LaCROSSE, Wash. – The worn sign on the road into town reads: “Welcome to LaCrosse. Home of the Tigercats. Population 415.”
It was painted a long time ago. Today the town in southwest Whitman County is home to 100 fewer people, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The once-in-a-decade head count continues to affirm an uncomfortable fact in farm country: Many of Washington’s small towns are getting smaller.
Even as the state and its larger cities bustle with more people, more business – more everything, it seems – the small towns dotting Eastern Washington are emptying.
“It’s a shame,” said Whitman County Commissioner Patrick O’Neill. “My opinion is that the small towns of America are what made this country great.”
Small towns began dying about a century ago. They had sprouted to serve the influx of farmers, loggers, ranchers, miners, railroads and travelers. In Eastern Washington they sit about 25 miles apart, a reasonable distance for a horse and rider to cover in a day.
Then tractors and new plows, bigger farms and the automobile ushered in change. The 1910 census was the last to count more rural Americans than city dwellers.
The exodus has been especially poignant in the Great Plains states, where counties have fewer and fewer people.
Washington is a bit different. During the past 10 years only two of the state’s 39 counties – Garfield in the southeast, and Pacific along the coast – lost people. The rest grew, but that growth was mainly an expansion of the larger towns and cities.
In Whitman County, where more than a dozen towns – including the county seat, Colfax – lost people, the overall population has grown in the last decade due mostly to a 21 percent increase in Pullman’s population. That city is home to Washington State University and booming technology company Schweitzer Engineering; its population reached 29,799 people over the last decade.
In other counties, such as Spokane, population growth also was spurred by growing cities and bedroom communities.
It’s a trend expected to be mirrored when census numbers for Idaho are released this week.
Lone grocery closed
In LaCrosse, residents want the town to rebound enough to maintain adequate supplies of goods and services.
A few years ago the town’s only grocery, LaCrosse Market, closed. Then fire gutted the building that had housed a hardware store. The local farm machinery dealership withdrew its sales staff, and a machine shop closed.
There hasn’t been a town doctor in more than 45 years. The nearest dentist is up the road in Colfax.
A retirement home offering federally subsidized housing keeps some of the older folks in town, but once those people need a more intensive level of care, they must move to a nursing home in a different community.
LaCrosse may sound like a tough-luck tale, but residents will not give up.
The town has a neatly kept school with more than 150 students. A few businesses keep people employed, and the surrounding fertile hills of the Palouse support big wheat farms and fertilizer sales.
A tavern still sells cold beer, and a few bucks will still buy a hamburger.
“We’re not dead yet,” Mayor Larry “Butch” Burgess said.
He talks of community efforts to attract businesses, using the selling points of a rural lifestyle and hard workers.
A group of local business people are trying to finance a new grocery store.
“Sure be nice, with fuel prices going up, to have a grocery store in town,” said Don Keeney, the town’s public works director.
Federal program to blame?
Some in Washington’s small towns pin the blame for their decline on a popular federal program that pays farmers to leave their land idle rather than plant crops.
The Conservation Reserve Program, established during the Reagan administration when farms were failing at an alarming rate, is now 25 years old.
It’s a voluntary program that last year paid Washington farmers $84.6 million to leave 1.4 million acres for wildlife habitat and erosion control.
Greg Partch, a Whitman County commissioner, has a dim view of the program.
“CRP is killing our towns,” he said.
When farmers take a conservation payment rather than plant a crop, they don’t buy fuel and fertilizer, they don’t buy machinery and seed, and they don’t hire help for the harvest. In short, Partch said, the payments stifle the local economies by suppressing high-production agriculture in an area that boasts some of the best wheat-growing conditions in the world.
Judy Olson, state executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency office in Spokane, acknowledges the criticism, but said CRP has helped thousands of farmers and landowners hang on to family property during down years, as well as achieve conservation goals.
In the past several years the high price of wheat and other crops has helped farmers fetch a handsome profit, dulling the conservation program’s allure as a safe financial bet.
Pulling land out of the program before a contract expires is penalized, Olson said. There are fees, and in some cases farmers have to repay signing bonuses they collected at enrollment.
Burgess, pointing to CRP land surrounding LaCrosse, said he understands why landowners – many of whom live in cities and larger towns – opt for CRP rather than leases: It’s a business decision with little risk.
The program also is popular with conservation groups and hunters, with some CRP land being transformed into private hunting preserves. And it continues to attract support from lawmakers, who have included it in several federal farm bills.
In LaCrosse, CRP is partly blamed for the loss of the town’s farm machinery dealership. Arrow Machinery closed its sales offices in LaCrosse and St. John and consolidated its presence in Colfax and Pomeroy.
“Used to be around here that the town would get some sales tax money when farmers would spend a few million dollars on new combines,” Burgess said. “We miss that.”
And yet small towns aren’t going to disappear.
“We’re struggling,” said Verne Strader, mayor of Endicott. “But people are proud, and we’re not going anywhere.
“We’re doing what we can.”