I recently read an article on the Financial Times (FT) website that discussed the decline in rural population. Drive through the many one-horse towns throughout the country, and you’ll see what I mean. School consolidations, abandoned grocery stores and perhaps one lone fuel station serve as a reminder of a once-thriving small town. According to the FT article, “Much of rural America – 15% of the U.S. population spread across 72% of its land area – faces population decline.”
The article suggests that rural communities are losing people in their 20s and 30s, and that rural America is aging more quickly than the rest of the nation.
So, what does this mean for the small-town communities that support the local farm families growing our food? How can we improve the infrastructure of these small communities to improve retention of young people?
This was a topic I pondered last week as I listened to speakers at a women’s conference in South Dakota. One of the speakers was a chiropractor, who in the tiny rural town she lived in, had created a large business, which included everything from personal massage, to holistic health care, to exercise classes. I found it odd that she would locate her business in such a small town, and I suspect that if she hadn’t married a farmer, a business like that wouldn’t be located in that rural area.
The families living in these small communities need access to things like health care, retail stores and educational opportunities. Yet, we are seeing more young people leaving these communities to open up businesses or obtain jobs in urban cities.
Here are three things we need to retain and recruit the next generation in rural communities:
1. Improved Internet service in rural America.
Access to the Internet is one of the most necessary elements to help a small community compete and thrive. Whether it enables students to take an online class remotely from a university located miles away, or allows a conversation with a specialist for more acute health care needs, a proper Internet connection is needed to bring these opportunities to rural America.
Likewise, young people can now diversify by using the Internet to bring cash flow into their homes. In rural communities, new jobs tend to be infrequent, so being able to work from home enables many to have a career while living in a small town.
For example, I’m able to write and blog for BEEF from my ranch office. Without the opportunity to work remotely, I likely would have to be located in a more urban community, which wouldn't allow me to be involved firsthand in production agriculture. My sister, Courtney, is another great example of this. She will be marrying a farmer who lives in a small South Dakota community, and she has started an online jewelry business. This online business, Cowgirl Crush, will allow her to bring extra cash into their operation, without driving 30 miles to the closest town for work. Without a proper Internet connection, my sister and I wouldn’t be able to live in these small communities.
2. Support local businesses.
Sure, small-town grocery stores are probably a bit more expensive than Walmart, but it's critical that small-town shoppers support their local businesses. Instead of stocking up at a big retailer when you’re in the city, or buying everything online, shop in the little boutiques that pepper main street. Spend money within your community to keep those little stores and shops alive.
3. Encourage young people.
If you’re seeing more and more young people leave your small community, then perhaps it’s time to take the initiative and encourage these folks to stay. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the opportunities in small towns, or fearful that their businesses can't thrive in a small community. Support the next generation. Whether they're small merchants, tradesmen, lawyers or farmers, these young people can add huge benefits to small communities. Encourage them to stay, and be sure to support them once they do.
Is your rural community on life support, or is it thriving? Share your personal stories in the comments section below. What are your local people doing to support and grow your business community? Also, if you have any advice for young people who decide to stay in small communities, please pass on your thoughts.