The idealized notion of rural America has long been a coveted dream for many of our city-dwelling neighbors. However, the reality of modern life in real rural communities often presents many challenges. While some of our own western communities are experiencing a boom as newcomers seek out new lifestyles apart from city life, other areas are struggling with a slump in the farm economy and a “brain drain” of important, intelligent young community members seeking their futures elsewhere. Rural America is approaching a make-or-break period in the coming years but communities in the intermountain west are poised to be on the winning side - if we play our cards right. The only logical strategy is to make an investment in ourselves.
The challenges facing rural America are personal for many small communities scattered about the country, but these places are important to the nation as a whole. Over one-fifth of our country’s people live in rural America, and these areas make up the vast majority of our country. It’s where our food is grown and where Americans go to play. Rural communities have always faced unique challenges but those that we face now are different than the challenges of the past. While still a driving force for some areas, the face of agriculture has shifted and rural economies are moving beyond the backbone of agriculture in many places, leaving the door open to an uncertain future. But an open door presents opportunity.
Technology, global trade, shifting demographics and a host of other forces have effected all rural communities. The most dramatic change is that agriculture is no longer the anchor that it once was. It is, and will continue to be important, but a healthy agriculture alone no longer assures a healthy rural economy. Policymakers on all levels must engage in a broader range of issues and be open to new economic engines if they want to help shape the future of small-town America. Rural entrepreneurs provide the opportunity to add new fuel for many sputtering economies and are an essential ingredient to the country’s economy. They are the homesteaders of the last century. But they need help in capital and support if they are to survive in a rural landscape.
Innovation in technology helps. Wireless tech opens new opportunities and allows for small businesses to function apart from city centers. Leveraging new agricultural undertakings will also help rural communities benefit from the new frontiers of agricultural science. Sustaining the rural environment will provide a vibrant countryside that attracts and retains those who choose rural lifestyles over the urban alternative. Universities, which represent a public stake in agricultural research, also have a role to play in helping communities source new products. Our own Colorado State University Extension offices have already played a pivotal role in helping to shape the future of Western Colorado.
While a new century of challenges ultimately falls on the shoulders of rural communities themselves, public policy will play a supporting role. What that role will be is still unclear. Agricultural policy, the old response to rural matters, will not address the broad range of rural challenges by itself. How and whether traditional farming communities move beyond dependency on agriculture alone remains to be seen. The only certainty is that we must invest in the people of our community. Boosting human capital is of the utmost importance. The skills, knowledge and experience that our residents offer must be valued above all else. Building a new future for rural America depends more than anything on the people with the tools to make it happen - ourselves.