Identifying Avenues to Build Community Strength

There are many promising strategies to create a better future for rural communities and genuine opportunity for rural people. Members of each community must identify approaches that fit them and then provide the grassroots leadership to make them happen. We identify 7 activities to help.

Support Grassroots Entrepreneurship – Locally-owned small business is the source of most new rural employment. Communities can sponsor training, lending and technical assistance for small business by bringing in programs such as the Center for Rural Affairs’ REAP in Nebraska and similar programs in other states. Communities can provide affordable startup space, form local investors clubs to finance startups and patronize local business.

Rural Sourcing – The internet has enabled many business services to be provided from overseas. But we have only begun to tap the opportunity to “rural-source” such services. There is potential for a new generation of small businesses providing service online from rural communities – ranging from architecture and accounting to serving the growing renewable energy field.

High-Value Sustainable Agriculture – There is no one model for 21st century agriculture. Each of our communities will have farms growing for commodity markets. And communities can also benefit from high-value markets for everything from organic crops to humane natural livestock, if they are proactive. Communities can provide educational opportunities for farmers and lenders on the market options, encourage retiring farmers to work with beginners, and support the risk takers who try new approaches.

Environmental Service Markets – Like it or not, climate change is real and will have to be addressed. It will impose costs, but also create opportunities. The rural areas of the heartland stand to gain tens of thousands of good jobs from wind energy development and hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to landowners and local governments. There are growing opportunities for farmers to be paid to capture more carbon in their soil (organic matter) to reduce gases that cause climate change.

Rural Tourism – Many Americans are harkening back to their roots. That creates new opportunities in ecotourism (bird watching), agri-tourism (guest ranches), and heritage tourism – for communities that preserve and promote their historic features. Farm communities won’t become tourist communities. But these approaches can add a successful small business or two and make communities more interesting to potential new families.

Attractive Communities – Communities that draw people survive. Certain amenities are fundamental – good schools, health care, recreation for kids, etc. But communities can gain an extra edge by providing affordable amenities that matter to young families as well as retiring baby boomers like hiking trails that provide access to nature and recreational facilities such as racquet ball courts.

Two Critical Overarching Elements – To take advantage of these opportunities, communities will need to be deliberate about engaging their members and developing a stable of local leaders. A few people cannot do the job alone.

Communities can build their capacity by inviting potential new leaders to step forward and offering training in leadership skills. Personally inviting all elements of the community to get involved in community planning sessions can create the engagement and support to move development forward. Communities that push themselves to be open to new ideas and learn to deal with differences of opinion constructively as a helpful source of diverse ideas and perspectives will be most successful. Leadership training can help develop those skills.

Youth must be a key part of the process. If we want young people to someday build lives in rural America, we need to engage them in making our communities attractive to them. That also gives our young people a chance to get invested in our communities.

Finally, we must all lend a hand to putting public policies in place that support rather than undermine local efforts to build a better future. Democracy only works when we citizens fulfill our responsibility to guide government. The Center for Rural Affairs is a vehicle for rural citizens to make a difference. We need your voice and your help in engaging your neighbors’ voices.

Agree or disagree? Contact Chuck Hassebrook, chuckh@cfra.org or 402.687.2103 x 1018 with your comments.

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