Reversing the Rural Decline

by Brian Depew

There’s yet another story today about the shrinking population of the rural United States. This one is from Kansas where 3/4 of the state’s 105 counties lost population between 2000 and 2004, and for the eighth year in a row 60 percent of the school districts in the state saw their enrollment decline yet again in 2005.

The story discusses the usual causes (changes in the agriculture sector), and the usual responses (school consolidation).

I admire communities like Utica, Kansas where they hung onto their school until last year when enrollment for the entire district fell below 40 students, and Cuba, Kansas where a school with an enrollment of 100 students remains open.

But stubborn perseverance alone will not save these communities. We must transform how we think about rural areas.

We need to move beyond current policies that have done little to reverse the long decline, and instead implement public policies that seek to support and build the civil institutions that rural people depend on (schools included).

This means figuring out how to arrest population decline, but initially it means more than that. It means using creative ideas to keep schools, post offices and grocery stores open. It means looking at new and creative ways to fund vital activities. It means forming new coalitions to lobby state and federal governments for both fiscal support and beneficial policy changes.

Some of the community leaders in the story understand the problem.

“We’ve got to find things people can do to stay in Republic County,” said [school Superintendent] Lysell, who’s also active in the county’s economic development efforts. “What we have now is a sort of cycle — we give our kids a really good education, they go off to college and then they don’t come back because they can’t make the kind of money here that they can make in the larger cities. And then with fewer people here, we start to lose businesses,” he said.

But we have to move beyond defeatist response like this one given by the director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

“[Rural Communities that have bucked the trend] are exceptions rather than the rule,” said WSU’s Harrah, adding, “I don’t expect to see a turnaround.”

Clearly they’re not going to help us.

We need leaders (people in positions like school Superintendent Lysell) to bring rural communities together and form grassroots organizations. These organizations can (and should) be the hub of innovative ideas about how to maintain and build the civil institutions rural communities need. Additionally, these groups need to be encouraged to stand up and demand policy changes when they are needed at the state and federal level.

I believe that a sustainable rural future is possible, but it will have to start in the communities most affected by the current decline. Policies that keep schools in rural communities, bring jobs back and implement creative funding mechanisms are a start. With support and encouragement I believe that ideas like these will see wider implementation, and that many more ideas like them will emerge from our rural communities.

There’s certainly no sense in waiting around for the solutions to come from above.

The declines have the attention of Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington.

“It’s been devastating,” Lee said. “I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s pretty clear that economic efforts that have been undertaken in this state haven’t worked. I don’t think they have a clue what we’re dealing with out here.”

We have to take the solutions to them. They are waiting.

Rural Roads More Deadly

This is from last week when I wasn’t writing.

Forty-two percent more fatal crashes occur in rural parts of the country than on busy stretches of highways through cities and suburbs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported last week.

The story has been covered elsewhere, so I’ll leave it at that.

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More Pigs from the Big Guys

There is an interesting tidbit in the Corporate Farming Notes section of the latest newsletter from Center for Rural Affairs.

According to Successful Farming Magazine, the largest 20 hog producers in the United States have added over 140,000 sows to their numbers in the last year. Fifty-seven percent of those were added through consolidation, larger production companies purchasing smaller operations. But approximately 61,000 of those sows are new – about half being added by converting existing nurseries to gilt development units. Iowa Select Farms is adding 20,000 sows through this type of conversion.

As a result, finishing barns are going up throughout the Midwest. The Farmers Cooperative Society in Sioux Center, Iowa is pushing to build 60,000 new hog-finishing spaces this year.

Update: The Iowa DNR pushes back.

Jeff Vonk, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said his staff has been concerned about record confinement construction over the past few years.

Some of those projects have been built in areas vulnerable to groundwater pollution. Others were constructed in areas where no land was available nearby for manure application, so the producers trucked the wastes more than 35 miles, risking a leak, Vonk said. Other manure is spread on slopes where it probably runs off into rivers and lakes, he said.

“We want to make sure these confinements are getting the proper scrutiny,” said Vonk […]

The department is filing an emergency rule that, by Dec. 30, would give Vonk the power to block or change plans for additions to confinements or for new buildings.

It’s about freaking time.

Pharma Crops, Farmers and Rural Communities

A new report written by Iowa State Economics Professor Robert Wisner and commissioned by the Union for Concerned Scientists examines the potential benefits and risks of pharmaceutical crops for farmers and rural communities. The report website is here.

To gain support for pharma crop production at the state level and state subsidies for their industry, pharma crop proponents have touted the substantial benefits that these new crops would bring to farmers and rural America. However, these claims were never backed up by economic analyses.

To fill this gap, UCS commissioned Dr. Robert Wisner, University Professor in the Department of Economics at Iowa State University, to take a close look at the economic benefits and risks of pharma crops to growers and rural communities. Dr. Wisner, one of the nation’s leading agricultural economists, found some drug and biotechnology companies may profit from “pharma crops,” but farmers and rural communities are likely to see few if any benefits.

After careful review of Dr. Wisner’s report, UCS concludes that pharma crop proponents’ claims are inflated and, importantly, whatever benefits do materialize, most farmers will not be major beneficiaries.

I’m reading through the report summary now, and it seems to be well done.

Bacteria Plumes

In the latest issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene there is an article on bacterial plumes that emanate from the air surrounding swine confinement operations (no link yet). The researchers measured bacteria in the air plume at upwind and downwind locations around confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

The data show a marked increase in bacterial CFUs/m3 inside the facility (18,132 CFU/m3 average) versus upwind (63 CFU/m3 average) and a steady downwind decrease out to approximately 150 m. Staphylococcus aureus was found to account for 76% of the organisms recovered.

Attempts to litigate against CAFOs based on the nuisance of unpleasant odors have had mixed success in the courts. Perhaps cases based on excess bacterial loads in the air would be more successful.

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Tough Row to Hoe

It is going to be a long time before things start to look up in the agriculture and rural communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This story from the Christian Science Monitor provides a sketch that illustrates the much larger problems.

This is the time of year when Emmett Fowler would be pulling bright navel oranges, sweet satsumas, and juicy grapefruit from his citrus trees. Instead, Mr. Fowler expects he will be plowing under his 2,000 lifeless fruit trees.

“The state will have to test the soil for salt and crude oil,” says Fowler as he looks out at his groves […] and talks about whether he will be able to recover. “Most of the trees were under 14 feet of water.”

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have left similar scenes of devastation across the state. State economists now estimate the losses to Louisiana’s farm economy at $1.6 billion – ranging from strawberry fields that were washed away to entire forests that had 10 to 15 years’ worth of timber destroyed. And, because of the salt-water flooding, agriculture experts say the damage could stretch on for years. […]

“There was nothing that we grow that was not impacted.”

And in a particularly ironic turn, some farmers are faced with losses from a lack of rain since the storms.

[S]ome farmers whose crops withstood the wind and floods watched their produce wither after weeks without electricity meant they couldn’t irrigate. “We’re still in a drought situation,” says Professor Bracy. “We’ve had no significant rain since Katrina or Rita.”

For farmers, the problems seem never-ending. After the hurricanes, there were shortages of diesel. This prevented farmers from using their generators, which could have powered their irrigation pumps. Dairy farmers, also without electricity, lost milk sales.

Crunch Time

It’s end of the semester crunch time. Activity here will be sparse this week. Regular posting will resume later next week.

No Power

Days after a snow and ice storm swept through the Great Plains a number of communities are still waiting for the power to come back on as temperatures hover in the teens.

In South Dakota volunteers have begun going door to door urging people without heat to report to one of the 68 shelters set up across the state.

The teams will identify people at risk because of no power, offer information on protecting their homes from freezing water pipes and other cold-weather problems, and provide transportation to shelters.

[Gov. Mike] Rounds said many local citizens, especially older people, don’t want to leave their homes, in spite of cold and lack of power. He quoted one local official as telling him, “I just can’t get them to go to a shelter.’’

The door-to-door teams will try to encourage shelter use. South Dakotans aren’t used to asking for help, the governor said.

Officials estimate that 10,000 miles of power lines were damaged in the storm.

How Big is Your Town’s Endowment?

I missed this New York Times story a couple of weeks ago.

The story highlighted Ord, Nebraska (population 2,200) and the recently established Ord Foundation. These community endowments are being established in a small, but growing, number of rural communities.

In Ord the endowment recently offered relocation assistance to 10 young couples who moved to town.

In some rural communities (if they reach their fundraising goals) the new endowments are posed to provide more yearly revenue than local property taxes currently do.

Even smaller towns have gotten involved. Shickley, a village in Fillmore County in the southeastern part of the state, with a population of 363, has built an endowment of $300,000 in just four years, after a local banking family posted a $105,000 challenge grant. If the town can raise $1 million – by 2011 it is hoped – it will provide more than the present annual property tax intake of $42,000. This year, the endowment’s extra $13,000 helped renovate the Fillmore County Courthouse, support a local history project and maintain a new library and public swimming pool.

The success of the endowments in many rural communities is being staked on local residents, rather than on wealthy external funders.

The critical part of creating an endowment is to involve as many residents as possible, through a local founders club that requires a minimum commitment of $1,000. In Ord, 55 donors signed up within the first two weeks.

Colleges and Universities track their alumni like hawks, knowing that one day these former students will be in the position to contribute to their alma mater’s endowment. Towns in Nebraska are now doing the same.

Nebraska does not have a large pool of part-time residents to tap, and it has an outflow of young residents – the children of potential donors – who move away when they go to college and do not return. So virtually every town has tracked down alumni networks, even for grade schools, to draw from the huge intergenerational wealth transfer that could be coming in the next decades.

The executive director of the foundation in Ord, Nebraska says, “”There is a renewed sense of hope in this community that we can help ourselves, we have to help ourselves because no one else is going to.”


Update: If you live in a rural community, consider sending a link to this post to your local mayor, city council members and school officials.