Necessity is the mother of invention, and if ever invention was needed, it is in today’s rural America. This is especially true in the portion of the Midwest stretching from central Illinois westward to Kansas and Nebraska and, from there, north and south from the Dakotas in the north to west Texas in the south. There, declining population, disappearing towns, and falling incomes plague many communities. In such places, farming and farmland have traditionally been the way of life. But rising productivity in farming has almost eliminated the need for farmers to live on and work the land, with barely 1 percent of American’s population living on farms according to the 2000 Census. As jobs and population shrink, derivative businesses such as banks, schools, and hospitals are consolidating and re-shaping vigorously in order to survive and prosper.
Many rural communities continue to fight back. The Chicago Fed’s Community Affairs program and its partners gathered in Des Moines this past November to assess the “invention” taking place in rural America (link). Bankers, economic development officials, and business and community leaders met to explore avenues to economic development in the rural Midwest; they met to share best practices and approaches.
The entire Des Moines conference will be summarized for an upcoming issue of the Chicago Fed publication Profitwise News and Views (link). But for those of us, like myself, who’d rather not wait, many fine presentations from this event are already available online (link).
Many communities have turned to manufacturing and distribution activities as sources of income and jobs. The same roads and rail that are useful for farm products are readily adaptable for hauling processed and finished goods. Today, according to the analysts at the USDA’s Economic Research Service (link), more rural counties count manufacturing as their dominant economic base than they do farming. Those same roads are also often a convenient vehicle to convey skilled workers many miles to jobs at factories and distribution centers. The further processing of farm products continues to boost manufacturing, especially food processing and, more recently, the processing of farm product into bio-fuels (link). A downside has been that rural production wages have not fared well, on average.
Advances in telecommunications hold the promise that service jobs can develop or can be outsourced to rural counties, much as some are decentralizing overseas. Broadband and other high-speed high-capacity infrastructure services have been expanding in rural areas, though this growth lags that of urban areas where proximity makes the up-front costs of connection less prohibitive.
A further impediment to locating many information jobs in rural areas is that information exchange via telecom is not an easy substitute for some types of human discourse, especially where face-to-face communication is needed to evaluate information or where the information is otherwise ambiguous or interpretive in nature. Nonetheless, for those workers who prefer rural living or quality of life, telecom infrastructure at least makes rural location possible.
Many rural communities are on the forefront in making the most of their abundant land resources to enhance rural quality of life. Traditional outdoors amenities such as hiking, birding, and hunting are being augmented with new initiatives like agricultural tourism, including harvest fairs and winery-related tours, retail, and lodging. At the same time, small towns are using available economic development financing tools to redevelop their towns and to help new generations discover the sense of place and social fabric of rural America.