Mixed fortunes in the Corn Belt

May 13, 1999|By George F. Will

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Even in this world of multicultural whirl, global change and postmodern indeterminacy, there still are things that can be said for sure, such as: South Dakota is a farm state.

Actually, not exactly.

Either North or South Dakota -- it depends on whom you ask, and how they measure -- is the state most dependent on agriculture. However, the 2000 Census probably will find that a majority of South Dakotans live in cities and towns. If you ask an economist at the University of South Dakota to gauge agriculture's portion of this state's economy, he would say 10 percent. Other experts will say it is higher, but none will say it is 50 percent. About 15 percent of the 732,000 South Dakotans live on the 31,000 farms and ranches.

Today the state's product most visibly identified with an agricultural motif is a computer. Gateway computers, manufactured at North Sioux City, are packed in boxes printed to look like the black-and-white dappled hide of a cow because the company was founded by the son of a Sioux City cattle buyer. (Even though South Dakota has no state income tax, Gateway's executive offices have decamped to San Diego to facilitate attracting recent business school graduates, who do not appreciate the delights of Dakota winters.)

Multicultural mix

Twenty years ago, on the floor of the John Morrell meat-packing plant that was one of the original engines of Sioux Falls' growth, (another was a penitentiary), the faces were white and the language was English. Today 40 languages can be heard there. (A Dakota winter can seem downright delightful compared with conditions immigrants left in Southeast Asia or Latin America.)

One of the state's biggest private employers is owned by an immigrant who fled to Sioux Falls to escape oppressive laws. In the 1970s, when interest rates soared, New York's usury laws prevented Citicorp from keeping its credit card interest rates ahead of inflation. Citicorp was losing a bundle when Gov. William Janklow, a Republican with a populist streak, acted with lightning speed to repeal South Dakota's usury laws and invited Citicorp to move west.

A lot of history was turned inside out when a prairie state with a populist tradition gave succor to a big New York bank. The ghost of William Jennings Bryan may be offended, but the bank now employs 3,500 South Dakotans.

Mr. Janklow, now called "the first Jesse Ventura," is back as governor, his populism finding outlet in attempts to block -- as in seal the state's borders against -- certain trucks carrying Canadian agricultural products. What is the Constitution's interstate commerce clause among friends? Could be worse. The People's Republic of North Dakota has a state bank.

Bifurcated state

Remember the song in the musical "Oklahoma," about how "the farmer and the cowman should be friends"? South Dakotans say: Not exactly. Not only are there two Dakotas, North and South, but there also are two South Dakotas. The portion east of the Missouri River is more farm than ranch country and is oriented toward Minneapolis. Western South Dakotans live in less tidy country: Think Deadwood, where Calamity Jane reigned and Wild Bill Hickok was shot. Western South Dakotans are oriented toward Denver and think those east of the river are highfalutin.

But together the residents of this bifurcated state have devised a differently bifurcated politics. William Peterson, a Republican state representative from Sioux Falls, says South Dakotans have voted Democratic just four times in presidential elections since 1892 (for Bryan in 1896, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964).

Federal dollars

They send conservatives to the state capital, Pierre, because the state government spends their money. However, although the state's only congressman, John Thune, is a Republican, both U.S. senators, Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, are Democrats. You see, their job in Washington is to deflect a stream of other states' dollars to South Dakota.

It is working. South Dakota is a big importer of federal dollars, particularly for agriculture, the divorce of which from government has been greatly exaggerated. Of the state's $2.1 billion budget, $821 million -- counting Medicare and other transfers -- come from Washington. An additional $429 million will pour from the federal spigot over a six-year span because of the most recent highway bill.

The strong dollar has hurt agriculture exports, as has the Asian slump. Farming is a capital-intensive business, and for many farmers, hard-pressed to amortize elements of their capital-intensive business, (a basic combine costs more than $125,000), this is the worst farm economy since the Depression.

That is a reminder -- as the Dow heads for 12,000, and South Dakotans warily watch hog prices -- of the variety of American experiences.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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