Getting 'bold' to save rural Iowa

Thursday, April 18, 2002

In urban 2002, take lesson from 1862 ingenuity

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened vast stretches of the United States to settlers, who built homes, started families and established communities.

One-hundred and forty years later, one ISU Extension sociologist would like to see Iowa implement just as ambitious of a plan.

"We need a plan as bold as the Homestead Act to create opportunities," said Paul Lasley. "While we can't give away land, we need young people here saying there are opportunities in Iowa."

Lasley spoke yesterday at a landmark conference on stress in rural Iowa, sponsored by ISU Extension at the Storm Lake Middle School. He is meeting with local officials today and tomorrow.

Much of his discussion focused on the changing face of rural Iowa and the effect that has on its inhabitants.

Many communities no longer depend on agriculture, but for years that has been the driving force of the state. Agriculture is in transition as the state becomes more "urban."

"It's when these traditional farm-dependent communities and non-farm communities overlap we see some of these conflicts," Lasley said, such as land use planning and the recent debate over livestock confinements.

The demographics of Iowa have changed dramatically, as well, he said. The state grew at 5.4 percent, considerably less than neighboring states, in the last 10 years, he said.

Minnesota grew the fastest, at 12.4 percent. Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota all grew roughly 8 to 9 percent.

Only North Dakota grew at a smaller rate, at one-half of one percent.

"What are these states doing to contribute to the population growth, and what things can Iowa do to increase population growth?" Lasley asked.

This is an era of urbanization, he said. In 1940, 36 percent of Iowans lived on farms; it is 9 percent today. In comparison, in 1940, 25 percent of U.S. families lived on farms, down to 2 percent today.

"While Iowa is a major agricultural state, the majority of people do not live on farms," Lasley said. "As we think about the future of rural communities it's important for communities to serve not only farmers, but rural dwellers.

"The most major threat that Iowans report are lost economic opportunities, like the closing of small businesses, the loss of family farms, or the lack of jobs," Lasley said.

Consolidation is also an issue, he said.

"It means people went from being self-employed entrepreneurs to being employees and managers," Lasley said. "It's no longer mom and pop restaurants, mom and pop filling stations."

Gaps are also increasing between groups of people based on age, income or race, he said.

All of those trends create a different type of culture in the country, with people becoming less trustful and more fearful.

"Is it possible we are recreating a rural culture where no one wants to live?" Lasley asked.

To buck the trend, Lasley called for a new commitment to the concept of "neighboring."

"We need to restore the art of neighboring," he said. "I think there is something about long-term relationships that lead to trust.

"Historically community development was about building things, we were a state of builders," he said. "Now it's important to focus on social relations."

Storm Lake measures well in collaboration and partnerships between groups. The AEA building, which houses six different agencies, is an example, Lasley said.

Collaboration is another way the state could promote to younger people about staying in the state and to native Iowans to move back to the state.

Lasley said Iowa could bank itself on quality of life issues, such as outdoor opportunities and supportive communities.

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