In a strange way, the economic recession could boost at least some rural communities.
"We're seeing migration levels back to rural areas increasing. It's purely a function of the fact that metropolitan America is not producing enough quality wage and salary jobs. This could be the generation of young people that are lost because there's just not going to be room for them in the traditional economy. They're going to have to be creative and, for some of them, that may be appealing,” says Don Macke, director of practitioner programs for the Rural Policy Research Institute's Center for Rural Entrepreneurship in Lincoln, Neb.
Some of those creative but unemployed young people are returning to the rural areas where they grew up. Once there, many start innovative businesses or rejoin family agricultural businesses. Other youngsters are choosing to stay home, with big cities no longer quite so alluring.
"A lot of young people are maybe going home and looking for room on the farm, but there's not enough from traditional agriculture to support them. So they're taking a certain acreage out of corn and soybean crops and going into specialty crops. We're seeing new food crops, niche livestock, wineries, free-range chickens, boutique cheeses, a whole set of things on 10 acres where you can potentially generate enough income to support a family if you get a good niche going,” Macke says.
Becky Cleveland, executive director of the Brookfield Area Growth Partnership in Brookfield, Mo., agrees with Macke's premise. The group is in its fourth year of finding ways to make the area more attractive to educated young people.
"A lot of people think of economic development as finding a factory and getting it to relocate. In doing so, we lose track of a fundamental part of the community—small business development,” Cleveland says.
Recruit at home. The Brookfield group makes a pitch to the area's young people as they graduate from high school. "We invite them to consider this as a place to live after high school, college or military service. We decided we can't convince them if we don't ask them. We give them a rural mailbox and ask them to think about where they're going to place that mailbox,” Cleveland says.
In addition, they receive a DVD featuring local adults talking about why they chose to live in Brookfield.
"This young generation has a real affinity for home and family. If they see opportunity here, they may come home. It's important to recruit people we know, rather than people we don't know,” Cleveland says.
One former resident returned to Brookfield and started a successful business in a factory that had closed in 2004. That kind of accomplishment has many benefits for the community.
People in rural areas are becoming more creative than ever as they find better ways to make a living.
"We're seeing a trend to microenterprise. Nineteen percent of employment in rural counties is in microenterprise versus 17% in urban areas,” says Connie Evans, president of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity.
"In the world we live in now, you can establish a business anywhere and ship globally,” says Don Albrecht, director of the Western Rural Development Center. "If rural community efforts are spent trying to attract industries, it's probably a losing battle. Rural communities need to seek out and create opportunities in the new economy.”
You can e-mail Charles Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Early Spring 2010