Can rural Iowa come back?

The population numbers since 2010 look bad for most rural Iowa counties: Pocahontas, down 7.8 percent; Sac, down 6.1 percent; Audubon, down 10 percent; Cass, down 7.3 percent; Adams, down 9.5 percent. A small sampling of isolated rural counties. They may have peaked in population in 1940 or before. 

The sad news is: Nothing is on the horizon to turn it around.

This according to Iowa State University research economist Dave Swenson, who studies regional trade dynamics and population. 

“They’re not within driving distance of a market center,” he explains, as is much of the Great Plains. Too far from Omaha or even Sioux City. All the good job growth in Iowa occurred in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Iowa City and Ames. That is where the population is headed, not to Atlantic or Wall Lake.

But that doesn’t mean nothing happens. Atlantic has the Coca-Cola bottling plant and is a small retail center with a county health care and government complex. Wall Lake has Cookies Barbecue Sauce and Speed Herrig, salesman in chief. 

Nemaha is a bedroom community whose founding purpose went the way of the horse and buggy. The school is gone but some homes remain, and a church and feed mill and yet, even a sense of community. 

We should get used to that and plan for it, Swenson says. His colleagues in Extension are doing a Shrink Smart program that helps communities transition into maturity. It strikes us as hospice for rural America — give us an IV drip to keep the sewer and water systems in repair, and give us a hospital nearby and a nursing home, and let nature sort of take its course. 

Not everyone can be saved. Let’s make them comfortable places, as rural Iowa mainly is. Seek stability. Hoping on growth can be futile.

Swenson evokes the Ghost Dance among native people that started in Utah and swirled up to Iowa among the Dakota in 1890. They had a vision where the white man would go away and the buffalo would return. “That’s what a lot of people are doing in rural development,” Swenson says. “For 35 years I have watched and witnessed, and it doesn’t work.”

Chasing a smokestack ends up in frustration. Basic industries like agriculture become ever-more efficient and shed labor. What are you supposed to do in Ida Grove if not agriculture and light manufacturing (that increasingly moves out of the US)? You get an education and leave. 

A few might return for reasons all their own, but most move on to a city with perhaps fond memories of the green grass of home. What place is there for you, absent a job that fits your education and ambition?

Storm Lake is a fortunate aberration, thanks to the lake and college and, mainly, meatpacking consolidation. Sioux County is another, thanks to dairy, poultry and smaller meat processors. They are among the few growing counties among the 39 of the Fourth Congressional District of northwest Iowa. Buena Vista and Sioux counties are adding all the value to their products that the land will support. That’s how they grow and prosper, with livestock.

There are ideas, like creating digital jobs in partnership with community colleges, such as what is happening in Jefferson with Pillar Technologies. The Silicon Valley firm is partnering with Iowa Central Community College to place students in jobs in Jefferson at wages of $60,000-plus. But it is only Jefferson, for now. Can that be rapidly replicated?

These are the questions that presidential candidates should dwell on. How can they speak to rural areas where decline has been the rule since 1920? 

Paying farmers for rotational grazing programs that capture carbon, for starters. The mechanism is in place in the farm bill, but the payments are too low. At the margins, anyhow, new markets can be created in sustainable beef production and, perhaps, smaller meat processing facilities like those in Sioux Center. (A meat locker processing beef just opened in Whittemore, pop. 500, in Kossuth County.) 

Rural people want clean water protected from pollution. They say it repeatedly in polls. They want to hunt and fish, but the habitat is gone that makes for quality of life. That habitat could return, if there were a market alternative to corn, and with that return of habitat and clean water a reason to be here.

There are tremendous opportunities in renewable energy if the government can spark the necessary transformation across the Great Plains over the next 15 years. Wind energy helps keep Fonda and Pomeroy alive, and funds the school in Pocahontas. Building out the solar, wind and transmission complex can make a real difference if an administration can clear the political minefield planted by the fossil fuel industry. 

In either instance, some sort of carbon market that rewards capture through grass, and avoidance through renewables, must be created if anyone is serious about extreme climate change already upon us.

And rural communities can be rejuvenated by immigration to replace those youth who don’t see their future in a food processing plant or dairy barn. First, a recognition of the crucial role immigrants play in low-margin industries like agriculture and food processing would be helpful. Second, a system that recognizes reality is overdue. The problem in Sac County is not too many Mexicans, but too few people in general, no matter their skin color.

Paying farmers to grow more corn hasn’t worked out that well. That has been our rural program. A new approach that discusses rural prospects in real terms would be an improvement. 

The Democratic contenders trying to break out of the pack are trying to find it. Beto O’Rourke has a $5 trillion climate action plan that includes paying farmers for carbon capture. Elizabeth Warren has an anti-trust plan to break up the chemical companies unraveling the rural fabric. John Delaney has a carbon tax and dividend plan. Tim Ryan thinks the Rust Belt and rural America can unite around digital jobs transfer to the Midwest.

“We need the economy to change in a way we can’t envision,” Swenson said. “But it does. Look at that cellphone in your pocket.”

Whose progenitor, the computer, was invented at Iowa State University. 

We can do all sorts of things here with the right tools. Our job is to ask the presidential candidates to help provide them.

Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Storm Lake Times.

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