Keeping Small Town America Alive
We believe it is critical to keep small towns in rural America alive. Small towns are the foundation and backbone of America. They embody the values that this country was built on. Traditionally, agriculture has been a significant source of revenue for small towns. It provides jobs on farms and related industries such as food processing, transportation, services, and retail. The income generated by these jobs circulates in the local economy.
Unfortunately, small towns across America are facing a problem with limited job opportunities and increased poverty. According to a USDA report titled Rural Employment and Unemployment, from 2007 to 2010, small towns lost over 1.4 million jobs, with the 2009 recession being a significant contributing factor. From 2010 to 2019, employment slowly grew but never fully recovered to the employment rates in 2007. Factors for unemployment can vary; however, there is often not enough work in small towns, even if a person is consistently looking and applying for positions.
Off-Farm Income and the Importance of Diversity of Business Opportunities
A March 2020 article by the USDA reported, “Among family farms, 45 percent of principal operators and spouses have a job off the farm…Most of these jobs were in construction, production, transportation, professional, sales, and administrative occupations.” Further, in a September 2021 article, the USDA stated, “Off-farm income, such as pensions, investment income or wages and salary from an off-farm job is an important source of total income for U.S. farm households. In 2019, 96 percent of farm households derived some income from off-farm sources.”
In addition to off-farm income, supplemental income from renewable energy has been essential for many producers. For some of our clients, diversity in opportunities has made the difference between continuing to operate or shut down. Farms and agriculture-related businesses often support and rely on local suppliers, further boosting the local economy. For example, farmers purchase equipment, seeds, and fertilizers from local stores, while agricultural cooperatives and processing facilities create markets for local products.
Diversity of Jobs Needed in Small Towns
A shift is happening in rural communities. Currently, the largest sector of the small-town workforce is moving to the service industry, according to the American Progress article ‘The Path to Rural Resilience in America.’ This starkly contrasts the workforces that created small towns and rural communities in the past: agriculture, manufacturing, and mining.
A US Census report titled ‘Rural Industry Workers in America’ puts numbers behind these statements. In 2016, 10.9% of rural Americans were employed in the retail trade, and 7.3% were employed in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services trades, according to the report. These jobs all typically fall under the ‘service industry’ umbrella. The number totals 18.2%, making up almost one fifth of the workforce. In addition to the previously mentioned jobs within the service industry, the U.S. Census data also reports educational services, health care, and social assistance as making up 22.3% of employment in rural America in 2016; nearly 40% between the two categories.
The diversity of jobs, like those offered by renewable energy, oil and gas, and other non-service-related industries, provides additional opportunities for members of small communities to make a good living, further contributing to the local economy.
A Future in Agriculture
As agriculture is becoming more efficient, it is taking advantage of new technologies. This means agriculture is also benefiting from the diversity of jobs and in some cases, more high paying jobs. According to an article by Agricultural Recruitment Specialists, “
The new opportunities agricultural technology offers are exciting, such as in robotics, automation, and professions in engineering,
environmental science, surveying, remote sensing, and precision agriculture, but agriculture needs to be kept going in order for those types of jobs to be available.
New Jobs in Rural Communities Have an Impact
Small communities often face the challenge of losing residents to larger cities for employment; therefore, creating just a few jobs in a small town can have an immense impact. New employment options in small towns strengthen the local workforce and contribute to a sense of community and pride. The availability of new jobs can help retain existing residents, as they are more likely to stay when suitable employment options are available, contributing to community stability.
In addition to new jobs supporting families, an article by the Better Business Bureau states that local workers shop and dine locally, keeping funds within communities. Even a small number of new jobs can inject fresh income into the community as employees spend their wages locally. Increased spending can stimulate economic growth by supporting local businesses and attracting new ones.
Opportunity is the Key to Preserving Small Towns
A report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities found that, “Even if the community has lost its original or main economic driver, it has other assets that it can use to spur the local economy… many successful small towns and cities complement recruitment by emphasizing their existing assets and distinctive resources.”
Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for the backbone of rural communities, small family farms, to make a reasonable profit year after year on only commodity agriculture production. When farms and ranches are forced to discontinue operations, everyone from the family going out of business to the local community suffers.
Helping small towns across the country create an economic environment by preserving existing jobs and creating new employment opportunities where community members can thrive is the key to keeping them alive.