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Hometown USA: Is the American Dream Still Alive in Rural America?
“Have you ever read the book, Hollowing Out the Middle?” asks Paula Jensen in a tidy office just off the spacious Main Street of Langford, South Dakota.
The 2009 book details the reasons young people leave rural areas. Often, it’s the community’s adults who encourage it.
“Basically, the straight-A students are told to go away and never come back. It’s only the losers who stay, right?” says the Langford native and vice president of advancement with Dakota Resources, a nonprofit community development organization.
“I never felt that way,” says the 1985 graduate of Langford High School. “I always felt like I had a place here if I wanted to come back. My husband had an opportunity to buy an auto repair business, and it just seemed like a natural fit. I always knew that if I had a family, I wanted to raise them near their grandparents and aunts and uncles.”
Jensen’s not alone. Each spring, she speaks to rural South Dakota high school students and asks how many of them would choose to live in their communities if they could.
“I was in Langford a few weeks ago, and 80% of them raised their hands,” she says. “When I go across the state, it’s always more than 50%. In some smaller communities, it’s 98%.”
Mark Nelson, a loan officer with Grow South Dakota (a nonprofit economic development group) and a Langford farmer, sees similar responses when he speaks to Langford students.
“I find it interesting that the seniors also express their ideas on projects that will affect Langford’s future,” says Nelson, a 2005 Langford Area High School graduate. “Our youth are willing to come back. The future is promising if we can retain them or give them an opportunity to come back.”
Farming is Still Key
On a typical day, farm equipment rumbles down Langford’s streets. Farmers grumble about crop prices, and a split-second later, they smile about how great their corn crop looks. Folks drink coffee in The Front Porch café and talk sports and politics.
In short, it’s akin to the thousands of other small towns that dot rural America. (Full disclosure: Langford is my hometown.)
Many such towns face a turning point. John Ikerd, a retired University of Missouri agricultural economist, sees the rural mood as “a growing sense of impotence and dread.” Ultimately, a positive rural future hinges on rural residents taking the future into their own hands and working together for their community’s common good, says Ikerd.
This isn’t easy. Through the years, farm consolidation has clipped population, school size, and businesses. Bruce Likness recalls a packed Main Street on Wednesday and Saturday nights in Langford when he was a teenager in the 1950s.
“You couldn’t find a parking place on Main Street,” recalls Likness, who, along with his wife, Jean, is a lifelong Langford resident.
Still, change happens.
“I don’t know how we would have prevented or slowed down the transformation in agriculture,” adds Likness, whose family owned a farm implement dealership at Langford and nearby Britton locations from the 1940s into the 2000s. “You would like to go back, but no one wants to go back to an (International) M tractor or a John Deere 70 tractor. The American psyche of having the biggest and best comes into play.”
Yet, Langford has been, is, and will always be a farming community. David Planteen started farming in the mid-1980s after he graduated from South Dakota State University.
“When I got married, our farm was not big enough to support two families,” says the 1979 Langford High School graduate.
So, he started working as a loan officer at the First State Bank in nearby Claremont in 2002 before transferring to the Langford State Bank in 2009. He also sells crop insurance, serves as the school board president of the Langford Area Public School (LAPS), and is starting his 33rd year of officiating high school sports.
“My dad had the foresight to say that even if you’re coming back to the farm, get an education,” says Planteen. “He said your farm can be taken away from you, but your education can’t.”
School is an Anchor
Bill Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Farm Credit Mid-America, says school consolidation that leaves small towns without their school plays a sad but predictable role. “Other businesses then consolidate, and over time, the size of the community decreases,” he says.
Langford faced this dilemma around 20 years ago. Its junior high and high school building – built in 1926 – was falling apart. Langford’s population had steadily eroded from a peak of 510 residents in the 1920 census to a low of 290 citizens in the 2000 census.
After considerable debate, Langford residents swallowed hard and built a new school building.
“I was working at the bank at that time, and I had a lot of people who would come in and say, ‘Your kids are never going to get to graduate from high school in Langford. There won’t be any school here in 20 years,’” says Jensen.
Fortunately, the population decline stopped. In the 2010 census, the population actually rose a bit to 313. The student population since 2000 has remained steady, bobbing between 188 to 222 for K-12 students. Some high school classes have had only eight students, while others have had 24.
Geography helped. “We’re a bridge between three bigger towns: Britton, Groton, and Webster,” says Planteen. Students who prefer a smaller high school often opt for Langford, he says. Langford has also picked up students when smaller area schools closed.
Langford’s faculty also helps, says Jensen. “I think the teachers here instill a level of excellence,” says Jensen. She cites Kelly Wieser, the school’s longtime music teacher, as an example.
“Just yesterday, a little boy came in here who was raising money to go to music camp,” says Jensen. “She encourages students to do those kinds of things to make themselves better.”
Attracting teachers isn’t easy, as South Dakota often ranks at the nation’s bottom for teacher pay. One factor that helps Langford battle this is its school’s reputation.
“There is a really strong commitment that the community has to this school,” says Monte Nipp, LAPS superintendent. “We had a teacher retire at the Newport (Hutterite) Colony School (in Langford’s school district), and I was worried about how many applicants we were going to get. Well, we ended up interviewing six. The word is out that people want to teach at Langford.”
This year, 68% of the school district’s voters passed a $3.4 million project for an addition that will include a new music room, a student and community wellness center, a multipurpose gym, a special education facility update, and facility maintenance. This time, few – if any – negative voices spoke at five public meetings regarding the addition.
“Instead, it was a message of ‘Let’s make our facilities ready for the future because we want to keep attracting those families and students who want to come to a small school setting,’ ” says Nipp.
“People once thought we were going to become a buffalo-roaming community because there’d be nothing left,” says Nelson. “I think we have more businesses and investment on Main Street than when I graduated from high school 13 years ago. We embrace our local entrepreneurs.”
Chad Hardy operates a thriving lumberyard. Stuart and Krissa Samson started County Line Seed in 2012, and they market inputs like seed and precision farming equipment to area farmers. Meanwhile, Jordan Deutsch founded a hunting camouflage business called Fallin’ Fowl Camo.
Several steps taken in the past 15 years have helped sustain Langford’s businesses, says Jensen. Glacial Lakes Area Development helps support local individuals and industries with tools like business development goals. In 2008, Langford started a foundation that earns $10,000 annually for community project grants. The Front Porch, a 5,000-square-foot facility, opened in 2015. It houses four new businesses, including a restaurant and bar. Funding came in the form of loans from economic development entities, local bank funding, cash donations, and stock purchases from 110 area investors.
A daycare spawned from a 2000 state program also supports the community.
“I think it said something to the community; namely, we care about families, we care about our kids, and we want to keep people here,” says Jensen.
It’s challenging, though, to maintain traffic for businesses. “It might be packed in The Front Porch for dinner on Mother’s Day,” says Likness. On some nights, though, just a handful of customers are present, he notes.
Housing is another hurdle. On the surface, cheap housing sounds great. Dig deeper, though, and these often-dilapidated houses create a transient population.
“They are often not community-minded citizens,” says Jensen.
Nelson says new people and former residents want to move back, but often they have no house to move back to. Meanwhile, someone has to incur the cost of tearing down dilapidated houses to make room for new ones.
“I would say the vast majority of South Dakota is not overbuilt, but under-demolished,” says Nelson.
The New Rural
“I think the philosophy of the new rural is that we can’t re-create what we grew up with or what our parents or grandparents grew up with,” says Jensen. “We don’t remember those crowded Wednesday and Saturday nights when people would come to shop on a packed Main Street.”
On the plus side, a Langford Area Lions boy’s high school basketball game – featuring a team that’s made it to eight of the last 11 state basketball tournaments – still draws a crowd. Fans typically have to park their cars up to four blocks away from the rafter-packed gymnasium.
“We need to be thinking about the future and look to our younger generation about what we need to create for this community,” says Jensen.
Off-farm Income Is Key
Susan Wismer remembers an economy largely based on independent businesspeople like farmers when she grew up on her family’s farm near Britton, South Dakota, in the 1960s and 1970s.
These days, wage earners are a much larger part of the rural economy. Factories like Britton-based Horton, a manufacturer of engine-cooling solutions, are economic lifelines for the area.
“So many farmers in the 1980s (agricultural downturn) went to work at Horton so they could buy groceries and have health insurance,” says Wismer, who represents four northeastern South Dakota counties in that state’s House of Representatives. “It allowed them to stay on the land and farm it.”
Off-farm income is vital in helping rural areas retain farmers and residents. David Peters, an Iowa State University Extension rural sociologist, summarized income trends for Iowa farms and farm families from 2003 to 2015. He found off-farm income was vital for two types of farms.
Intermediate farms represent 29.6% of all Iowa farms. They account for 11.8% of production values, but have lower sales and smaller acreages (220 acres per farm).
Residence farms account for 46.1% of Iowa farms. They produce only 8.3% of sales and have small acreages (118 acres per farm).
What keeps residence farms in business and with high incomes – $115,941 in 2015 – is well-paid, off-farm work, says Peters. Meanwhile, household income for intermediate farms was $83,138 in 2015. Of that, 66.2% was from off-farm work.
“A struggling farm economy only highlights the need for nonfarm employment opportunities for all farm families,” says Peters.
Broadband Boost Is Needed
Lack of rural broadband costs rural areas big bucks. Darrington Seward, who’s a manager for the Seward & Son Planting Company in Louise, Mississippi, noted in 2016 U.S. Senate testimony that broadband disruptions during planting can lead to improper seeding prescriptions or missed planting windows. In 2016, he estimated such events could cost the farm 5 bushels lost per acre, or $20,000 per day of lost revenue.
That’s something that the 37% of rural residents face who don’t have adequate or any broadband service, says Brian Cavey, CoBank’s senior vice president of government affairs.
Much confusion exists about which rural areas are broadband-deficient. The Federal Communications Commission uses a color-coded map showing which areas are eligible for federal broadband support. In reality, the map misses areas that could be eligible for federal funding, says Steve Berry, chief executive officer of the Competitive Carriers Association, which advocates for competitive wireless carriers and stakeholders.
The omnibus spending bill (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018) has $600 million in new funding that could help fund rural broadband, says Steve Censky, USDA deputy secretary.
Berry remains skeptical. “We have $600 million in the omnibus package, but still we still do not have a map that (accurately) shows unserved and underserved areas,” says Berry. Meanwhile, $7.4 billion in the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009, that was supposed to go toward rural broadband service served just a few areas, he says.
Still, public money will be needed to do the job, believes Cavey. “If we wait for for-profit entities to bring it to rural America, it will be a long wait,” he says.
One day, Monte Nipp thought back to his high school class in the farming community of Cresbard, South Dakota.
“I had 35 in my class, and I can only remember one of them who didn’t have the standard nuclear two-parent family,” says Nipp, who is now superintendent of Langford Area Public School in Langford, South Dakota. “That was because one of the parents had passed away.”
Now, children with the standard nuclear family are in the minority in some classes. That’s changed the way Nipp and faculty manage students.
“We have one student who is tardy all the time,” says Nipp. “At first, you want to say, ‘Where’s your responsibility?’ But then, we found out his mom leaves for work at 6 a.m. He is the only person at home. Had I not had my mom or dad to get me out of bed in the morning, I probably would have been tardy quite a few times, too. He’s doing the best he can, and we are working with him.”
Student work has also intensified. “We have students who work 30 hours a week while they are a full-time high school student,” says Nipp. In the past, students may have worked just for spending money. Now, the money goes for car payments, paying for car insurance, or for gasoline for the car, he says.
“My mom and dad took care of every one of my needs while I was in high school,” says Nipp. “Some of these kids now are taking care of their own needs. We try and normalize their lives as much as we can. At least from 8:30 to 3:30 during school, we can be the stability they need.”
Rural America is filled with images of 4-H kids showing purple-ribbon winning steers, high school heroes scoring touchdowns, and lazy days at the lake. There’s a seamy side, though, that pervades the countryside.
Methamphetamine ravages rural areas. “It’s the biggest drug problem we have,” says Dale Elsen, who has been Marshall County, South Dakota, sheriff since 1983.
Other cases Elsen encounters are just plain evil. Last October, Marshall County was rocked by a report of five residents charged with multiple sexual abuse charges, including rape and possessing, manufacturing, or distributing child pornography.
So how can rural families keep their children on the right path?
One advantage small schools have is that they often need students in order to make school activities go. This keeps students busy and out of trouble while giving them a sense of belonging, says Monte Nipp, superintendent of Langford Area Public School in Langford, South Dakota.
“Diane Hoines (play director and a retired teacher) makes it her goal to have every senior in the senior class play,” Nipp says. “She doesn’t care if you can’t sing, act, or dance, she will find a place for you.”
Rural America Is at a Crossroads
The trends portend a shrinking population base and a changing demographic. Successful Farming magazine is covering this topic in print and on our website. Each month, read compelling stories from our editors revisiting their hometowns in South Dakota, Iowa, New York, Maryland, and Nebraska.