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Claim Your Stake In Rural America

The calendar on my kitchen wall almost surely reveals multiple meetings each week. When dates and times collide, I'm forced to make a choice.

A difficult agenda during my nine years on the school board required my full attention.

After a fire, we rebuilt our church, and formed a four-yoke parish. These meetings became an urgent priority.

Now state cutbacks are catapulting Extension to the top rung.

Many farm families have a similar calendar. It doesn't leave much time to read books. But if you're genuinely committed to your community, Caught in the Middle is worth your time. If not, this book may goad you into action.

Author Richard Longworth grew up in my county seat of Boone, Iowa, population 12,000. His book examines the impact of globalization on towns like Boone, where one fourth of workers are commuters.

He traces the decline of manufacturing and farms. "As small farmers go, so do the small towns they once supported. What's left behind is a rural slum," he writes.

He concludes, "There is no place in a globalized world for the small town and family farm . . . Most of the region is in denial."

Not so fast. Those of us on the front lines know the score. We've been practicing triage for 25 years: patching up schools, churches, and hospitals. We've seen youth leave for better jobs and parents move to towns with medical care.

No one denies the importance of off-farm jobs. A new round of factory closings includes the Denver-based Gates Corporation in Boone.
Over 30% of new jobs will require a college or junior-college degree. Retraining is vital.

Many rural towns, like Boone, have what Longworth calls the new engine of local economies: a community college.

Longworth is right: schools must educate students for jobs that will stay here. A new $12 billion federal initiative to boost community colleges is a critical linchpin. Charter schools like the one formed by my town's high school and a community college also give students a head start.

He advocates a blurring of geographic boundaries that already is under way, as schools and churches reach across counties. Multicounty Extension districts in Minnesota and Iowa are part of the new mix.

He gives a passing nod to initiatives like biofuels, farmers markets, and rural broadband, and drives home the need to cultivate creative leadership.
But his love affair with global cities leaves me cold. He describes them as "places of vast inequity," with few people in the middle. That's not a place I want to live and raise kids.

Small-town values "always were overrated," he writes. Not so. When my family's hog grower caught fire on a January morning, church members left their pews to make coffee and serve brownies to the volunteer firefighters working in the bitter cold.

"Those of us who left the Midwest wanted glitter, excitement, the crush of cities," he writes. "Those who stayed wanted something else -- safety, or belongingness."

Community counts. Rural people living their values make an infinite difference.

The calendar on my kitchen wall almost surely reveals multiple meetings each week. When dates and times collide, I'm forced to make a choice.

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