun rise, apricot and lavender, over the distant hills every morning. When I talk to Lucy, I can hear the affection in her voice for this land, this work.

“It’s a stressful business, because you never know what tomorrow’s going to bring you,” she says. “You go two steps forward, one back, and you can make it. I could see Joe with a cane out there someday, still farming. But you do get tired.”

Emmett farmers have grown crops for agribusiness from the very beginning. Many farmers in this area originally began growing alfalfa for local ranchers like Andy Little, who sought more field-grown grasses for their animals in response to the restrictions imposed by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. Farmers like Grandpa Dad grew sugar beets for the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company’s factory in nearby Nampa. Many farmers in this valley now grow corn for Lansing Trade Group or teff for the Teff Company.

Even as their equipment and methodologies have changed, their planting seasons follow similar rhythms.

But there is a deeper disconnect between the farmers and their clientele than there once was. The agribusiness and community supports that once resided in Emmett itself have all but disappeared. Many of the local workers who farmers relied on have gone. Most farmers now have to go farther afield for contracts, equipment repairs, supplies, and labor.

Meanwhile, monopolization in the dairy and seed industries has threatened farmers’ ability to make a living. In today’s industrialized economy, farmers like the Lourencos and their workers are always at the bottom of the supply chain. When prices plummet, or agribusinesses consolidate, they are hurt the most.

“Small dairy farmers, an aging population, were some of the last U.S. holdouts against the farming industry’s pressure to grow or die—but it’s unclear how much longer they can last,” Phil McCausland wrote in 2018 for NBC News. Joe Schroeder, a representative for Farm Aid, said that “the best advice I can give to these folks, dairy farmers, is to sell out as fast as you can.”

Despite these difficulties, however, many farmers on the bench are still sticking in place. The Lourencos have always displayed the same self-sufficiency and grit that Grandpa Dad had—the same characteristics that enabled him to farm through the Great Depression and live his entire life on this land. With every seed that sinks into the soil, Tracy Walton also renews his commitment to this land and this vocation, to planting seeds for the sake of the future.

But I still feel troubled. After our tractor ride concludes, I thank Tracy, shake his hand, and drive back down Black Canyon Highway. I see the fields that bear testament to Tracy’s hard work and lifetime of dedication, the barn and farmhouse where Lucy and Joe built a new life for themselves. But the more I research what is happening in this and other rural communities, the more it seems that Emmett’s future is no longer influenceable by people like Grandpa Dad, who lived here and loved here for decades.

The people who built a healthy place from the neglected, abused soil of a boom-and-bust town will not get a say in what happens to it next. The town’s fate is increasingly controlled by distant forces, by cycles of conquest and exodus that erode the empowerment and choice of those who remain.