HOWARD, South Dakota, March 25, 2005, Jonathan
Eig, The Wall Street Journal via CropChoice.com:
With farm jobs disappearing at a rapid clip, almost
every small town on the American prairie dreams of getting
Some wait for Wal-Marts. Others push for new factories
and jobs. Still others lobby for new roads, new highway
exit ramps or new airports.
This town has a different plan, evident to anyone driving
the two-lane blacktop that cuts east to west through
Miner County. At the eastern edge of Howard, an old
slaughterhouse that had been vacant for 30 years is
up and running again, this time in the production of
organic beef. Just south of the town's busiest intersection,
where cattle once grazed, a new housing development
is under construction, bringing seven low-cost homes.
Two wind turbines tower over the western end of town.
At their feet sits a small turbine-repair shop staffed
by former farmers and tractor repairmen.
Howard and the surrounding Miner County are at the
center of an unusual campaign to rescue farm towns from
extinction. Backed by $6 million in foundation grant
money, residents here have adapted a survival strategy
that is both radical and modest. They plan to let some
of the dying pieces of the economy die and focus instead
on niches in which small businesses can compete -- like
organic beef and wind-turbine repair.
The key, residents say, is that they're willing to
accept the county's dramatic population losses -- down
to about 3,000 residents from a peak of 8,500 -- as
long as they can come up with enough high-quality jobs
to prevent further declines.
"We don't need to be a Watertown or a Madison,"
says Randy Parry, a former basketball coach and high-school
teacher who leads the revitalization effort, referring
to towns with populations of 20,000 and 6,500, respectively.
"We don't need to be big."
Some economists think Howard's approach might be the
last best chance for towns that have seen family farms
vanish and their economic bases crumble.
"In these communities, you don't really need much,"
says Stephan Weiler, an economist at the Center for
the Study of Rural America at the Federal Reserve Bank
of Kansas City. Many of those communities still have
a relatively strong supply of skilled workers, Mr. Weiler
says. The challenge is keeping them. "People need
to ask, 'What do we have and what can we do that the
market will value?' "
Miner County is fighting against a strong tide. The
population is still falling and some of the county's
experiments have failed to take root. In building an
economy without a strong business base and heavily dependent
on a handful of small ventures, the county is plotting
a risky strategy. If consumers lose interest in wind
energy or organic beef, or if Miner County businesses
can't keep up with competitors in those industries,
the economic revitalization will have to start all over
"We're the guinea pigs," says Mr. Parry,
director of Miner County Community Revitalization. "Rural
America is slipping by the wayside. If we don't do something
about it in time, it will be too late."
Miner County sits about 65 miles northwest of Sioux
Falls, a city of some 125,000 that's been growing about
as quickly as many of its rural neighbors have been
shrinking. For decades, the county was a thriving chunk
of middle-American heartland, with hundreds of small
farms raising corn and soybeans, and railroad cars crisscrossing
the flat earth. At its peak in the 1920s and 1930s,
even the county's smaller towns each supported a bank,
a diner, a gas station, a grocery, a schoolhouse, and
a bar or two.
As the smallest towns vanished, Howard, the county
seat, became the life raft, with displaced residents
clinging to its relative prosperity. But even Howard
has been losing a dozen or so residents every year,
and its population is now down to about 1,000.
One idea for turning things around came from the younger
generation. In 1995, students at Howard High School
surveyed Miner County's 1,000 registered voters and
found that about half of all respondents were shopping
in larger towns outside the county. The students calculated
that if residents spent 10% more of their disposable
income at local businesses, they would add more than
$7 million to the local economy, assuming the money
continued to circulate in the community at the normal
rate. In the year after the survey, discussed widely
in town, taxable sales in Miner County increased 40%.
Advising the students was Mr. Parry, 56 years old.
Besides coaching basketball, he worked as the school's
business teacher and ran a popular ice-cream shop called
Coach's Corner. The student project gave him ideas.
He says he began to think of the community as he thought
of some of his basketball squads. Once a team started
winning, Mr. Parry observed, players seemed to practice
and play harder. Crowds got bigger and cheered more
loudly. As a coach, he called it momentum.
Though sales-tax revenue continued increasing for several
years after the student survey, the economy was not
so easily transformed. In 1996, the community's biggest
manufacturer, Wrapit, which made wrappers for baseball
cards, laid off 75 of its 210 workers. Soon after, Mr.
Parry used a $20,000 grant presented to the high school
to form the Rural Resource Center, which brought together
students and adults to discuss ideas for improving the
They developed focus groups on housing, employment,
health care and education. Instead of looking to outsiders
for growth, they focused on how to lure back former
residents who had moved away and keep the next generation
from doing the same.
Meanwhile, a Minnesota-based nonprofit called the Northwest
Area Foundation was looking for an innovative way to
help a rural community. In 1997, it decided to offer
a small town millions of dollars and other support over
a span of 10 years. The community would determine how
the money should be spent.
In November 1998, foundation officials arrived in Miner
County the day after an enormous snowstorm. Small roads
were almost impassable. Farmers were busy corralling
animals that had climbed over snow banks and strayed
from their land. Still, 80 of Mr. Parry's 82 committee
members showed up to meet the out-of-towners.
Impressed, the foundation gave Miner County $500,000
in seed money to help it map a long-term strategy.
Mr. Parry quit his job at the school and devoted himself
to the community-building work. The more he talked to
residents, the more evident it became that no one wanted
Miner County to get a lot bigger, or to change in a
dramatic way. In other words, says Mr. Parry, they wanted
the town "to feel like it used to be."
Local committees began organizing projects to build
community spirit and demonstrate to the foundation that
Miner County residents were ready to go to work. Residents
pulled hundreds of tree stumps from downtown Fedora.
They cleaned and painted old homes in Howard. Farmers
attended seminars on how to make money on organic beef
or alternative livestock such as elk and deer.
"It was grass-roots," Mr. Parry says. "It
was grind work."
County leaders gave the foundation a 35-page plan that
promised among other things to create affordable housing,
build a child-care center, update land-use plans, help
farmers explore niche markets and set up a business-assistance
program. The key was getting the entire community involved
and making better use of the assets already on hand.
In February 2001, the Northwest Area Foundation awarded
Miner County about $3.8 million and the South Dakota
Community Foundation, a nonprofit, kicked in $2 million
Not long after that, the first wind turbine went up
in Howard. It was the work of a former Howard High School
student, Joe Kolbach, who decided to open a repair shop
for the machines in his old home town. He said he knew
that many people who fixed tractor engines could learn
to fix turbines.
"A small town with low overhead is what a young
company needs," says Mr. Kolbach, president of
Energy Maintenance Services of Gary, S.D.
The two turbines -- one purchased by the town of Howard,
the other by Mr. Parry's group -- earned the town energy
credits from one of the local power companies, reducing
bills for everyone. They also served as a sign that
things were changing. "To be honest," Mr.
Parry says, "I still get goose bumps every time
I drive by."
Mr. Parry's group created a revolving loan fund to
help businesses start or expand. It helped establish
a day-care center with preschool and Head Start classes
in downtown Howard. The group pushed to get cellular
phone service for the area. It helped convert a vacant
school in Canova to a wellness center, with exercise
equipment and a miniature-golf course.
When Robin Hattervig, the county's only dentist, began
thinking about moving elsewhere, Mr. Parry's organization
helped him apply for a federal grant that would pay
him to see more Medicaid patients. Now, low-income patients
drive from across the state to Dr. Hattervig's clinic,
and he has hired another dentist.
Scott Lively, whose wife grew up in a small town in
South Dakota, said he wanted to set up an organic-beef
business in a community that needed jobs, even though
he probably could have improved his profit margins by
locating closer to a major highway. When he heard about
an old slaughterhouse for sale in Howard, Mr. Parry's
group offered to help him negotiate the purchase. "These
guys were relentless," says Mr. Lively, 33, who
lives in Martha's Vineyard with his family but has been
spending much of his time lately in Howard.
Now, Mr. Lively's Dakota Beef is one of the more promising
ventures in town. One local farmer already feeds cattle
for Dakota Beef, and two more farmers have expressed
interest in having their farms certified organic, Mr.
Lively says. Dakota Beef employs 20 full-time workers
and expects to triple that number by the end of the
year, he says.
Still, Mr. Parry's group faces long odds in its fight
to keep Miner County from slipping away. From 2000 to
2003, the county's population dropped a further 5.8%,
according to Census Bureau estimates. From 2000 to 2001,
5.5% of all nonfarm businesses disappeared. Even some
businesses launched with the revitalization group's
help discovered there wasn't enough money to be made.
A café, a cheese-making plant and a fish farm
all came and went.
Only about one in four Howard High graduates who went
to college in the late 1990s has returned, according
to a recent survey. "The more highly skilled they
get, the less likely they are to come back," says
Larry Holland, who teaches at the high school and also
serves as its guidance counselor, athletic director
and part-time bus driver. "How would we employ
an engineer in Howard? Those kinds of jobs aren't there."
The local high school and elementary school have suffered.
As people leave Miner County for jobs elsewhere, they
take their children and property-tax contributions,
leaving the schools short of bodies and cash. Those
left behind have voted to accept property-tax increases,
but educators say the money coming in still isn't enough.
Howard High has been forced to lay off teachers and
cut back on available classes. Even Mr. Parry's old
business class that got the community revitalization
started a decade ago wasn't spared.
Many students say they're encouraged by the recent
burst of economic activity, but staying in Howard "would
be the failure of my life," says Brianna Hanson,
a 17-year-old junior, whose father works as a veterinarian
for the state and whose mother is a nurse at a local
nursing home. "When you see your parents struggling,
it really peels a lot of your hope away."
As he drove through town one day in his pickup truck,
down Main Street, out to Route 34, and over to the town's
new industrial park, home of the turbine-repair shop
and other small businesses, Mr. Parry acknowledged that
economic forces will continue to wipe away many small
"I read somewhere that someone said it wouldn't
matter if everything between Sioux Falls and Rapid City
were covered in ash," he says. He thinks at least
a few of those small towns can be saved. For now, he
says, one will do.