Consensus: Bullish even in the face of challenges

2017 Ag Census provides a glimpse into rural communities

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture provides a window into the High Plains region. Trends continue to show a recurring theme—the average size of farms continues to grow and the number of farms is declining.

The U.S. Census, which will be taken again in 2020, is likely to show a similar trend in many communities throughout the heartland—a few rural cities will increase or stay about the same in population but most will likely see outmigration.

As we turn our attention to the Rural America issue, it seemed to be an appropriate time to take a look at some of the trends and opportunities.

The average age for all producers has increased from 53.2 years in 2002 to 57.5 years in 2017. Today there are about 2.042 million farms compared to 2.109 million in 2012. There are about 3.4 million producers, which was actually an increase from 3.18 million in 2012.

What it means is that fewer people will be needed on the farm to produce food and fiber but it also mirrors what is happening in the communities that depend on farm families.

A starting point

For more than 20 years, Ron Wilson, the director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Development at Kansas State University, has been writing Kansas Profile, which highlights individuals or companies in rural Kansas that are making a difference.

“Rural America is a strength,” he said. “At the end of the day the rural quality of life is our ace in the hole.”

David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has studied rural population issues for the past 16 years, and he expects the median age will continue to climb.

As people retire, they tend to move closer to their kids so they can spend time with grandchildren. The need for specialty care also plays a significant part in a decision to move.

In many Nebraska counties, there are towns with less than 2,500 people. The population drain typically occurs between the ages of 15 and 24—when college draws younger residents away—and those 75 and older who leave for medical reasons or for specialty housing.

“The outmigration of young people is often around 50 percent,” Drozd said about his findings. He says retaining younger members is a community’s best hope of long-term stability.

Retaining youth

Retention of younger people is a challenge, Drozd said, but there is a potential for success with innovation.

“There are many stories about people driving by a company ‘a hundred times’ and not knowing what opportunities are available,” he said.

Programs designed to show junior high and high school students what is available is another way to promote careers in local communities and build relationships with younger generations, Drozd said. He added that connections are easier to form in rural areas than in urban centers.

“Over time, communities that have successfully empowered youth and high school graduates with a positive vision, project or work experiences, traditional values and strong work ethic tend to have the best chance for alumni later contributing in a positive way,” said Shawn Kaskie, outreach project coordinator with the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska. Those that do will see those alumni starting and growing a business and taking important local jobs, such as teachers.

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Kaskie noted that in Ord and Broken Bow in central Nebraska, Red Cloud and Shickley in the southeast, O’Neill and West Point in the northeast and Imperial in the southwest, local leaders and owners have stayed positive and listened to most demographic segments and taken action over the past couple of decades.

“While they may not have grown in population, their wealth stabilization is a great success compared with peer communities,” Kaskie said.

In rural states, small businesses, farmers and ranchers retaining employees and adding more to payroll does occur when profits grow and business expands, Wilson said. “We need a strong private sector economy then people will build their businesses.”

Listening is a strength

Most have conducted regular leadership and entrepreneurship development programs over several years or invested in economic development tools and resources in an inclusive and strategic manner, he said.

“It takes a long time for leaders to sincerely listen to diverse voices (youth, immigrants and women) and develop an inclusive community vision as a potential entrepreneur would risk personal investment,” Kaskie said.

Expanding online college programs can provide an opportunity so that people don’t have to move away to further their education, Drozd said. When high school graduates move away to attend college, they will start a career path that can lead them away from home. Also, rural-based students may start dating then marrying someone from an urban area, which makes a return to their roots less likely.

Also, a four-year degree is not necessarily for everyone or even practical, Drozd said. Opportunities abound for welders and jobs in manufacturing plants and other vocational careers that offer good pay and benefits. If the jobs are not in the same town often they are only a short drive in comparison to similar jobs in most urban areas.


A critical element for attracting and retaining employees and vital for modern commerce is modern information infrastructure, Wilson said. Rural businesses, farmers and ranchers must be able to market and sell their products globally and that means having state-of-art broadband, he said. Information access is a necessity for precision agriculture required by producers and agribusiness services that provide the valuable support services.

Cultural diversity can help build future success, Wilson said. In larger western Kansas towns, such as Dodge City and Garden City, Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment to meet the needs of employers.

Regardless of the situation, Drozd said a community has to recognize it is going to a lot of work and investment to be successful.

“Those that tend to do better have a community foundation, a volunteer network and buy-in with community leaders who are listening.”

Community leadership helped Pender, Nebraska, a town of 1,200 people, address a lack of child-care options for young working families, he said. A multipurpose building provided room for receptions and space was allocated for day care. Red Cloud, Nebraska, is another small farm and ranching town that invested in a child-care center to ensure young families have quality day-care options.

With the workforce at full capacity in the High Plains region, allowing parents to have flexible work schedules so they can pick up their children after school or attend school-related activities also can be an important benefit, Drozd said.

Value added

In most rural areas, agriculture is the backbone of the community so the natural link is to build through value-added industries, Wilson said. In Kansas, the state’s department of agriculture and commerce departments have been aggressive in building those relationships. Working with an existing industry is the most proven formula for success.

No better story of that occurred in the 1990s when the Western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance went to work attracting dairies from the East and West Coast regions as those operations were being crowded out by urban sprawl. Western Kansas fit well because of its acceptance of animal agriculture, availability of water and feed and its ability to attract employees.

“Decades later they now have a processing plant in Garden City,” Wilson said. “That is a long-term success story we need to have more of in the future.”

Think of the couple

Kaskie noted that marriage dynamics have changed and both spouses must have an entrepreneurial understanding of risk for a couple to buy or start a new venture, especially in smaller and rural markets.

“Successful retailers of non-disposable good should not rely on local customers but rather see their storefront as a supplement to their online base, for example antiques,” Kaskie said. “Local food and beverage retailers and other sellers of perishable and disposable items should focus on the shopping experience. Vineyards with a bed and breakfast tied to bird watching and biking, and rural brewers have done a good job of creating enjoyable experiences with quality products.”

He said local leaders should develop incentive programs to help potential owners take education risks. He also noted it is incumbent upon local leaders to set an example by always telling a positive story instead of saying “my town is dying.”

Understated is the silver lining that rural communities need to tout and be more open about the lifestyle it offers.

Food and fiber

Similar to many Midwestern states, the Sunflower State’s economy revolves around the food and fiber that feeds the world, Wilson said. Building the communities around the state, particularly those in non-urban settings, will take a commitment by leaders, in particular those who are private sectors who have a vested interest in quality schools.

In studying trends, Drozd noticed the Great Recession of 2008 opened opportunities for couples who wanted to return home and farm.

One item Drozd noticed in his studies was that established farmers were able to attract younger families home at the beginning of the decade and that has been sustained. Higher commodity prices stayed firm until the mid-part of the decade, Drozd said, as many urban areas were still in recovery mode.

The one issue many small towns have is on the housing side, Drozd said. Even if there are jobs available, a lack of housing or inadequate stock was a turnoff to millennial job seekers. A large house that requires more maintenance does not meet their needs, regardless of whether they are renting or buying.

What’s right and good

All of those interviewed said despite the many challenges the rural lifestyle is ideal.

“For the right group of people a draw for a high quality of life, where you know people, a sense of community and smaller town in nature with all amenities that small towns are known for—low crime, lots of space, low noise, no traffic, good air quality,” Drozd said. “That is all desirable but we need to remember people will tend to follow the jobs.”

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].