13, 2007: Amid all the angst over the economic and
population decline of the rural Great Plains, many of the
region’s people and businesses are gambling on problematic
ventures that likely will do more harm than good.
Corporate livestock feedlots? Nothing degrades quality of
life faster than stinky air and tainted water. Corn ethanol
production? Its negatives seemingly mount daily, from a huge
appetite for diminishing groundwater to budget-busting government
subsidies to questionable energy benefits.
Besides the industrialization of agriculture, perhaps the
biggest contributor to rural decline is a deep-rooted resistance
to change. That is evident in the Plains’ 150-year marriage
to agriculture and the region’s suspicion of economic
and social diversity.
Tradition and conservatism have their place. But if the Midwest’s
rural communities want to thrive, their residents must step
out of their comfort zone.
The Switzer family near Burwell, Nebraska, population 1,130,
has done that.
When a youthful Adam Switzer returned to his family’s
ranch a few years ago, he sensed that the traditional cattle
herd might not cut it economically anymore. Then he realized
the ranch had something else of value: prairie chickens, a
phenomenon that birdwatchers will pay money to view in the
wild. The ranch had other assets: spring-fed streams for canoeists,
prime habitat for hunters, wide-open spaces for riders on
So the Switzers built a few cabins, then a few more. Now
there are 70 lodging units and the Switzers can hardly keep
up with the reservations. The recreation venture long ago
passed cattle ranching as the family’s most profitable
“Every year we are finding a new resource that can
generate income,” Adam Switzer says.
For Nebraska and a dozen other heartland states, enterprises
like the Switzers’ offer promise.
A September 2006 study led by Ernie Niemi of ECONorthwest
in Eugene, Oregon, urges Nebraskans to seek more amenity-driven
growth. Instead of emptying its dwindling groundwater reservoir
for crop irrigation summer after summer, for example, the
state should preserve water for healthy streams and lakes
which, in turn, can be a foundation for ecotourism, recreation
and an attractive quality of life, Niemi says.
Not every risk-taker will succeed like the Switzers, and
Niemi isn’t suggesting that Plains states mothball all
their combines and planters. But if rural Midwesterners hope
to endure, they must think outside the box more often.
The Switzers aren’t the only ones who already are:
- The health benefits of grass-fed beef prompted Kevin Fulton,
a former nationally renowned weightlifter and strength coach
at the University of Colorado, to shut down his irrigated
cornfields near Litchfield, Neb., and switch to ranching.
Five years later Fulton has markets nationwide for his naturally
raised beef, which has up to 50 percent less fat than grain-fed
- The dark, unpolluted skies of the vast Sandhills, nearly
24,000 square miles of unique grassland in north-central
and western Nebraska, have inspired an unexpected enterprise:
annual stargazing parties. Nearly all Sandhills lodging
resorts now promote stargazing.
- Jeff Schelkopf of Blue Hill, Neb., admits he was “scared
to death” when he purchased the site of an abandoned
industrial hog farm and built Blue Valley Aquaculture. Now
in its third year, Blue Valley’s steelhead trout and
catfish have gotten rave reviews and are sold statewide.
- St. James, a defunct community in northeastern Nebraska,
is back on the map after five enterprising women bought
the old schoolhouse and created the St. James Marketplace,
which now has more than 60 vendors from Nebraska, South
Dakota and Iowa.
Recognizing new opportunities like these, organizations are
cropping up to support farmers and rural entrepreneurs willing
to take a chance.
They include the North Central Regional Center for Rural
Development in Ames, Iowa; the Heartland Center for Leadership
Development in Lincoln, Nebraska, which focuses on rural leadership
training and community survival; the Rural Policy Research
Institute in Columbia, Missouri; Minnesota Rural Partners,
in St. Paul; and the elder statesman of such groups, the Center
for Rural Affairs, which dropped “Nebraska” from
its name because its focus is now regional, even national.
All this doesn’t represent an overwhelming trend. But
it does offer possibilities in a part of the country that
has been losing hope.
As Midwestern risk-takers are showing, the time has arrived
for new ideas. An increasing number of rural heartlanders
now know that beating the same old drum will only accelerate
their region’s decline.