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Author of The Agricultural City to be at Gays Mills Food Co-op
ag city front cover final

GAYS MILLS - Author Robert Wolf will hold a meeting to share and discuss the ideas for economic development in the Driftless Region put forth in his book, ‘The Agricultural City,’ on Saturday, May 26, 5 to 6 p.m., at the Kickapoo Exchange Food Cooperative in Gays Mills.

The following is a review of the book, originally printed in the Spring 2017 issue of ‘The College,’ published by St. John’s College. The review is reprinted in our newspaper with permission.


Since moving to the small town of Decorah, Iowa, in 1991, former Chicago Tribune columnist Robert Wolf has been concerned with the decline of rural America. The upper Midwest’s Driftless bioregion, of which Decorah is part, once easily fed its inhabitants with its agriculture and fishing; now, despite much of the area being farmland, it must import most of its food and other manufactured goods.

“I began to think,” writes Wolf, “about how such a region could escape the trauma of another national depression, and realized only a region that was self-reliant and relatively self-sufficient could do this.”

How, then, to create such a region? The solution, Wolf believes, lies in the concept of “the agricultural city,” a term coined by Chicago architect Joe Lambke. In Lambke’s vision, rather than viewing themselves as a series of towns or villages separated by fields, several rural communities would join together to form one “city” with multiple nodes of population.

Cooperating rather than competing would allow the inhabitants of an agricultural city to develop a self-supporting economy less dependent on centralized corporate interests.

Wolf first put forth these ideas in a six-part editorial for Iowa Public Radio in 1994, ‘Developing Regional, Rural Economies;’ the piece won the Sigma Delta Chi Award and Bronze Medal from the Society of Professional Journalists for Best Radio Editorial. It was reprinted in the DesMoines Register.

Now, he has expanded this work into a book, Building the Agricultural City (Ruskin Press, 2016). The publication costs were raised on the crowdfunding website IndieGoGo. Crowdfunding itself is an example of the democratic, grassroots actions that Wolf feels “democratize our economy” and help decentralization.

Building the Agricultural City outlines several practical steps toward building a self-sufficient regional economy: “a community development bank, numerous worker-owned cooperatives, and one or two closed-loop agricultural systems to provide fresh fruit and vegetables year round.

Each municipality would have a publicly owned utility powered by renewable sources. Each of these tools has been successfully implemented by communities around the world.

Locally sourced food, trendy on upscale urban menus, might seem easy to achieve for the agricultural city; unfortunately, most American farmland is owned by corporations, which ship crops out of the region where they are grown.

Wolf believes small farmers can maximize their local impact by turning to “closed-loop” agricultural systems, “in which the waste from one part of the system [becomes] the nutrient for another”—e.g., Plant Chicago raises tilapia, and removes their waste from the water to use as fertilizer for edible plants. The clean water is then re-circulated into the fish tanks.

Ironically, Wolf finds examples of such projects only in cities.

Another urban innovation that Wolf recommends in a rural context is that of the community development bank. The first of these in the U.S. was founded in 1973 by four friends in the South Shore area of Chicago, which was losing capital as whites moved out of the neighborhood. Its investors included “nonprofits, churches, banks, insurance companies, community organizations, and individuals,” and the bank “invested in minority-owned businesses and financed apartment renovation that created affordable housing.”

Placing community before profit, banks like ShoreBank, Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, and the Bank of North Dakota, help keep small economies strong. These economies can be further strengthened, Wolf argues, by the creation of worker-owned cooperatives, modeled on European examples.

The Emilia Romagna region of Italy, for instance, has approximately 8,100 cooperatives, in which businesses producing the same product collaborate rather than compete—and it is this power of collaboration that allows them to compete at a global level and enjoy a high quality of life.

One last piece of the puzzle, Wolf writes in an epilogue, is the necessary reemergence of regional arts and literature, “almost instinctively understood to be the best means available for developing regionalist sensibility.”

Writers, artists, and musicians are vital forces to “[foster] a regional consciousness, by offering dying rural towns an alternative to bitterness and passive acceptance of a system that works against them.”

In this way, the humanities can add their persuasive power to advances in science and technology, Wolf hopes, in order to build “a cooperative society in which meaningful, remunerative work is available to all…a culture rooted in the land and created with tools that enable a people to live harmoniously with the land.”