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Rural Towns Banking on More than Just Farming to Survive

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Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media
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Kristie and Drew Harper opened a small bistro in Brookfield, Missouri. Town leaders are courting other businesses in an effort to grow the local economy.

The town of Brookfield, Missouri, in the north-central part of the state is a close-knit community. Population: about 4,500. Becky Cleveland, who grew up in town, says the area looks a little different today.

“When I was a kid, like I said, there was four grocery stores,” she says. Today there is just one and a nearby Wal-Mart.

Walking down Main Street past a few vacant storefronts among the businesses, it’s plain to see the town isn’t in its prime any more. Brookfield, though, is more vibrant than many other rural towns, Cleveland says. Rural life used to be centered around the farm, but farms today don’t work like they used to, which has caused a drop in jobs and left some small towns struggling for survival.

Cleveland’s job is to make sure Brookfield stays on the map by preserving the current businesses there and adding more. She’s the economic development coordinator and she has a strategy.

Like many rural towns, Brookfield’s top moneymakers in decades past were agriculture, transportation and manufacturing. While those businesses still exist today, each of those industries has taken a hit. The town lost an auto plant. The railroad is less vibrant. And farming just isn’t bringing as much to the town as it used to.

“We in rural areas have had to try to reinvent ourselves to stay viable and sustainable,” Cleveland says.  

Brookfield’s story is a familiar one for thousands of towns across rural America where farmers were once an economic force. It mostly comes down to technology. Thanks to advances like herbicide-resistant seeds and more efficient tractors, farms need fewer employees. The number of farms jobs in the U.S. plummeted by 14 percent between 2001-2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“What does that mean for a rural community?” asks Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, who says there’s a ripple effect. “How are you going to sell insurance if those people aren't there? How are you going to have a bank if those people aren't there? How are you going to have a grocery store?”

Pair that with young people fleeing to cities, Hendrickson says, and you have small towns fading away.

“These things just kind of work in tandem,” she says. “So we have to ask a lot of questions about what's the future of rural development for these farming dependent counties.”

Pat Curry with University of Missouri Extension says rural towns need to take a concerted approach to building sustainability.

“It's going out there and trying to get people to realize that you need that diversified economy,” he says. “Because in those counties where agriculture is dominant right now, it's just going to take a couple of bad years.”

Rural areas need to diversify their economic options, Curry says, so the economy stays somewhat protected if one of their industries takes a hit. In some of the most productive farming counties in the Midwest, agriculture isn’t even the biggest industry, Curry says. Why?

“It’s because they have other things going on,” he says. “Their economy includes manufacturing industries. They may have a prison, because there are a lot of jobs at that prison – as many as 500 or 600 jobs.”

Rural towns do have assets, like a ready workforce, a central location, or affordable land, and they have to sell all kinds of businesses on relocating.

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Credit Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media
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Becky Cleveland, the economic development coordinator for Brookfield, Missouri, says diversifying the town’s economy is paramount in sustaining the future of the rural community.

Brookfield, Missouri, is betting its economic survival on teaming up with neighboring towns. They want to entice new factories and draw tourists to what they’ve dubbed the American Genius Highway along which Walt Disney and Mark Twain grew up, and foster entrepreneurship.

Kristie and Drew Harper have bought into the Brookfield vision. They own a new bistro on Main Street after moving from Seattle to buy some land and grow their own food for their family. They see their shop as adding a little Pacific Northwest to rural Missouri.

“(We wanted to) create a little bistro -- a little place where we can do art and we can do live music on Thursdays and Fridays,” Drew Harper says. “We can feed our family and feed Brookfield.”

Kristie Harper says they are learning the ins and outs of being business owners in a small town, and still have some kinks to iron out.

We are not used to this small of a town,” she says. “When there is an event in a town 10 miles away, everyone for 100 miles is there.”                      

Ultimately, economic development coordinator Becky Cleveland says encouraging business, education and health care leaders in Brookfield to coordinate with each other is key. Instead of working independently to improve life in the community, cooperating together with a singular strategy can amplify the message.

In Brookfield, one example is how its leaders are trying to care for the aging population. Many of lack health care, assisted living facilities and the infrastructure to support their lives. By working together, Town leaders are pushing their state legislators to get more broadband access for health care providers, allowing the rural population to get care via telemedicine so people don’t have to drive two hours or move for health care.

“That needs to be a big focus because a lot of our parents want to spend the rest of their lives where they grew up, where they earned a living and where they raised a family” Cleveland says. “When I talk about being smart about development, you have to be able to look at what’s lacking to be able to try to build that.”

Educators work hard to retain their young people, planting the seed early in high school students that it’s okay to return to your hometown after college. At graduation, the students receive a DVD slide show following their journey beginning with early grade school photos -- all scored with emotionally engaging music. A section of the slide show touts many of the graduates who have returned and where they are working now. It ends with an “unending invitation” from the entire community to make Brookfield their home again.

Brookfield also has a leadership training program, in which educators teach residents how to be strong leaders for their community. Cleveland says it not only helps people feel more of a sense of responsibility to the preservation of their community and its economy, but fresh ideas for making the area more livable develop from the residents themselves.

Kristofor Husted is a senior reporter at KBIA in Columbia, Mo. Previously Husted reported for NPR’s Science Desk in Washington and Harvest Public Media. Husted was a 2013 fellow with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and a 2015 fellow for the Institute for Journalism and Justice. He’s won regional and national Edward R. Murrow, PRNDI and Sigma Delta Chi awards. Husted also is an instructor at the Missouri School of Journalism. He received a B.S. in cell biology from UC Davis and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University.