BEEF Daily

What Do Young People Need To Stay In Rural America?


Rural communities are losing the next generation. How can we retain young people in rural America?

I recently read an article on the Financial Times (FT) website that discussed the decline in rural population. Drive through the many one-horse towns throughout the country, and you’ll see what I mean. School consolidations, abandoned grocery stores and perhaps one lone fuel station serve as a reminder of a once-thriving small town. According to the FT article, “Much of rural America – 15% of the U.S. population spread across 72% of its land area – faces population decline.”

The article suggests that rural communities are losing people in their 20s and 30s, and that rural America is aging more quickly than the rest of the nation.

So, what does this mean for the small-town communities that support the local farm families growing our food? How can we improve the infrastructure of these small communities to improve retention of young people?

This was a topic I pondered last week as I listened to speakers at a women’s conference in South Dakota. One of the speakers was a chiropractor, who in the tiny rural town she lived in, had created a large business, which included everything from personal massage, to holistic health care, to exercise classes. I found it odd that she would locate her business in such a small town, and I suspect that if she hadn’t married a farmer, a business like that wouldn’t be located in that rural area.

The families living in these small communities need access to things like health care, retail stores and educational opportunities. Yet, we are seeing more young people leaving these communities to open up businesses or obtain jobs in urban cities.

Here are three things we need to retain and recruit the next generation in rural communities:

1. Improved Internet service in rural America.

Access to the Internet is one of the most necessary elements to help a small community compete and thrive. Whether it enables students to take an online class remotely from a university located miles away, or allows a conversation with a specialist for more acute health care needs, a proper Internet connection is needed to bring these opportunities to rural America.

Likewise, young people can now diversify by using the Internet to bring cash flow into their homes. In rural communities, new jobs tend to be infrequent, so being able to work from home enables many to have a career while living in a small town.

For example, I’m able to write and blog for BEEF from my ranch office. Without the opportunity to work remotely, I likely would have to be located in a more urban community, which wouldn't allow me to be involved firsthand in production agriculture. My sister, Courtney, is another great example of this. She will be marrying a farmer who lives in a small South Dakota community, and she has started an online jewelry business. This online business, Cowgirl Crush, will allow her to bring extra cash into their operation, without driving 30 miles to the closest town for work. Without a proper Internet connection, my sister and I wouldn’t be able to live in these small communities.

2. Support local businesses.

Sure, small-town grocery stores are probably a bit more expensive than Walmart, but it's critical that small-town shoppers support their local businesses. Instead of stocking up at a big retailer when you’re in the city, or buying everything online, shop in the little boutiques that pepper main street. Spend money within your community to keep those little stores and shops alive.

3. Encourage young people.

If you’re seeing more and more young people leave your small community, then perhaps it’s time to take the initiative and encourage these folks to stay. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the opportunities in small towns, or fearful that their businesses can't thrive in a small community. Support the next generation. Whether they're small merchants, tradesmen, lawyers or farmers, these young people can add huge benefits to small communities. Encourage them to stay, and be sure to support them once they do.

Is your rural community on life support, or is it thriving? Share your personal stories in the comments section below. What are your local people doing to support and grow your business community? Also, if you have any advice for young people who decide to stay in small communities, please pass on your thoughts.


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Discuss this Blog Entry 13

on Jun 11, 2013

Amanda it seems our problem in our small town is that there are plenty of shops and stores available to shop for anything from auto parts to grocery, however it's just too "easy" to drive to Dallas or Tyler , Texas. So instead of a local Dr. in town one has to drive out of town to see one. My question is when you have all that you mention available in the area how then do we keep the young folks around? It seems high school over out of town they flock! Here we have asked the very question that you pose in your blog to no avail! I fear our economy is such that the departure from small town living is a thing of the past! It saddens me because 30yrs ago I returned to the ranch to help with the cattle and such and have seen the area I ranch in shrivel up like a field of hay during a drought!!! Thanks for letting me vent!!! Gary

RJ (not verified)
on Jun 11, 2013

This, in my opinion, is the most important topic for rural America. I grew up near a town of 110 in Nebraska. We have raised our family or 4 in small towns in SD and NE. One of the most frustrating things I have noticed about teachers in these small communities is that they often encourage their students to "get out of this town" and go where there are more opportunities.
Granted, there is not room for every graduate in these small towns to stay. It would start to look a lot like a reservation if they did. However, it seems to me that the school systems in these small communities need to be prepared to encourage young folks to consider thier home town as a place to purchase or build a business and raise a family. Not all students need to, or should attend a 4 year college. Every small community is in need of good plumbers, electritions, mechanics, helath care workers, etc.,etc. There are great, satisfying jobs that one can prepare for in a community college or even by working in a local business. Every business in these communities needs a succession plan. Why not have such a plan that is started in the local school system. Perhaps even working with a regional community college.

Amanda's point about Encouragement may be the most important. It starts with the family. I remember my Dad telling me that there was no future in my hometown and I needed to look elsewhere. I've been very happy with the career path the Lord sent me one, but becasue of Dad's dis-couragement, I never even considered staying in my hometown. I'm sure lots of other young folks experience the same thing.
It may be best for a young person to leave home and not come back, but at least they should be encouraged to consider it.....By everyone in the community.

Emma (not verified)
on Jun 11, 2013

I love small town living. I definitely plan on going back when I finish college, not necessarily my small town, but definitely another one. I think most young people just believe there aren't opportunities in a small town. As Gary posted before, it is easy for people to go to the city to shop. I'll be honest in saying that my family only ever goes to the local grocery store when we're in dire need of something and don't have the time to go to the nearest city. I do hope that there are enough people out there who do treasure living in rural America and that we can get these people to stay It's such a blessing to live out there.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 11, 2013

For the younger generation to come back to the farm or ranch it is going to take the older generation giving up a little bit so that the beginning farmers and ranchers can have a chance. The age of farmers and ranchers is getting older but seems to me like no matter how old they get they dont want to give up any income to let another person in the door. Sure there is always land for rent or sale but the younger generation dont stand a chance unless grandpa or dad gives it to you.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 13, 2013

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. If a young person isn't born into a farming operation they don't stand much of a chance. I don't have anything against family farming operations because they often become very successful by building on the foundation the previous generation has laid. One of the main reasons that young people don't stay in rural towns even if they are interested in agriculture, is because there's almost always no room for a new farmer in the area and they get pushed aside like the smaller bulls at feeding time. People say all the time how they wish younger people would stay in rural america and get interested in agriculture but ask those same people to rent you a couple hundred acres of their cropland and their opinion changes very quickly. If a young person/couple wants to start a farming operation these days the first thing they need to do is find a good job in town.

Ashley Bogle (not verified)
on Jun 11, 2013

Great article!! This is definitely a topic worth discussing and an issue worth addressing. Several years ago a few colleagues and I, with the help of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, set out to do just that...discuss and address what young people need to stay in rural Kansas. We soon realized that there are lots of young people who are"rural by choice" and what they need to stay rural can sometimes be very basic to very complex. A statewide network was formed that we call PowerUps. The network still works today in a grassroots effort to keep young people coming back to rural Kansas. However, our network isn't just comprised of young people. We also have several other age groupings that play a vital role in our efforts because we know that it takes more than just us (young people) to make a community prosper. We are also very fortunate to have the support of the Kansas Sampler Foundation as their main cause is to preserve and sustain rural culture. If you or anyone else is interested in what we are doing find us on Facebook under PowerUps - We're Rural By Choice. Also, you can check out our website The website is out dated at the moment but the new site will be live very soon. As mentioned, this is truly a grassroots effort by volunteers who are rural by choice so if you don't find as much info on the web as you were hoping for please contact us for more information. We would love to share our thoughts. Lastly, the Kansas Sampler Foundation's website is if you interested in seeing their efforts for rural sustainability.

on Jun 11, 2013

We lost two and a half generations of young farmers to the CRP program. Kids were willing to stay and farm but were unable to because the US government was in competition with them for farm ground. There's no way young farmers could compete for leases when the government was paying twice the going rate for farm ground. Now the government scratches its head and wonders why the average age of the American farmer is almost 60. CRP totally wiped out some communities(small towns). It's the poorest, most detrimental farm program ever foisted on American agriculture by the US government. In the name of conservation? What a crock!

On a more positive note: folks drive 100 miles round-trip to shop at our local grocery store in a town of 400 instead of the large chain store in the city where they live because the produce is better, the prices are better, and the service is better.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 11, 2013

The problem is lack of profits to share with another generation. Return on equity in the beef business is either very low, zero or negative. The returns are so low or negative that a person cannot buy a farm or ranch and pay for it with profit from the business. Farm programs have not helped - they basically prevent young people from entering the business, squeeze middle size ones out, and provide the cash flow for large farmers(and ranchers) to out bid smaller ones for land.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 11, 2013

I think this is a great issue. Working for a large Midwest Ag Input Cooperative as I do often we have to do as much research on benefits of the local region when we are trying to attract Help as much as what the Job is about.
I think there are many opportunities if folks are willing to work. Grew up in Midwest back raising 4 kids in the country hope one is as interested in Farming as I am .

Penny (not verified)
on Jun 12, 2013

Buying locally helps keep jobs in the small communities. If folks figured in the cost of gas, time and other expenses to drive to the big city for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, they would give the local grocer that extra 3 cents and save money in the long run.

on Jun 13, 2013

I am fortunate to have come back to a small town to become part of a successful veterinary practice, buy a small acreage where I am able to have some livestock, and be close enough to my parents' farm to be able to participate in their operation. The small towns have so many benefits. We have a thriving business district, an excellent school, and that small town caring that you can't find in a lot of places anymore. We have several business owners in town that are fairly young, and yes, some things are a bit more expensive, but if you figure the gas driving 20-30 minutes, most of the time it's not too bad. I try to support my local businesses as much as I can, but some businessmen need to realize that they can't take advantage of that and gouge people because they will shop somewhere else. In the last few years I have seen a lot more younger people coming back to the farm as well as the ag economy has picked up. I think there are lots of opportunities for young people in rural areas, but they have to be encouraged to come back and we need to give them a reason to be here.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 17, 2013

Three generations of birth control. And why are we surprised that our rural towns are drying up?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 8, 2013

My story is this: I grew up in a town that turned to a city and after high school we moved our cattle operation to a more rural place. I have been in partnership with my Dad but we really started this thing together when I was in my late teens. I married a local girl and we are raising our family on the ranch. I started a business to support my ranching habit and it has gone well. The problem is as others have stated above; everyone is told to get out of the country and go where the jobs are. As a kid and as a college student everyone told me to go get a job and have some security. The local vet pleaded with me to at least go to a career day and look at my options.
But I have found that the public is hungry for a young person that will work and will throw more business at you than you can possibly do.

I guess the point I am trying to make is my generation is complacent. Us 20 and 30 year olds are coached to find someone to take care of us. Meanwhile the big get bigger. We are so busy trying to find it that we can't see the forrest for the trees. If we take care of ourselves the rest will just fall into place. Yes it is hard to get started in this business but where there is a will there is a way.

I do look to my country peers and see many that are making it. They may have a business or a job but they are trying to get to the full time farmer or rancher position (like my self). America just needs to wake up and educate ourselves and find a way like our great grandparents and grandparents did. Support yourself and ask a lot of help of the Lord and we can rise again in the rural comunity.

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BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”


Amanda Radke

Amanda Radke is a fifth generation rancher from Mitchell, S.D., who has dedicated her career to serving as a voice for the nation’s beef producers. A 2009 graduate of South Dakota State...

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