Rural America doesn’t have to be ‘left behind’

A phrase not much heard since the 1980s Farm Crisis crops up again in the lexicon: “those left behind.” 

They hold the key to unlocking the mystery of rural America to politicians. Amy Klobuchar talks about them. So does John Delaney. And any number of people who awakened to the idea that something exists out here below.

Some of us are left behind and isolated. Others choose to stay “behind,” like me, because it’s just about the best place in the world to live and it’s really all I know. 

The curiosity of others is well-placed. Rural America is hemorrhaging young people who can’t find meaningful, well-paying work. Iowa is the most elderly state. The divide in incomes and cultures is real.

Into the milieu walks Linc Kroeger, a native of Independence, and founder of a tech firm called Pillar Technology. He called in a bunch of his friends, including top dogs from LinkedIn and Microsoft and a California congressman, to come to Jefferson (pop. 4,200) on Dec. 8 to the History Boy Theatre to talk about how digital jobs can save rural Iowa. 

Pillar will create 30 jobs to start, paying about $75,000 each, to graduates of a new custom program developed by Iowa Central Community College to train local high school students in tech skills.

Publications across the country fawned over Jefferson. Is this the answer to the decline of small towns?

There are only so many tech jobs. It has been well-documented that they cluster around metro academic hubs like Berkeley and MIT — and yes, New York. Iowa has been seen as good for huge server warehouses in need of ample water and cheap electricity, not software design.

There aren’t enough digital jobs to cover the 55 million people living in rural communities wishing for something more. What works in Jefferson might not work in Sac City. Storm Lake is defying the trend of rural erosion thanks to meatpacking and immigration. 

But what do you do for the two-thirds of Iowa counties in decline?

The answer is education. You can’t hope to land a digital job if you have no skills coming out of a rural place. Most private colleges are located in rural places — over 70 percent of Iowa private college grads stay in the state, less than half the graduates of the University of Iowa do. Buena Vista University President Josh Merchant is telling us that “rural is cool,” and that BV will be an agent of rural renaissance in northwest Iowa.

In Storm Lake, the knowledge might be applied to new food uses or addressing soil health. All sorts of research into proteins from algae to corn is being done from Cherokee to Shenandoah. Quad County Corn Processors has been growing at Galva thanks to innovation in corn processing built on brainpower.

We can’t expect to innovate our way out of the doldrums — and do so against the huge magnets that suck talent away from the Midwest — while starving K-12 education budgets with annual appropriations that do not keep pace with inflation. 

You do not make Mount Pleasant stronger by state universities poaching students from Iowa Wesleyan. Community colleges always have been the ugly duckling of our education system; we talk a good game about worker training, but the Legislature applies the same tourniquet to the community college budget. Voters in Jefferson previously rejected school bond issues until Pillar came in and promised to save the town.

Microsoft was supposed to make Dubuque some sort of tech hub in conjunction with Northeast Community College. 

That didn’t quite pan out. 

It seldom does because Dubuque and Jefferson simply are not San Jose or Chapel Hill. Yet Dubuque and Jefferson are able to get a leg up because they have gambling casinos to fund their creative designs. The rest of us do not.

What we do have is an understanding of plant, animal and soil health not congregated anywhere else in America, clustered around Ames. As the climate changes so are food systems, and the places that innovate will profit and prosper. The Tiefentahlers found that you can make a fair amount of quality sausage and money in Holstein, and provide high-quality jobs. Iowa could support cattle again if it developed small processors turning out high quality beef grazed on pasture that solves water quality problems.

Rural Iowa could be the richest place in the world if we didn’t ship our wealth to Bayer and Dow’s corporate headquarters, and to Smithfield in Virginia, and somehow could hop off their treadmill of losing money on every bushel of beans and our soil with it. 

The farm bill props up what is. Answers will not come from Washington. They will come from Storm Lake and Holstein.

Education breeds the innovation that can save Rural America. That’s the real lesson from Jefferson. 

It’s the lesson in Storm Lake, where the children of immigrants will earn Buena Vista degrees and employ them for the benefit of their families here. That is always the immigrant story, and we are already seeing it repeat itself. 

Harry Stine made a fortune far from the madding crowd in a lab seven days a week breeding a better soybean. He is among the drivers of Buena Vista’s rural entrepreneurship initiative.

We can’t expect someone to come in and save us with a whole new future. We have to create that future ourselves, one day at a time, as we have always known, and the way to do it is by making Iowa education Number One again, from the preschool to the community college to the private college. 

That will solve most of our problems. 

It has before. 

Think hybrid corn, thanks to Iowa State University and Henry Wallace. And, the computer was invented in Ames. 

Again, we let the profit all go to California.

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

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