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Reap the harvest

The two apple trees on our farm are laden with fruit. It’s a welcome sight. Last year’s unseasonably warm spring weather caused apple blossoms from New York to Michigan to emerge too early, and they perished in the hard April frost. 

On our Iowa farm, we missed the seasonal ritual of peeling and coring apples, and filling freezer bags with apples destined for crisps, pies, and applesauce during the winter. Fresh cider at Deal’s Orchard, our favorite family-run apple farm near Jefferson, was in short supply, too. This year’s chilly, rainy, late spring kept apple trees dormant and set the stage for a bountiful crop. The trees that didn’t bear fruit last year put all of their energy into building up buds this year. The U.S. apple crop is pegged by USDA to come in at just under 251 million bushels, up from 198.7 million bushels in 2012. That’s 20 million bushels above average.

As apple harvest gets under way, a different crop is maturing across the landscape of rural America. This year’s high school graduates are leaving their home communities to enroll in colleges or technical schools.

A new study provides a disturbing report card concerning our efforts to grow future generations of American wage earners and families. It reveals the startling role that geographic location plays in determining our children’s potential for upward mobility. The study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley looks at kids who were born in the 1980s and wo were about age 30 in 2010.

It turns out that there are some places in the U.S. where children from low-income families have a high probability of succeeding. In other places, however, there is a persistent inequality. The study indicates that geography matters less for well-to-do kids, but it’s critical for middle-class and poor kids. In areas with a small middle class or where middle-class families are raised apart from poor families, poor kids were less likely to move up the economic ladder as adults.

So what sorts of places are good at helping children rise above their parents’ poverty? Researchers have pinpointed a few key causal factors. Lower school dropout rates play a major role,as well as factors relating to family structure, such as two-parent families. Civic engagement, religiosity, and cohesiveness of the community are important ingredients.

Rural areas weren’t part of the study. The cities that do it best, however, often were smaller and located in less-urban states. That’s not too surprising, is it? For years, rural America has been an incubator for high-achieving youth. One rural characteristic has been a wide spectrum of economic levels; there are no gated communities. 

My daughter’s friend from the Des Moines suburbs learned this lesson when she visited our farm for the first time. The young lady arrived later than expected, saying she had lost her way in the dark. At one point, she had turned left into a driveway with a set of pillars. It was the cemetery south of our farm.

Unfortunately, inequality is increasing in rural America today. The number of students who qualify for free and reduced school lunches is growing. We need to redouble our efforts to maintain good schools and our historically low dropout rates. Two thirds of jobs will require some level of postsecondary education, but I’m concerned that this message isn’t getting through to many rural parents today. I see capable students in surrounding communities who settle for a minimum-wage job after they graduate from high school.

As the research indicates, communities also play a strong role in encouraging kids to achieve greater success than their parents. Rural communities must remain connected to their youth. Traditional community pillars must be reinforced to withstand the forces of open enrollment, home schooling, and school reorganization that weaken the bonds that unify us. Churches must create new ways to fit into hectic lives of young families.

Growing a new generation 

Rural communities that succeed in positioning their youth for higher upward mobility will be challenged to grow good job opportunities that attract them to return after they earn a degree or learn a trade.

We need to learn from experienced apple growers, who remove a portion of blossoms from their trees each season so the remaining fruit gets bigger. 

Rural America will continue to send a certain percentage of its new crop of graduates out into the world, where they’ll generally prosper. Nurturing the crop that remains by growing it to achieve its full potential needs to be our number one goal.

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