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Can young people who want to return to their hometowns find a way back to them?
Leola Class of 2012, and their future plans (from left) Amber Weig: NSU, to become a special education teacher. Ashley Feickert: SDSU, to become a neonatal nurse. Royce Erdmann: SDSU, to become a physical therapist Andrew Hoffman: Lake Area Tech to study welding, then return to family farm. Mitch Waltman: Lake Area Tech to study agriculture, then come back to family farm. Reid Erdmann: Southeast Tech to study auto mechanics and auto body; would like to stay close to help on family farm. Whitney Heupel: NSU to become a special education teacher. Heidi Spears: unsure about future plans, but would like to go back to a city. Josh Waltman: Southeast Tech to study landscape design. Ty Kessler (apparently still getting his lunch tray): attend college for business management and entrepreneurship. Photo by Troy McQuillen

Can young people who want to return to their hometowns find a way back to them?

Leola Class of 2012, and their future plans (from left)
Amber Weig: NSU, to become a special education teacher. Ashley Feickert: SDSU, to become a neonatal nurse. Royce Erdmann: SDSU, to become a physical therapist Andrew Hoffman: Lake Area Tech to study welding, then return to family farm. Mitch Waltman: Lake Area Tech to study agriculture, then come back to family farm. Reid Erdmann: Southeast Tech to study auto mechanics and auto body; would like to stay close to help on family farm. Whitney Heupel: NSU to become a special education teacher. Heidi Spears: unsure about future plans, but would like to go back to a city. Josh Waltman: Southeast Tech to study landscape design. Ty Kessler (apparently still getting his lunch tray): attend college for business management and entrepreneurship. Photo by Troy McQuillen

 

It’s not hard to tell that most of the seniors at Leola High School have a deep connection to their hometown.

On a Thursday in early March, the town had an aura of optimism—the Ten-45 Cafe, named after the intersection of highways 10 and 45 where it is located, had just opened the evening before. Before that, Leola had gone several months with just a bar and a convenience store. The new restaurant is in a new building, and some in town took that investment as a sign of confidence in the Leola’s future.

Several girls in the senior class are waitressing there, and some boys in the class had gone to support them (and, perhaps, give them a little grief) on their first night.

“I wanted to give them some friendly experience before they get a family of seven and everybody’s like, ‘You got this wrong—I wanted no pickles,’” explained Royce Erdmann.

Ashley Feickert, Erdmann’s classmate and one of the new waitresses, seemed used to his teasing. Nine of the 10 seniors grew up together. They’ve visited one another’s houses and have hundreds of shared memories between them.

Leola High School Class of 2012

The 2012 graduating class at Leola knows they face a questionable job market if they want to return home after college. But some of them plan to return, and almost all of them said they would return if they could. They're a tight-knit class—all 10 of them. From left Heidi Spears, Andrew Hoffman, Royce Erdmann, Josh Waltman, Amber Weig, Reid Erdmann, Ashley Feickert. Ty Kessler, Whitney Heupel and Mitch Waltman. Photo by Troy McQuillen.

“We’re pretty much like a family,” Feickert said. (In two cases, they actually are family—the Erdmann twins and the Waltman cousins.) Their time as a family is nearing an end, however, with graduation less than two months away.

Ask the seniors what they are planning to do after high school and almost all of them have a plan: Become an auto mechanic. A physical therapist. A special education teacher. A farmer.

All of the seniors who grew up in Leola (that’s nine of the 10) say they’d like to live there if they could. For some of them, this is part of the plan-there are places waiting for them on their families’ farms, though in the near term they are going to vocational schools so they can bring a secondary skill such as business management or welding with them with they return.

For others, the path is more tentative—Whitney Heupel said she’d be happy to come back as a teacher if she could get a job at the school, and Amber Weig, who plans to study accounting, said she might live in Leola and commute to a job in Aberdeen.

Other seniors know that coming back to Leola after furthering their education is not likely. There’s no way to be a neonatal nurse or physical therapist in Leola, and being a landscape designer or auto mechanic would be difficult.

Although they’d like to stay, if they want to pursue their chosen careers, they’ll have to leave.

 

As young people plot their futures in the rural areas of the Dakotas, they make decisions that inevitably affect the futures of the places they are from—more so than they probably know. A look at population statistics of the region brings this into sharp focus: The departure of young people makes up most of the population loss in rural Great Plains counties since 1950.

Of the counties in the Dakotafire region, the loss of young people is most dramatic in McPherson County, which has lost 57 percent of its total population since 1950. Years of young people leaving have resulted in a county with an average age higher than any other county in South Dakota: 50.8, compared with, for example, 34.5 in Minnehaha County.

It’s not likely that even the most ardent economic development supporters would want to force these young people to stay in their hometowns if they didn’t want to—to give up on their dreams or potential for the sake of boosting population numbers. But as adults hear these young people’s plans, they may assume that the young people are eager to leave.

What if, as the Leola senior class indicates, at least some of them clearly want to stay? Is there something these communities can do to help the students who want to settle down in their hometowns find a way to do so?

We’ll get to that. First, a dive into Dakota demography—get ready for some ugly numbers.

 

Decades of graduation goodbyes

Leola class sizes, over the decades

With the exception of the baby boomers' graduation years, fewer photos fill the frames as class sizes shrink, reflecting the declining population of the wider community. Photo by Troy McQuillen

A walk down the hall of Leola High School—or, really, of most rural high schools in the region that haven’t gone through consolidations—shows the population trend line of the region in pictures. Framed smiling faces from each graduating class are hung high above the lockers, showing the changes over the years—from black and white to full color, from smooth bobs to feathered bangs, from cat’s-eye glasses to (apparently) contact lenses.

Another change is apparent: With the exception of the baby boomers’ graduation years, fewer photos fill the frames as class sizes shrink, reflecting the declining population of the wider community.

The downward trend started more than 80 years ago, according to Michael McCurry, South Dakota state demographer.

“In the James River watershed, most county populations peaked with the 1920 or 1930 Census,” McCurry said.  “A combination of the demographics, the Dustbowl and the Great Depression left 40 percent of South Dakotans on relief for the Christmas of 1935—and the outmigration sped up.”

While McPherson County’s decline since 1950 is most dramatic in the Dakotafire region (57 percent), other counties have been hit hard as well—Clark, Hand, Jerauld and Sanborn counties all lost about 48 percent of their populations.

The trend of people moving from rural areas to urban areas is a national one, so that now 17 percent of the nation’s population lives in 75 percent of the land area, according to a 2006 Carsey Institute report titled  “Demographic Trends in Rural and Small Town America.” Looking at the Great Plains region, stretching from North Dakota to Texas, only 12 percent of the population lives in the 278 farm counties of the region, according to a policy brief by demographers Kenneth M. Johnson and Richard Rathge.

SEE GRAPHIC: Dakotafire County Population Trends Compared to State Population

 

Young people leave and always have

This population loss is not evenly distributed among all ages. A look the population loss in Dakotafire counties from the years 1990 to 2000 shows that the people from the ages of 20 to 29 are the most likely to leave. This is not a new trend, according to the “Demographic Trends” report: Young people have been leaving rural areas throughout the 20th century. They are typically motivated by several factors, according to McCurry:

  • Education. Most schools of higher education are not in rural areas.
  • Opportunity. A greater variety of work possibilities and higher wages are typically found in urban areas.
  • Changes in farming. Mechanization in agriculture has resulted in far fewer people being needed to do the same amount of work.

But until recent decades, the changes were not dramatic—the populations of many rural communities actually slowly increased, as the number of births in rural areas (especially during the baby boom) made up for the number of people leaving.

But as family sizes got smaller, the region started to see the “echo effect” that the baby boom had been hiding: The young adults who had left in a previous generation had children—but not in the rural Dakotas. And, later, those children weren’t there to have grandchildren.

Thus, in recent decades, the population decline has sped up. All counties in the Dakotafire region have lost population since 2000—that is, with the exceptions of Brown and Beadle, which have the Aberdeen and Huron “micro areas” as the U.S. Census refers to them. Of 21 counties, 12 lost more than 10 percent of their populations since 2000. Wells County fared worst, losing 17.5 percent of its population in one decade.

SEE GRAPHIC: Who is leaving, and who is moving in?

As the young adults leave, the population is left dominated by what some demographers have termed “bookend generations”—the very young and the very old. This places a strain on rural communities, according to a census brief published by the Center for Rural Affairs, because those two demographics are the ones that generally require the most community resources in areas such as health care and education. There are few people left in those communities of the ages most able to do that service work—the young to middle-aged adults.

The overall population decline in rural areas is not likely to stop anytime soon in any of the Great Plains states: According to the Johnson and Rathge report, nearly half of Great Plains counties now have more deaths than births.

SEE COLUMN AND GRAPHICS: Population pyramids show trouble ahead for Dakota counties

 

How to create more happy homecomings

There is probably not one big way to increase the number of young adults in rural communities by a grand amount. But a look at news stories and other publications suggests that there might be many smaller ways to increase the number of young people by a little bit. Here are seven ideas—they may serve as starting points for discussion in your communities.

 

1. Invest resources in all the students—the ones who are planning to as well as the ones who are planning to leave.

This was the conclusion of researchers Patrick. Carr and Maria Kefalas, who looked at the dynamics of an Iowa town that contributed to its population loss and thereafter wrote the book Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. They saw that the town gave a lot of its support and attention to the “high fliers”—the students who were likely to “make it big” but who were also most likely to leave the community. This meant that the community saw almost no return on its investment in these young people. On the other hand, the  “stayers”—the people who would eventually be the ones serving on town council and otherwise guiding the future of the town—received comparatively few resources from the community. Carr and Kefalas argued that the town would be better off overall if it spread its resources more evenly.

 

2. Support the businesses that are here.

Some communities focus on “hunting elephants,” or bringing in a big business that will provide a big boost immediately. Joel Price, superintendent of the Faulkton Area Schools and also the chairman of the Faulkton Area Development Corporation Board, thinks another approach would work better.

“The big key to true economic development,” said Price, “is supporting the growth of the business that we already have. If we can increase the amount of business they get, if every business in Faulk County grew significantly enough that they had to hire an additional full-time employee, those people would bring in or create their own families, add to the school numbers, and generally increase our economic growth. Investing in local businesses that are already established is the key because they have already made a long-term commitment to the community.”

 

3. Find a niche.

Some of the relatively few rural communities in the U.S. that are growing have found an unusual or quirky way to become known.

A group of energetic women in Water Valley, Miss., has rebuilt their downtown by renovating their downtown and creating a haven for artists. Studios and galleries now line what used to be a dying downtown, according to a March 7 New York Times story.

The town of Hardwick, Vt., has found new life with the growth of a local food economy, according the book The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt. Idealistic young people who knew very little about agriculture were able to connect with a generation of experienced farmers who wanted to pass on their knowledge before they retired, but who didn’t see any interest from their own children. The unexpected collaborations yielded a variety of new businesses.

The down-and-out town of Leavenworth, Wash., turned itself into a beautiful Bavarian village—despite the fact that it had no Bavarian heritage. As the timber and rail industries that had supported the town faded, the town decided to try to find a place in the tourism industry by renovating its downtown in Bavarian style. According to Leavenworth’s website, the plan worked:  “Since the change to a Bavarian motif, Leavenworth has become a pillar of the tourism industry in the Pacific Northwest. Today, more than a million tourists come to Leavenworth each year, with each visitor finding an individual love affair with the community.”

 

4. Make it a good place to live.

If you ask teenagers what the community could do to improve, they are likely to say something like, “There’s nothing to do.” According to Gary Aguiar, South Dakota State University associate professor of political science, this is really a kind of code. “What young people want at that age is a town square—a place where they can hang out and watch each other,” he said. He suspects the “nothing to do” argument really doesn’t have much to do with the activities a place offers-he said he saw a study about 16-year-olds in San Francisco who said their No.1 complaint about San Francisco was  “There’s nothing to do.” “My guess is they haven’t found that place where they want to hang out,” he said. College campuses have figured this out with student unions that offer a variety of nooks in which to study, eat or talk. Replicating this kind of place in a rural setting may not be easy; Aguair suggests getting young people involved in the process, “because if adults create it, it won’t be cool.”

This kind of project is more important than it might appear at face value, because how a person feels about a community when he or she is growing up there has a big influence on if he or she wants to come back there later in life, according to Aguair.

 

5. Consider alternative ways of farming.

As the number of mid-sized farms decreases nationwide, the number of small farms is increasing, bringing up the farm count overall.  “Nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operation since the last census in 2002,” according to a USDA press release about the 2007 Census of Agriculture. “Compared to all farms nationwide, these new farms tend to have more diversified production, fewer acres, lower sales and younger operators who also work off-farm.” This is in part because anyone who wants to go into farming without the support of a family business likely wouldn’t be able to get enough land to be considered anything other than a small farm. The growing local food movement is another factor. According to a November USDA report, locally grown food is now a $4.8 billion business. Focusing on ways of farming that require less land and more labor might allow more young people to become involved in the business of farming.

 

6. “Bust the myth that coming home translates as failure.”

This quote is from a story in the Salinas Journal about the town of Courtland, Kans., that is having a revitalization through returning young people. More than 20 people who graduated from college within five years of 2005 have moved back to the community of 300, resulting in more strollers being pushed along its streets and new businesses on Main Street.  “We find that people hesitate about moving back because they think they’ll be seen as a loser,” said Marci Penner, the founder of an organization to promote small-town living. “When they see others moving back, it erases that stigma. At some point, the memory kicks in about why you loved growing up in a small town.” Celebrating or raising the profile of the people who have returned to the area may be one way to dispel the failure myth.

 

7. Ask them to come back.

Would people really come back just because you asked them to? Well, maybe not on the basis of that alone. But asking the question might get someone who is looking for a change in lifestyle to consider the move back to his or her hometown. Lifestyle is a significant motivating factor in how younger generations want to live their lives, according to the book Live First, Work Second by Rebecca Ryan.  “Regardless of their zip code, their native language, or their vocation, members of the Creative Class place as much emphasis on where and how they live as where they work,” writes Richard Florida in the book’s foreword.

Living where you want regardless of the work you do is not the pipe dream it would have been two or three decades ago. Ubiquitous access to high-speed Internet has made it possible to telecommute much more effectively than was possible even five years ago. An IBM employee featured in the March Center for Rural Affairs newsletter moved to rural Nebraska because of the quality of life:  “I didn’t know places still existed in the United States where children didn’t need to lock a bike,” he said. He works for IBM as part of their “distributed workforce”—other employees are also working from home elsewhere in the country, and they communicate mostly through instant messages throughout the workday. And he does it while sitting in his home office, where he has a view of the birds visiting the feeders in the pear trees outside his window.

Asking those who have left to come back is really a way to encourage people who might be somewhat interested to focus seriously on the possibility of a homecoming. A survey of people who have left rural places found that those who return are most often motivated by family or lifestyle factors—not by potential employment. “If their family and lifestyle goals are consistent with rural life, outmigrants make substantial efforts to locate employment, exercise patience until job opportunities open up, accept career sacrifices, or become creative and entrepreneurial in order to move back, “ according to the report “Returning Home and Making a Living,” published in the Journal of Rural and Community Development.

In other words, if people really want to come back, they most often can find a way to make it happen—which means more kids like Leola’s class of 2012 might find their way back home someday.

 

Want to move back, or know someone who does?
See the “Plan Your Dakota Homecoming” guide!

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