Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series about trying to attract more people to live and work in rural America.
The civilized COVID-19 pandemic is rearranging the lives, jobs, and economic wealth of millions of people in rural America, just as it has been realigning the realities in other parts of the country.
This could mean future population and economic growth for thousands of rural communities that seize the opportunity.
Mark Smither, a strategy expert at Paulsen, a marketing and research company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, believes that the process of large-scale population migration to rural areas is ongoing.
"Accelerate its development," he said. "It's a pandemic, then technology, and then employers say,'You can do your job remotely.' Once they open that door..."
His confidence stems from a group study he conducted with Audience Audit, a research group based in Arizona last summer, that investigated the relocation of Americans.
"We saw a lot of news reports about people who moved from the city to the country... but I don't think they really grasp the cause, so we think we will work hard to improve clarity," he said.
His project involves online interviews with 326 adults, either urban residents considering moving to rural areas in the near future, or people who have moved to rural areas since the beginning of 2020. One finding: 68% of urban respondents said they would “definitely” consider changing jobs or moving their employers to rural areas, and 20% said they might do so.
Smither believed he had discovered a new American mentality. The results of the survey convinced him that "many people who came to rural America from cities believe that life in rural America is better...better entrepreneurial opportunities...more freedom, whatever they think they can achieve as Americans, they can Make space in the countryside."
The 2019 report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service on rural population trends described the influx of Americans into selected rural areas from 2012 to 2017. It is estimated that 58% of counties across the country have experienced positive changes in net immigration (number of immigrants minus number of immigrants).
ERS observed: "People who move to rural areas tend to continue to prefer densely populated and scenic rural areas, or areas close to large cities," especially those with outdoor recreational facilities.
Similarly, the 2020 Census of the Census Bureau shows that the rural population is converging near small urban areas (including cities with 10,000 to 50,000 people and neighboring counties), with an overall increase of 1% in residents. Most fast-growing microenterprises are close to large, fast-growing urban areas, but the agency also noted that some smaller cities have net population growth of more than 15,000 people: Bozeman, Montana; Rexburg, Idaho ; Heber, Utah; and Williston, North Dakota, an oil town where the population more than doubled during the fracking boom.
The benefits in rural areas are not consistent. Agri-Pulse's analysis of the 2020 census data shows that from Nebraska to northern Texas and North Carolina, the population of rural counties in the Great Plains has decreased for agricultural production. Rare population growth has occurred in counties with large crop processing facilities or meat processing plants that have historically relied on immigrant workers.
However, in the 2020-2030 decade and the complex consequences of COVID-19, what is the current direction of the rural population?
When more than 4 million Americans (3% of the workforce) voluntarily leave their jobs within a month, as happened in August and September, stakeholders in rural communities may have the opportunity to round up some runaways.
But observers of rural trends say that there is still a lot to do before Americans rush to the countryside as Smith expected.
"This does require the collaborative leadership of our county officials and other community stakeholders... to take action to diversify the economy and ensure that residents... get good jobs and are cared for," said Chief Economist Teryn Zmuda. National Association of Counties (NACo).
Zmuda said that high-speed Internet services are critical to the economic growth of rural communities. Therefore, NACo supports the just-passed infrastructure bill with its $65 billion broadband. At least 10 states have allocated a portion of the 5.2 billion US dollars in the Congressional rescue plan in March last year to expand broadband access.
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In fact, various networks have sprung up to help people train, equip and move to rural areas to work remotely.
Last winter, Greater Bemidji (Minnesota) Economic Development began offering the 218 Relocate award program. It invites people to move to the 218 area code in northern Minnesota, and provides reimbursement for moving and/or telecommuting expenses of up to $2,500, as well as telecommuting support and tools, as well as the "all-fiber Gigabit Internet service" available in the city and Bell Most areas of Telami County.
Erin Echternach, assistant director of GBED, said she is trying to sell "the infrastructure we have here that allows people to work remotely."
So far, 22 people have accepted Bemidji's proposal. She said, "We don't think it will stop this trend of telecommuting" because she has seen that "employers have a lot of flexibility in telecommuting."
Bemidji is just one of 40 remote commuters! A city or city/county combination certified by the Minnesota Broadband Development Office in a statewide activity aimed at promoting telecommuting for employers and workers. The city or county must assign at least one employee to the project and is determined to promote a "policy that is friendly to remote commuters (to improve) the quality of life of employees...the economic innovation and vitality of communities across Minnesota."
At the same time, the Northwest Kansas State Economic Innovation Center and the S&T Telecom Cooperative began sponsoring telecommunications skills and remote work training programs in 26 counties in northwest Kansas in early 2020.
Scott Stroul said the rural and remote apprenticeship program is designed to attract remote work or provide additional training for existing remote work. He helps participants obtain training, Internet services, equipment, appropriate working space, and other needs in order to become a successful remote worker.
Stroul said participants worked hard to obtain an online "work preparation certificate" and participated in the required computer coding training. He reported that the program has provided work for about 25 people in recent months. Some people work from home, and some people work in co-workers' spaces or shared offices.
He said that Rural & Remote hopes to help "family who have good broadband in their farm homes... (and) families who are looking for additional income to support their farms."
Next week, the second part of this series will explore how broadband and community colleges can be the key to rural rebirth.
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This week’s Open Mic guest is Jon Doggett, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Corn growers in the country are concerned about supply chain issues and the availability of fertilizers and crop protection products for the 2022 crop season. Doggett said that when considering the environmental impact on endangered species, it is important to listen to farmers' voices on fertilizer tariffs and EPA agreements that restrict supply. Doggett said that farmers and rural investors have fulfilled their obligations to provide raw materials and processing capacity to meet the renewable fuel production targets set out in the renewable fuel standards, and they hope the EPA will implement the law. He hopes to see a regulatory environment for carbon storage and compensation, and hopes that the Biden administration can actively maintain and increase the global market opportunities for US corn supplies.
The House of Representatives passed an important piece of legislation crucial to advancing President Joe Biden’s agenda this week, but it did not receive any Republican votes. Don Bacon, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, reacted to the passage of the bill and discussed why he chose to support the infrastructure bill signed earlier this week.
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