Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Will The Great Plains Ever Rise Again?

October 21, 1996

There are strong historical reasons for the steady decline in population of 478 counties in a ten-state region known as the Great Plains. Nearly 40 percent of the counties in the region have had continuous population decline since 1950. Most of the out migration consists of youth and young families. Birthrates have gone down dramatically.

So what can people do to keep their communities from slipping down the drain? I consulted Calvin Beale, a demographer with USDA in Washington, D.C., Agricultural economists Larry Leistriz and Richard Rathge at North Dakota State University, and rural sociologist Leonard Bloomquist at Kansas State University. I wanted to get a sense of what opportunities might exist amid the prospects of further decline. Here's their view of what the future might bring.

1. Telecommunications. Technology can be a part of the solution as well as part of the problem. Personal computers and telecommunication technologies enable people to have business and professional activities in rural areas. Making it feasible depends a great deal on access and physical infrastructure. Also, education and training for the new technologies become a priority.

Already examples exist. Companies see the Great Plains as a home for low taxes, low wages and employees with a reliable work ethic. Large motel chains have located reservation centers in Winner, South Dakota and Minot, North Dakota. A financial services company put in a computer operations center in Lovell, Wyoming.

By using telecommunication advances, local businesses can expand and reach regional and global markets. For some products and services, location becomes irrelevant.

2. Value-added processing businesses. Another approach is to take existing products of the Great Plains and add value before exporting the product to other markets. Examples include a new pasta processing plant at Carrington, North Dakota and a particle board company using wheat chaff in Wapheton, North Dakota.

Cooperatives are springing up and linking people together in joint ventures. The same could be said for joint marketing of products where independent producers control quality and market jointly at higher volumes to new markets.

3. Finding niche markets. The information highway and the availability of global markets present new opportunities. Small Great Plains communities are full of examples of entrepreneurs who have used innovation to develop a product for a niche in regional, national and international markets.

Expanding these local businesses is another key to employment opportunities for local residents. Technical support and linkages for helping budding entrepreneurs and businesses grow is an essential part of the process.

Agricultural producers also grow alternative crops for niche markets in a global economy. Providing buffalo meat for specialty markets is an example of a developing Great Plains enterprise. Sustainable agriculture has its own potential for retaining more people in agriculture but only as it develops its own markets and infrastructure.

4. Multi-community cooperation and restructuring. Small communities need to restructure into larger regional and multi-community units to conserve resources and to develop joint ventures. Regional development benefits local communities. Rural people are willing to commute to other rural locations for work and services to maintain their rural lifestyle.

A vision of a community needs to be expanded to include the reality of where people actually go. The more interaction and linkages between communities benefits everyone's economy and quality of life.

5. Tourism and recreational activities. The Poppers from Rutgers caused a great stir by suggesting a Buffalo Commons concept for the future of the Great Plains. The Great Plains has its own uniqueness in terms of openness and expansive landscape. Tourism built around buffalo, exposure to Native American culture, guest ranches, specialized hunting and western history have great appeal to Europeans, Asians, and our crowded East and West Coast people looking for a rural experience.

6. Quality of local leadership vis-a-vis community and economic development. The puzzle of success for Great Plains communities depends on local leadership. Some communities have the good fortune to be blessed with dedicated, imaginative and creative leadership. They cooperate, organize, cut through red tape and make things happen. Success breeds success. They turn good ideas into tangible results.

Good leaders reach out to all segments of the community. There is little sense of social class differences. Newcomers are welcomed. They connect with resources and institutions outside the community. The leadership pool is cohesive. They do not split into bickering groups with petty jealousies, envy or turf fights.

7. Government, higher education and private enterprise partnerships that cooperate in economic research, applications and technical support. Rathge feels passionate that institutions of higher learning should play a key role in the economic development of the region. Creative partnerships can bring together ideas and resources that enhance the natural assets of the Great Plains. Governmental entities and colleges can play a greater role in providing training, research and development and vision to make joint ventures possible.

A common theme among these seven ideas is that the Great Plains will survive and even thrive when people work together to provide for their common destiny.