The growing desert that's rural America

Ultimately, if a rural city wants to grow, the people who live there have to invest in the community.

My old friend Dr. Dick Raymond recently wrote about the 'junk fooding' of rural America. If you're living in a town of less than 5,000 people, odds are that real, healthy food is hard to find. Junk food, however, is available in almost every c-store, gas station or truck stop. Vending machines dispense gum, candy, soda and baked goods with a shelf life measured in years.

But fresh fruits and vegetables? If you're not growing them, you probably won't find them unless you're willing to take a half day or more to travel to Costco in the nearest Omaha-sized city. Fresh meat?  Better be ready to knock your own cow, pig, chicken. 

Therein lies the problem. Rural America is quickly becoming a desert and I'm not talking about the miles of sand and interminable heat of the Sahara. Too many rural American towns can't claim much more than a church or two and a corner gas station, maybe a very limited selection grocery store, barely hanging on, and a nearby school for their children within a two-hour drive. They are emptying out, becoming as desolate as parts of the Sahara. It's why most rural youth are abandoning the agricultural centers of our nation as soon as they can.

Standing virtually alone in that rapidly emptying field is the Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska. They boldly go where few others are willing to venture. "Rural America," its vision statement says, "unleashes the full potential of its leadership, economic capacity, cultural creativity and natural resources, creating explicit value for small and large communities within and beyond its geography. Rural places have become the legitimate best choice for leaders, businesses, families, graduates and explorers. Rural people earn global respect for fueling the future of humankind."

RFI is mining for tiny nuggets of gold and they'll sift through millions of acres populated by thousands of people to hit pay dirt. Fortunately, many of those people tend to be hard-nosed, self-reliant types with a 'get 'er done' attitude. The John Wayne-inspired cowboy myth that defines the hardiness of the Old West is not a myth for them.

Maybe that's why Charles P. “Cowboy Chuck” Schroeder, founding executive director of the RFI was chosen to run the organization. He served 12 years as president and executive director of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He earned his spurs as CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. and served as executive vice president and director of development at the University of Nebraska Foundation and director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Talking with KCUR FM about the prospect of tiny Sidney, Neb., which is the headquarters of Cabela's, losing its major employer, and what that means for the future prospects of other small rural towns, Schroeder said, "The renaissance will come from within, not without. When it comes from within it will draw from without. That’s the truth and that’s the way these things work.”

“Those things don’t just happen,” he said. “They happen because the community says, ‘Yeah we’ve had tough times but you know what? We love this place and we’re going to make it better."

Ultimately, if a rural city wants to grow, Schroeder says, the people who live there have to invest in the community.

The bottom line? If small town America wants to survive and maybe even prosper, the effort must be driven by friends and neighbors who still believe their way of life is worth saving.  Anything less and ask the last guy leaving town to turn off the lights and that way of life will to soon become the stuff of what used to be called dime novels.

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