Posted December 13, 2007:
Amid all the angst over the economic and population decline of the
rural Great Plains, many of the region’s people and businesses
are gambling on problematic ventures that likely will do more harm
Corporate livestock feedlots? Nothing degrades quality of life
faster than stinky air and tainted water. Corn ethanol production?
Its negatives seemingly mount daily, from a huge appetite for diminishing
groundwater to budget-busting government subsidies to questionable
Besides the industrialization of agriculture, perhaps the biggest
contributor to rural decline is a deep-rooted resistance to change.
That is evident in the Plains’ 150-year marriage to agriculture
and the region’s suspicion of economic and social diversity.
Tradition and conservatism have their place. But if the Midwest’s
rural communities want to thrive, their residents must step out
of their comfort zone.
The Switzer family near Burwell, Nebraska, population 1,130, has
When a youthful Adam Switzer returned to his family’s ranch
a few years ago, he sensed that the traditional cattle herd might
not cut it economically anymore. Then he realized the ranch had
something else of value: prairie chickens, a phenomenon that birdwatchers
will pay money to view in the wild. The ranch had other assets:
spring-fed streams for canoeists, prime habitat for hunters, wide-open
spaces for riders on horseback.
So the Switzers built a few cabins, then a few more. Now there
are 70 lodging units and the Switzers can hardly keep up with the
reservations. The recreation venture long ago passed cattle ranching
as the family’s most profitable business.
“Every year we are finding a new resource that can generate
income,” Adam Switzer says.
For Nebraska and a dozen other heartland states, enterprises like
the Switzers’ offer promise.
A September 2006 study led by Ernie Niemi of ECONorthwest in Eugene,
Oregon, urges Nebraskans to seek more amenity-driven growth. Instead
of emptying its dwindling groundwater reservoir for crop irrigation
summer after summer, for example, the state should preserve water
for healthy streams and lakes which, in turn, can be a foundation
for ecotourism, recreation and an attractive quality of life, Niemi
Not every risk-taker will succeed like the Switzers, and Niemi
isn’t suggesting that Plains states mothball all their combines
and planters. But if rural Midwesterners hope to endure, they must
think outside the box more often.
The Switzers aren’t the only ones who already are:
- The health benefits of grass-fed beef prompted Kevin Fulton,
a former nationally renowned weightlifter and strength coach at
the University of Colorado, to shut down his irrigated cornfields
near Litchfield, Neb., and switch to ranching. Five years later
Fulton has markets nationwide for his naturally raised beef, which
has up to 50 percent less fat than grain-fed beef.
- The dark, unpolluted skies of the vast Sandhills, nearly 24,000
square miles of unique grassland in north-central and western
Nebraska, have inspired an unexpected enterprise: annual stargazing
parties. Nearly all Sandhills lodging resorts now promote stargazing.
- Jeff Schelkopf of Blue Hill, Neb., admits he was “scared
to death” when he purchased the site of an abandoned industrial
hog farm and built Blue Valley Aquaculture. Now in its third year,
Blue Valley’s steelhead trout and catfish have gotten rave
reviews and are sold statewide.
- St. James, a defunct community in northeastern Nebraska, is
back on the map after five enterprising women bought the old schoolhouse
and created the St. James Marketplace, which now has more than
60 vendors from Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa.
Recognizing new opportunities like these, organizations are cropping
up to support farmers and rural entrepreneurs willing to take a
They include the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development
in Ames, Iowa; the Heartland Center for Leadership Development in
Lincoln, Nebraska, which focuses on rural leadership training and
community survival; the Rural Policy Research Institute in Columbia,
Missouri; Minnesota Rural Partners, in St. Paul; and the elder statesman
of such groups, the Center for Rural Affairs, which dropped “Nebraska”
from its name because its focus is now regional, even national.
All this doesn’t represent an overwhelming trend. But it
does offer possibilities in a part of the country that has been
As Midwestern risk-takers are showing, the time has arrived for
new ideas. An increasing number of rural heartlanders now know that
beating the same old drum will only accelerate their region’s