Sunny outlook

Number of older Americans expected to double by 2050

Rural America, and the nation as a whole, has entered a phase of significant demographic change. 

As of the last decennial census, there were more than 40.4 million Americans over the age of 65, composing 13.1 percent of the total population. 

With the wave of the baby boom generation entering this demographic, the number of older Americans is estimated to more than double by 2050. This significant demographic transition is exacerbated in rural communities and locations, where the population is already older than the nation as a whole. Rural areas have a median age of 51, compared to the national median age of 37.

Nebraska counties and the state are also experiencing this shift in the age demographic. As presented in a report to the Legislative Planning Committee, the state’s population of those age 65 years and older is expected to reach nearly 419,000 by 2030. This estimate presents nearly 70 percent growth in this age demographic over two decades.

Even ahead of the full effects of this significant demographic shift, rural Nebraska counties have a higher percentage of residents over the age of 65. As of 2014, 18 percent of residents in rural counties were 65 years of age or older, compared to 11.5 percent in Nebraska’s urban counties. A full 47 percent of Nebraskans of retirement age live in rural counties. 

While the aging of rural communities is in part a result of an increased trend toward urbanization, rural citizens play a significant role in the fabric and future of the state and ultimately the nation. It is in these rural areas where much of the nation’s food, fiber, and natural resources are brought from the earth to the market supplying the vast network of goods and services that fuel the country.

Allowing this significant population asset to age without consideration of the implications could be detrimental. The ramifications of this demographic shift upon the social, civic, and economic structures of rural communities and the need for policies which recognize and accommodate this growing population are worth examining.

Over the upcoming months, the Center for Rural Affairs will be formalizing a task force on aging in rural areas. The objective of the task force is to explore the opportunities, challenges, and needs that are unique to rural elderly residents and the communities they call home. Residents from any state are welcome to join in.

If you are interested in participating in the task force or have recommendations for areas of focus or policies to consider, please contact Jordan Rasmussen at 402.687.2100 x1032 or jordanr@cfra.org.

Feature photo: As of the last deccennial census, there were more than 40.4 million Americans older than 65. The number of older Americans is estimated to more than double by 2050. This demographic shift will affect civic, economic, and social structures of rural communities, such as Hastings, Nebraska (above), where residents enjoyed a concert this summer. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Number of older Americans expected to double by 2050

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There’s a buzz about Outhouse Honey Farm

Along a gravel road on the Omaha Reservation is a white house surrounded by gardens and fruit trees.

On one side of the property is an aging outhouse – the namesake of the small operation, Outhouse Honey Farm.

Bees in the outhouse

Four years ago, owner Lowell Osborne noted something peculiar.

“On the side of the outhouse, there were a whole lot of bees going in and out of that big hole,” he said. “I looked, and it was just full of bees in there.”

Lowell decided to make something of the find, and contacted a retired beekeeper. He bought a bee box and supplies at an affordable price.

This year, the hive was divided into three – one swarm of bees took to a second box and the third decided to choose their home – the side of the house.

Head gardener duties

Honey production is just one part of the Outhouse Honey Farm. Vegetables, herbs, and fruit grow almost everywhere you look. Lowell, his wife, Milissa, and their five daughters, Zena, Anabel, Zora, Olivia, and Alannah, all pitch in.

Lowell took over as head gardener three years ago.

“Originally, Lowell gardened because this was a way for him to make a little extra money,” Milissa said. “That’s why we expanded like we did.”

“I have a lot of kids to feed,” Lowell said.

The Osbornes are faithful vendors at the Omaha Reservation farmers market and the Christmas Bazaar, both run by the Center for Rural Affairs.

Expanding the garden

Suzi French, Center for Rural Affairs community foods specialist, said the Osbornes have nearly quadrupled the size of their garden from 2016 to 2017.

Among the new items are watermelon, sunflowers, lettuce, kohlrabi, turnips, green beans, spinach, eggplant, celery, Brussels sprouts, and additional pepper and cabbage plants.

Their one and only cabbage last year – Cabbage Carl – won a purple ribbon in open class competition at the county fair. Zena received the plant as part of a school project.

Most of the produce is taken to the kitchen for canning, making jellies, pickling, and to put into pies. The Osbornes are known for their cinnamon pickles which uses an “old family recipe.”

Planting a garden this size takes some planning. Milissa explained there are hot peppers and sweet peppers on either side, with tomatoes in between, preventing the sweet plants from turning hot.

She has also studied companion planting, so in the front flowerbed, garlic is planted among the rose bushes and walking onions are growing next to morning glories.

Other produce found throughout the garden includes potatoes, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard, collard greens, squash, eggplant, celery, and more.

Everyone pitches in

Just beyond the garden, one can find the source of the Outhouse Honey Farm soundtrack – a rooster, a goose (named Nancy), and chickens. (They use the eggs for baked goods to sell.) A pig chimes in once in awhile, when he’s not playing with his basketball or eating bread, his favorite food.

On the day I visited, the Osbornes cut butter crunch lettuce and pulled radishes for the afternoon farmers market. While talking to me, each one started automatically tending to the garden.

“We can’t walk through the garden without pulling weeds,” Milissa said.

Before I could drive away, they piled into the family SUV with buckets to go raspberry hunting, and told me about chokecherries and grapes they had found on a previous foraging excursion.

They have plans to expand their operation even more. Milissa said fruit trees need to be replaced, and Lowell said they will get meat goats, “hopefully soon.”

Feature photo: Four years ago, Lowell Osborne found bees in an old outhouse on his property. He successfully moved the bees into a bee box to produce honey. For the last three yeras, Lowell and his family have sold their honey, produce, and baked goods at a farmers market run by the Center for Rural Affairs. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about There’s a buzz about Outhouse Honey Farm

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Sodsaver program could be extended

This week, the American Prairie Conservation Act was introduced by Sens. John Thune (R-SD), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Reps. Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Tim Walz (D-MN).

This bill strengthens the protections for native prairies and prime grasslands that were established in previous farm bills. It expands the existing “sodsaver” provision from six states (Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota) to the entire U.S.

On average, the government covers about 60 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premium costs. The sodsaver provisions provide a disincentive for farmers to plow up native sod by reducing the amount of crop insurance subsidies available when they plow these lands.

Expanding these provisions nationwide would not only protect fragile lands, it would ensure that crop insurance subsidies are available consistently for farmers in all 50 states.

If passed, these proposals could save $52 million over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In addition, if a farmer plows native sod and plants a noninsured crop such as alfalfa, they can avoid sodsaver restrictions. This bill proposes to close that loophole.

Stewardship of our land and water is an invaluable legacy. By expanding the sodsaver rules nationwide, this bill will help protect our natural resources, keep land in production, and support farms and rural communities.

To read about our farm bill priorities, visit www.cfra.org/farm-bill. Read more about Sodsaver program could be extended

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From the desk of the executive director: Farm bill renewal is in sight

Congress is in the process of writing another farm bill. Political distractions are running high in Washington. But distracted or not – the current farm bill expires in September 2018. 

If Congress fails to act, key farm bill initiatives that support beginning farmers, local and regional market development, and rural small businesses will come to a screeching halt. An opportunity to reform federal crop insurance and improve conservation programs also hangs in the balance. 

Our policy platform for the new farm bill stands around three pillars. 

Protect and improve farm conservation programs – Stewardship of our land and water for future generations is a core tenet of our work at the Center. Programs that support working lands conservation – soil, water, and habitat conservation on land that is also cultivated or grazed – help to steward our natural resources, while also keeping land in production to support local farms and local economies. We’ll work to retain major gains made in conservation programs in the last two farm bills, while also streamlining programs so they work better together. 

Reform commodity programs – Under current policy, the very largest farms can collect crop insurance subsidies without limit. If one operation farmed the entire state of Iowa, the federal government would subsidize their crop insurance on every single acre. That blocks beginning farmers out of the system and ensures that as the largest farms grow, they collect even more subsidies. We support a $50,000 cap on crop insurance premiums. One government report showed this cap would reduce subsidies to the largest 2.5 percent of farms, helping level the playing field for everyone else. Along with reforms to expand access and enhance conservation, we can make crop insurance work in alignment with our values and priorities. 

Protect investment in beginning farmers and entrepreneurial development – Entrepreneurial development is a proven strategy to create opportunity in rural America. A large set of programs that support entrepreneurial development, beginning farmers, local and regional market development, rural small businesses, and small towns are all set to expire at the end of the current farm bill. Extending, improving, and building on these programs is a central pillar of our policy platform and a key strategy for driving change in small towns across the nation. 

Over the course of the coming months, we will call on you to reach out to members of Congress to support specific policy proposals that align with these three pillars. Your voice in prompting members of Congress to act will be critical. Read more about From the desk of the executive director: Farm bill renewal is in sight

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Smart policy creates sunny outlook

The Iowa legislature created the Iowa Solar Energy System Tax Credit in 2012. Designed to encourage local investment, the credit offsets up to 15 percent of the cost of a new installation. Legislators included limits of $5,000 per home or $20,000 per business to ensure accessibility.

This incentive led to 2,524 new solar projects between 2012 and 2016. The new installments are spread across the state, with at least one in 97 of Iowa’s 99 counties. In total, the $16.4 million provided by the solar tax incentive has generated $123,248,595 of private investment.

One project is located on the Joe and Dianne Rotta farm near Merrill, Iowa. The Rottas farm 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans and have a 24,000 hog operation. In cooperation with a local solar developer, they recently built a combined 121 kilowatt (kW) installment to meet their energy needs. They used net metering, and any excess is banked for use during the harvest season, when grain drying and augering systems increase energy demand.

The farm has been in Dianne’s family since 1884. During that time, it has seen a lot of changes. At the end of July, I had an opportunity to visit. I was joined by several members of the Iowa legislature, along with a representative for Sen. Grassley. Solar installers, project developers, and members of the local electric cooperative were on hand to provide perspective. 

During the tour, Joe and Dianne listed the reasons why solar worked for them. They first pointed to independence and the ability to act as their own electric provider. They acknowledged the flexibility and autonomy. But in the end, it came down to cost.

“Once it’s paid off, it’s yours,” Dianne explained. “We would not have went forward unless it made sense financially. We see this primarily as a way to control inputs and lower costs.”

Because of the Iowa Solar Energy System Tax Credit, the pay-off period is shorter than ever. Combining a state or local incentive with the federal investment tax credit can offset costs by up to 45 percent. This reduces the payback period by two years.

The price of installed solar has fallen by more than 200 percent since 2009. Farm, home, and business owners have taken notice. Due to growing demand, the industry now employs almost 375,000 individuals across the country. Nearly 1,000 of those live in Iowa, many of them rural.  

This is what opportunity looks like in rural communities across the Midwest and Great Plains. Joe and Dianne found a way to lower costs and improve their bottom line. They identified a local business that could help them do it. It’s a win-win for Merrill and northwest Iowa.

The Iowa Solar Energy System Tax Credit is a small investment that creates a big return. The result is a new industry in the state’s rural towns. Smart policy like this is what helps keep our communities strong.

Feature photo: Lawmakers, solar installers, project developers, and electric cooperative members recently took a tour of solar installments in northwest Iowa – a tour co-organized by the Center for Rural Affairs. | Photo by Patrick Snell of the Nature Conservancy Read more about Smart policy creates sunny outlook

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Let’s accurately frame Nebraska’s property tax challenge

Property tax relief and adequate funding for schools and local governments was the topic of a recent community conversation in Nebraska City, hosted by the Center for Rural Affairs. Community leaders and Otoe County residents gathered to discuss property tax challenges facing agricultural land and residential property owners and the radiating impact on schools and local governments.

Dr. Jeff Edwards, of Nebraska Public Schools, reiterated the message shared by superintendents and school boards across the state: the reliance upon agricultural land property taxes is not a challenge created by school spending, but one that has been shifted from the state.

“Our budget is increasing by only 1.02 percent this year, with all of the new money going to general budget increases,” Edwards said. “Despite the rhetoric, public schools are not overspending.”

Like most Nebraska schools, more than 80 percent of Nebraska City Public Schools’ budget is consumed by staffing costs like salaries and health insurance; costs that are often beyond a district’s control. Yet Nebraska ranks 49th in state funding for education, so schools are forced to turn to property taxpayers to shoulder the burden.

This weighs heavily upon farmers, like Gene Hobbie of rural Dunbar.

“Going to the courthouse twice a year to pay property taxes on my farm land really hurts,” said Hobbie. “But, there is nothing that can be done about it. Even the banker has started to talk about how we can cut costs even further so that the property taxes can be paid.”

Attendees also mused on possible solutions to help bring better balance and equity in funding for schools and other local entities. Options such as sales tax on luxury services like dry cleaning or limo services were also offered as revenue generators.

“I am in favor of an income tax increase to help fund schools,” said Hobbie.

Consensus was found in the need to roll back tax incentive programs like the Nebraska Advantage Act and return the dollars to the revenue stream. Nebraska City resident Stephanie Schrader shared that the Nebraska Advantage Act no longer benefits small and local businesses as it was originally designed.

“Instead of using the funds to incentivize on a per job basis, the act has evolved to give multimillion dollar tax breaks to big businesses without consideration of the cost per job,” said Schrader.

As solutions to Nebraska’s tax imbalance are explored, it is imperative that we highlight those who would be most affected by these policies. Tax cuts and revenues which push back rhetoric and instead bring fairness and equity to Nebraska’s tax system are required in order to fund schools, services, and communities – and protect the good life.

Pictured: The Nemaha County Courthouse in Auburn. Nemaha County is just south of Otoe County on the eastern edge of Nebraska. Read more about Let’s accurately frame Nebraska’s property tax challenge

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Local food served on school lunch trays nationwide

Para la versión en español de esta historia, por favor oprima aqui.

October is National Farm to School Month, a time to recognize the importance of improving child nutrition, supporting local economies, and educating communities about the origins of their food.

In 2016, the Center for Rural Affairs joined more than 220 organizations nationwide to promote farm to school throughout October. This year marks the seventh year for National Farm to School Month, designated by Congress to bring awareness to the growing importance of these programs in child nutrition, local economies, and education.

What makes farm to school special? The program helps students learn where their food comes from and provides healthy access to more fruits and vegetables. It is an avenue for rural schools to keep spending in their communities with purchases made from local farms and food businesses.

Educators can also weave farm to school into math and science curriculum. The program is a great addition to business and entrepreneurship classes, as well as cooking classes. Imagine learning culinary skills using seasonal, local ingredients and how to buy them.

According to the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census, farm to school programs have invested more than $789 million in local communities; offered 17,089 salad bars with healthy options to students and staff; and grown 7,101 school gardens. Approximately 1,039 school districts serve local foods during the peak season in the summer months and 1,516 school districts start farm to school early in their pre-K programs.

The numbers don’t lie. Farm to school is a win for students, farm, food businesses, and communities. For more information on National Farm to School Month, visit our online toolkit at www.cfra.org/f2smonth. Read more about Local food served on school lunch trays nationwide

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Protect your rural health care coverage

The latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Graham-Cassidy Health Care Repeal Plan, is a prescription for harm to rural America. The legislation is anticipated to be brought before the Senate early next week, and if passed will be quickly picked up by the House.

Here is what the Graham-Cassidy bill would do:

  • Completely eliminate the ACA’s marketplace subsidies, which currently help 10 million people afford health care coverage. They would no longer be guaranteed any assistance to buy plans.
  • Gut Medicaid through deep, permanent cuts that would grow over time and threaten care for millions of low-income seniors, children, and people living with disabilities, and shift massive costs and risks to states through a system of per capita caps and block grants.
  • Allow states to waive the pre-existing conditions and essential health benefits requirement. That means a previous cancer diagnosis or treatment for diabetes could leave you ineligible for coverage, even under your insurance through work.
  • End the expansion of Medicaid, which has extended coverage to close to 12 million low-income adults. The plan offers no guarantee of alternative affordable coverage for these beneficiaries.

This bill would mean fewer people covered, weaker protections, and higher costs for consumers. It's time to tell our representatives that this bill is not what constituents want. Here are some starting points for a conversation with your senator:

  • Tell your senator how your access to coverage has made a difference in your life and the life of your family.
  • Encourage senators to ensure that low and middle income Americans will be able to secure affordable and adequate coverage.
  • Ask senators to ensure that protections are in place for consumers with pre-existing health conditions.
  • Share the need to fix the challenges of the ACA instead of decimating the health care coverage that protects millions of Americans.

As has been demonstrated by the previous failed attempts to repeal the ACA since January – your voice and your calls MATTER! Please call your senator and congressperson today! Read more about Protect your rural health care coverage

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Farm bill could help farmers, soil health, and water quality

Do you care about soil health, clean water, and farmers’ ability to make a living and steward their land? Time to tune in. Congress has started work on the next farm bill, and now is when they need to hear from you: the voters.

The next farm bill offers a major opportunity to support conservation through the crop insurance program. Crop insurance is a must-have for most farmers. Linking crop insurance to conservation is therefore a smart way for Congress to invest taxpayer dollars in supporting farmers and strengthening stewardship of natural resources.

However, many farmers may be hesitant to use conservation practices due to confusing crop insurance regulations. They may ask, “Does planting cover crops impact eligibility?” Congress could eliminate this barrier by making clear that all conservation activities count as good farming practices under crop insurance.

The farm bill could also strengthen the tie between farmers’ conservation practices and their eligibility for crop insurance subsidies. Congress already passed a measure requiring farmers with highly erodible land or wetlands to meet a conservation threshold in order to receive crop insurance subsidies. It makes sense to expand this and offer a higher crop insurance subsidy to all farmers who practice conservation. These individuals are preserving the land for future generations.

Whether you are a farmer or not, everyone has three representatives in Congress: two senators and one congressperson. All three will eventually vote on a farm bill. Let your lawmakers know today that conservation is important to you. Read more about Farm bill could help farmers, soil health, and water quality

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