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 bigger.
Some wait for Wal-Marts. Others push for new factories and jobs.
Still others lobby for new roads, new highway exit ramps or new
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
"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
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 again.
"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 community.
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
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
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 more.
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,
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
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
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,
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 towns.
"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.