Portraits of a failing farm state, captured in all its devastation and beauty.
Last week, we published Corie Brown’s investigative essay about the history of depopulation in rural Kansas. In Brown’s telling, a series of linked factors have helped to empty out her home state: increasingly mechanized agriculture, failing farms, years of bad policy, economic orthodoxy. Whatever the cause, a dire lack of people defines much of Kansas today. Fifty-five of the state’s 105 counties have less than 10 people square mile—and yet people remain. As Brown drove more than 1,800 miles around the state to get the human story of that scarcity, she found residents who are still fighting to preserve their struggling communities, even as they watch them slowly fade into the grain.
Luke Townsend, the photographer for Brown’s piece, has seen that transformation up close, in all its devastation and lingering beauty. A resident of Manhattan, Kansas (population 52,281), Townsend drove out to visit some of Brown’s sources, and capture portions of the main streets and planted vistas they call home. Below are selections from his photographic journey, portraits from the Kansas you can’t see from the highway. —Joe Fassler
The view outside Townsend’s front door at sunrise, just south of Manhattan, Kansas (population 54,593). Early morning fog from the Kansas River covers the landscape
Another image south of Manhattan. Just a small, rural road with passing train tracks, where early morning fog wreathes over the dry crop fields. This area is in a flood zone, the sandy-soiled valley of the Flint Hills. The trees are a couple hundred years old
Lonnie Kufahl, left, inside the Kufahl Hardware store on the old main street in Wheaton, Kansas (population 103). This shop has been part of Kufahl’s family his whole life, and he’s worked there full-time since he graduated from high school in 1973. His father ran it before him. Right, a local farmer, Donn Teske, looks at some goods, ever-present cigar in his mouth
Teske farms and ranches near Wheaton, on land his family has owned for five generations. As president of the Kansas Farmers’ Union’s Board of Directors, he’s seen firsthand the struggles faced by the state’s agricultural community. “It’s getting lonely,” he told Brown. Friends and neighbors have quit farming and sold land.
Teske burns off spots in his hay fields to make room for this year’s harvest. He farms about 250 acres of hay, yielding about a ton per acre, as part of about 1,000 crop acres overall. “I’ve been fighting this fight my whole life,” he told Brown. “Everything always works to help the big get bigger” Joe Fassler
The entrance to Frankfort, Kansas (population 692). This view is looking straight down Main Street: You get the main rail lines, grain elevators, old water tower, and church steeple popping up from the trees Joe Fassler
A shot of Kansas Avenue, Frankfort’s main street. It’s an old railroad town founded in 1867, 25 minutes north of Wheaton
Dan Kuhn, who farms outside Courtland, Kansas (population 269) by one of his hoop house gardens. In a landscape dominated by commodity row crops, Kuhn’s the rare exception growing fresh produce. The houses pictured here are planted with tomatoes. Kuhn hires and houses additional farm labor, and says he strives to fairly compensate the people who work for him, including many immigrants Joe Fassler
Luke Mahin, Courtland’s economic development director, standing outside Kuhn’s hoop houses during the daytime. Mahin has worked to support the smaller-scale agricultural projects he feels more directly benefit the town in financial gains, jobs, and growth. “Commodity crops are a race to the bottom,” he told Brown. “It’s an agricultural system that kills jobs instead of creating them” Joe Fassler
A large surplus grain storage facility just on the edge of Lebanon, Kansas. All this commodity grain hasn’t been sold yet—farmers are likely waiting for prices to go up. After Joe Fassler record highs in 2012, corn prices have fallen steeply to a fraction of what they were six years ago. Overflowing grain stockpiles are ubiquitous sight across the state
The mountain of unsold commodity grain in Lebanon, at sundown Joe Fassler
A cattle farm off of Highway 99, between Frankfort and Wheaton, at sunset. April is calving season, and you can see two new baby cows here grazing alongside the senior cattle
An old, run-down grain elevator welcomes visitors right at the entrance to the town of Frankfort, a crumbling monument to better times Joe Fassler
This is an old barn and gated pen right on the edge of Wheaton as you enter the town. You can find old barns scattered throughout the landscape of Kansas, even if the style of farming that required them is mostly on the wane Joe Fassler
Night falls on what was once Main Street in Wheaton. Kufahl Hardware, formerly Wilson and Kufahl, was founded in 1896. The upper level was a funeral home, and inside, a giant wooden freight elevator—still in working order today—was used to lift and lower caskets. On the sidewalk sits an antique gas pump, another vestige of days gone by Joe Fassler