Young people leaving the farm, and rural America in general, is not a new problem. Many are not able to make a living in a town that offers few viable options for employment.
In the age of efficiency, many farms are getting larger, with fewer farmers needed to tend the land. Highways are re-positioned to bypass small towns, leaving cafes and gas stations in the dust. As a native Nebraskan, this is not news to me. I’ve seen it happen over and over again, as once thriving small towns are slowly wiped off the map.
A program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln aims to reverse this trend with new ideas in repopulation. Nebraska’s university system is launching the Rural Futures Institute this fall, with the goal of drawing new businesses to the state’s abandoned areas. The system's five campuses have dabbled in rural redevelopment in the recent past, but administrators were disappointed in those results and are aiming for a more lasting, substantive effort this time.
A planning conference held this month in Lincoln drew almost 500 people--250 more than organizers expected. The specifics of how the institute will function haven’t been finalized, but the institute will launch in the fall with $1.5 million in annual university funding.
Rather than looking to what businesses were there in the past, researchers are looking at the current demographics of towns to determine what might be viable now. Aging populations, for instance, might call for retirement homes or active assisted living communities. Agritourism is a booming trend on family farms all across the country, with on-farm skill-shares and kid-friendly experiences.
The message historically has been that these small towns are not worth stopping for, let alone living in. New ideas and approaches to showing their worth will make our entire country stronger, and encourage young farmers to think of new ways to make a living on the land.