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On the Plains, There's Room Outside the Box

by Pete Letheby

Amid all the angst over the economic and population decline of the rural Great Plains, many of the region's people and businesses are gambling on problematic ventures that likely do more harm than good.

Corporate livestock feedlots? Nothing degrades quality of life faster than stinky air and tainted water. Corn ethanol production? Its negatives seemingly mount daily, from a huge appetite for diminishing groundwater to budget-busting government subsidies to questionable energy benefits.

Besides the industrialization of agriculture, perhaps the biggest contributor to rural decline is a deep-rooted resistance to change. That is evident in the Plains' 150-year marriage to agriculture and the region's suspicion of economic and social diversity.

Tradition and conservatism have their place. But if the Midwest's rural communities want to thrive, their residents must step out of their comfort zone.

The Switzer family near Burwell, Neb., population 1,130, has done that.

When a youthful Adam Switzer returned to his family's ranch a few years ago, he sensed that the traditional cattle herd might not cut it economically anymore. Then he realized the ranch had something else of value: prairie chickens, a phenomenon that birdwatchers will pay money to view in the wild. The ranch had other assets: spring-fed streams for canoeists, prime habitat for hunters, wide-open spaces for riders on horseback.

So the Switzers built a few cabins, then a few more. Now there are 70 lodging units and the Switzers can hardly keep up with the reservations. The recreation venture long ago passed cattle ranching as the family's most profitable business.

"Every year we are finding a new resource that can generate income," Adam Switzer says.

For Nebraska and a dozen other heartland states, enterprises like the Switzers' offer promise.

A September 2006 study led by Ernie Niemi of ECONorthwest of Eugene, Ore., urges Nebraskans to seek more amenity-driven growth. Instead of emptying its dwindling groundwater reservoir for crop irrigation summer after summer, for example, the state should preserve water for healthy streams and lakes which, in turn, can be a foundation for ecotourism, recreation and an attractive quality of life, Niemi says.

Not every risk-taker will succeed like the Switzers, and Niemi isn't suggesting that Plains states mothball all their combines and planters. But if rural Midwesterners hope to endure, they must think outside the box more often.

The Switzers aren't the only ones who already are:

  • The health benefits of grass-fed beef prompted Kevin Fulton, a former nationally renowned weightlifter and strength coach at the University of Colorado, to shut down his irrigated cornfields near Litchfield, Neb., and switch to ranching. Five years later Fulton has markets nationwide for his naturally raised beef, which has up to 50 percent less fat than grain-fed beef.
  • The dark, unpolluted skies of the vast Sandhills, nearly 24,000 square miles of unique grassland in north-central and western Nebraska, have inspired an unexpected enterprise: annual stargazing parties. Nearly all Sandhills lodging resorts now promote stargazing.
  • Jeff Schelkopf of Blue Hill, Neb., admits he was "scared to death" when he purchased the site of an abandoned industrial hog farm and built Blue Valley Aquaculture. Now in its third year, Blue Valley's steelhead trout and catfish have gotten rave reviews and are sold statewide.
  • St. James, a defunct community in northeastern Nebraska, is back on the map after five enterprising women bought the old schoolhouse and created the St. James Marketplace, which now has more than 60 vendors from Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa.

Recognizing new opportunities like these, organizations are cropping up to support farmers and rural entrepreneurs willing to take a chance.

They include the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development in Ames, Iowa; the Heartland Center for Leadership Development in Lincoln, Neb., which focuses on rural leadership training and community survival; the Rural Policy Research Institute in Columbia, Mo.; Minnesota Rural Partners, in St. Paul; and the elder statesman of such groups, the Center for Rural Affairs, which dropped "Nebraska" from its name because its focus is now regional, even national.

All this doesn't represent an overwhelming trend. But it does offer possibilities in a part of the country that has been losing hope.

As Midwestern risk-takers are showing, the time has arrived for new ideas. An increasing number of rural heartlanders now know that beating the same old drum will only accelerate their region's decline.

Pete Letheby is a newspaper editor and columnist in Grand Island, Neb. He wrote this comment for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kansas.

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