Saving the countryside

By Richard C. Longworth

A Midwestern public radio reporter phoned the other day with a really good question. Why do small towns and rural areas matter? she asked. Everybody talks about scarce federal and state resources. So are small towns and rural areas important enough to our future to be worth investing in?

She referred to a recent speech by Tom Vilsack, the agricuture secretary, who said that "it's a fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognise that and we better begin to reverse it."

Vilsack was talking about political clout in Washington where, for the first time in decades, farm-state legislators couldn't push a farm bill through Congress in an election. Rural areas have fewer people and more poverty than urban areas, he said. Throw in the fact that 61 per cent of voters in rural areas voted for Mitt Romney in an election that Barack Obama won handily, he said, and it adds up to an argument that Washington can ignore anything that small towns and rural areas have to say.

Besides this political angle, the reporter had a more existential question. Why do our rural areas and small towns matter anyway? If they're shrinking and shrivelling, why should we care? Sure, she said, these places matter to the people who live in them. But why should society as a whole care? Why should we invest dollars and effort there? 

My answer is that these places don't matter, unless they do. Sentiment and tradition should play some role in public policy making, but when it comes to allocating those scarce resources, small towns and rural areas have to justify these expenses or not get them.

Vilsack was talking about votes and farm policies. The reporter and I are talking about whether these places will survive and, if they do, whether they'll be decent places to live.

My point is that, if they do survive (and not all will), it's up to these towns and areas themselves. Nobody is going to come to their rescue, for the reasons Vilsack spelled out.

Most Midwestern small towns exist for an economic reason that has gone away. They were farm towns, or mining towns, or railroad towns. Now the mines are closed, the trains are fewer, and the rails have been turned into trails. Farm consolidation has left rural areas without enough farm families to support the towns where small farmers once shopped, went to church, and sent their kids to school.

You can say the same about big cities, too — Detroit, for instance, or Flint. Each is in trouble because the industry that created it has left. We aren't used to thinking of small towns as little Detroits, but that's what they are.

Most of these places date from the mid 19th century, when they were needed to produce the food and other raw materials that powered the industrial revolution in America and to serve the great cities that led this industrialisation. Most of the raw materials aren't needed any more: their replacements, like green energy, don't require many workers. We still need food, of course, but we're producing that with about 2 per cent of the workforce, not enough to support a rural economy.

Like a person who's lost a job, these towns have to reinvent themselves, learn new skills, find a new way to earn or living. If they don't, they'll slide downhill and, as Vilsack said, become irrelevant to the rest of us.

Some will just disappear. That's happening across the Midwest, as towns that lose their banks and schools become backwaters, shabby little places filled with old folks waiting to die, attractive only to those who can't afford to live anywhere else. Hundreds of them lost their post offices over the past year, a death knell that robs them of their identity.

Many others, like county seats, will hang in there, serving the surrounding area. But as Vilsack said, this area too is shrinking. Jobs in these towns will become scarce, wages low, quality of life decaying, schools inadequate. The best young people will leave, as they always have, but no other young people will take their place as community leaders.

It's grim but, as the NPR reporter and I discussed, not inevitable. These towns and areas can't look for much outside help, but their future is in their own hands and some are making the most of it.

Some, having lost industrial jobs to outsourcing, are working to establish local industries, run by local people who are less likely to leave town. Rushford, Minnesota, is setting itself up as a regional center for nanotechnology. Nearby Houston, Minnesota, is experimenting with online learning to expand the school curriculum far beyond that available in most small towns: the goal is to attract middle-class families by persuading them that their kids will get an urban education in a small town.

Disheartened by Alabama's blowout of Notre Dame, I switched to PBS and stumbled onto the Antiques Roadshow which was being broadcast that night from Walnut, Iowa, which has taken its sole asset, its location on an I-80 exit ramp, and turned itself into the Antiques Capital of Iowa.

A better idea is to go regional — to recognise that in this global economy, a shrinking little town doesn't have much of a chance unless it links its fortunes to the region around it, collaborating with former rivals and feeding off the vibes of the nearest metro area.

A prime example is the Southern Minnesota Regional Competitiveness Project, a long-term effort involving 35 counties across southern Minnesota in an effort to leverage the region's agricultural riches with the research facilities at the Mayo Clinic, the Hormel Institute in Austin, and the University of Minnesota at Rochester, to jump-start a local bioscience industry.

Will any of this work? The honest answer is that we don't know. Most of these towns and areas have just realised their own irrelevancy in a globalising world and are trying something — anything — to cope. The rest of us should care: there's more to this country and its civilisation than big cities. But for now, these rural areas are on their own.

This post was originally published by The Midwesterner

15 January 2013