Future of Rural America


Sunsets over rolling hills of green pastures and straight corn rows.  Barely seeing above soybeans I was walking to remove weeds.  Attending a small school that provided an excellent education with opportunities to participate in a variety of activities to become more well-rounded.  These are a few of numerous memories of growing up on the farm and in a rural community that I hold dear.   While I enjoy hearing my grandparent’s stories of what life was like for them farming 60 years ago and even enjoy watching the Nebraska State Cornhusking Contests held each year, I also realize times have changed and don’t have a false sense of nostalgia about what rural means today.  While technological advances allow our farmers to produce more food for more people with less inputs and less water than ever before, what hasn’t changed about rural communities is the hard work ethic, dedication, risk, determination, and reliance on Faith and family to get through each year.   

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the Rural Futures Conference held in Lincoln.  For me, it was the best conference I’ve attended; the energy and enthusiasm from 450 people gathering from a variety of backgrounds all to discuss the future of rural America was refreshing to say the least.  My favorite part of the conference was the first evening.  The key note speaker Joel Sartore, a Nebraska native who is also a National Geographic photographer, challenged us to maintain a positive attitude and to look for the opportunities that were available in our small towns.  For example, one town in Kansas was all about a certain sparrow where they would take people out on field trips to “listen”-they didn’t even get to “see” the sparrow-and people paid money for that!  There was also a town in Oklahoma where all they had was rattlesnakes…so they made the most of that too and created a huge attraction around snake handling, pics with snakes, snake skinning, etc. 

My favorite part of the conference occurred after that during the youth panel.  A panel discussion with Caleb Pollard, Executive Director of Valley Co. Economic Development in Ord, NE; Amanda Crook, Graduate Student; Anne Trumble, Executive Director of Emerging Terrain in Omaha; Jim McClurg, University of Nebraska Board of Regents; and University of Nebraska Med Center’s Bob Bartee answered questions moderated by Dr. Ronnie Green, IANR Vice Chancellor.  The young people struck a chord with me-most likely cause we were of similar age.  Some key take-away quotes:

  • Vibrant organizations identify strong leadership.
  • Failure can be a good thing as it can lead to the next innovation.
  • To go some place and change the trajectory of history is exciting!
  • We need to change the way we place young people into jobs….we don’t offer young people jobs; we offer them opportunities.

These young people were so excited about living in Nebraska!  Some of them had spent time elsewhere before choosing to move back to Nebraska and eventually choosing to find a small town to raise their families or have the rural way of life.  Another theme that emerged throughout the conference was the need to get young people involved in the local community such as youth representatives on city council, etc. even as early as when they’re in high school.  Some people think small town communities in Nebraska are dead…but that’s not necessarily the case.  It mostly depends on leadership-a strong leader will rally the town around an idea to grow it or create opportunities.  That’s what’s happening in Ord, NE with Caleb Pollard.  Another example comes from Fairfield Iowa.  Sometimes it just takes the right person to ignite a spark and help the rest of the town see the possibilities.  Nebraska has so much to offer!

Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, was also a phenomenal speaker!  He spoke about creating breakthrough innovations by thinking outside the box and working at intersections of different disciplines/cultures, etc.  Key points I obtained from him include:

  • New ideas are combinations of existing ideas.
  • People who change the world try FAR more ideas.
  • Diverse teams can unleash an explosion of new ideas.
  • Find inspiration from fields/cultures other than our own.
  • Look for the smallest executable step-essentially don’t eat the elephant in one bite.
  • Stepping into intersections isn’t risky-it’s risky to do the same thing over and over again.

Maybe these aren’t earth-shattering new concepts, but good reminders for a task as large as creating a Rural Futures Institute…and frankly for anything in life.

There was much discussion about the role of a University/State/Community Colleges in trying to save rural communities…how is this done…how build partnerships and trust…how to provide incentives to faculty working in creative/innovative ways in a structured academic setting when it comes to promotion and tenure…and even if the University changed its incentives, how does that bode if a faculty member moved on to another University?  How are incentives provided to teams and excellent team work?  We are standing at the crossroads…maybe an intersection right now in academia which can shape the future of creatively rewarding innovative work while still maintaining needed structure in the promotion/tenure process.  I remain positive that we’ll find a way to work through this!

There were discussions in small groups regarding the meaning of rural.  What does it entail?  Often we think of agriculture-and I would argue that’s a strong part of rural-but it’s also much more…health care, infrastructure, industry, schools, broadband, etc.  Some were saying we need to use the term non-metro instead of rural in order to get away from the ag connotation.  Yet others felt the discussion was too focused away from agriculture on other components of rural and missing ag as a key component.  Needless to say, the entire conference provided interesting discussion, dialogue, and a chance to meet people from a variety of backgrounds.  It truly provided an opportunity to look for intersections with which to create innovative ideas for the future.

There was also the reality that hit during focused group conversations that there are also problems that need to be addressed in rural communities that weren’t touched on at this point: poverty; crime; infrastructure; food deserts; building trust and interfacing with university, college, and other partners, etc.  Overall it was a thought-provoking conference and has the feel that several small steps can be achieved in the coming year.  I would encourage you to check out the Web page and follow the Facebook page.  You can also check out the Twitter Conversation at #RFC2012.  This conference was also not just focused on Nebraska as the focus was the Great Plains and people from numerous states attended.  I’m looking forward to seeing the small executable steps that will occur in the future and am also looking forward to doing my part to maintain strong rural communities as I’d like to see the next generation enjoy the rural life and learn the values I did growing up!

About jenreesources

I'm the Agriculture and 4-H Extension Educator for Clay County in Nebraska with a focus in irrigated crop production and plant pathology.

Posted on May 14, 2012, in Discussion Topics, Event, Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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