Rural development

Marcie and I alternate between a house in town (4 days a week) and our farm three days a week.

One of the things that bugs me about the farm is how difficult it is for people to make a living in rural America. It seems to me that just like there's a pretty strong tide running in the “outsourcing” trend, there's also a trend that ultimately leaves rural America empty — except for “gentleman farmers” like me.

Lots of people have observed this before me, but now I'm a part of a rural community, so I devote a little more of my time working on the problem. Here's a story that just ran about Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and some strategies that small rural towns are adopting in order to retain their younger generation.

I hate to be a grouch, but I don't think this kind of thing is going to work. The underlying economic forces are so strong that efforts like these strike me as wishful thinking.

I hope to be wrong on this one, but as I've poked around in my Western Wisconsin county, I have discovered that there's no business-starting infrastructure left. The local banks have all been sold to regionals, as have the bedrock main-street businesses (the phone company, electric company, grain elevator, etc.). Big-boxes are killing the local retailers.

More than just brains are fleeing — capital is too. Used to be that farmer-capital would get reinvested in local projects (a meat packing plant or a window manufacturing company). Now, when farmers sell their land (which they didn't used to do), the money winds up in a Fidelity account and invested in the usual-suspect portfolio.

As a tech guy, I've been involved in the rural development discussion for years, mostly focusing on the need for broadband Internet. Internet is often painted as the economic savior for rural America. Sorry kids, but this isn't going to cut it — any job you can do over the wire in Western Wisconsin can be outsourced to a place with much lower wages. Don't bet the ranch on that idea. Sure, you have to have Internet as a precondition for lots of other things, but it isn't going to float the boat.

Sorry to be such a grouch — but that article started this little cascade and I had to get it off my chest.