Dr. Val Farmer
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Preparing Rural Youths For The Future

April 7, 2011

What should rural schools do to prepare young people for daily life? What kind of skills do they need to be versatile enough to fit into the global economy and yet make a good life for themselves in a small town environment if they so choose? In light of the risks and pressures in operating a farm or ranch, what would you say to young people about preparing for a future in agriculture?

Smaller communities in the Midwest are fighting for their very existence. Rural out-migration is a reality. Parents watch their population base shrink. They are ambivalent about whether they would even want their own children to return. They have managed a good life for themselves but look ahead and don’t see a meaningful future for their children.

Here is my advice:

To youths and parents who envision a life in a family business. Parents who encourage their children to come back some day are those who have viable enterprises that are solid economically and can maintain their niche despite the population shrinkage.

To these youth I would say, you may plan to step into a family business some day, but you need to find success in another environment. Develop skills that are transferable to the mainstream economy, and develop complementary skills that give the family business more power to compete. Prepare a second career as an edge and as a source of auxiliary income or to supplement the family business income.

Your success will be in your ability to have vision as the economic environment and opportunities change. You will probably be a leader in your home community and will need all of the speaking and persuasion skills you can command to fill the roles you will be asked to play.

Stay away as long as you can and make sure there is a personality fit in the family business. Hopefully you will find a spouse who understands and appreciates rural community life and the sacrifices that go with entrepreneurship.

To parents who want their children to succeed no matter where they live, this is what I would want in a school curriculum.

- High tech and computer savvy will put the children squarely in the middle of the information age. There is a world class education available at our fingertips. The world of e-commerce is transforming the way we live and the way to make money. Children need technical know-how plus a vision of the Internet and its power for connecting people and markets world-wide.

- Many information-age businesses are location neutral and young people with skills can choose where they will live. Many private consultants with their own businesses or even employees of large companies can telecommute to their work site. This is a new world where imagination rules.

- Take advantage of opportunities to expose youth to their peers from other communities and bigger cities. Use summer camps, vacations and leadership programs as they grow so they can develop a comfort zone about being in places other than their hometown. This will give them self-confidence for living away from home and taking advantage of opportunities wherever they might be.

- A great deal of youth development takes place in extra-curricular activities, both school and community based. Get teens involved in programs with a purpose and allow them to develop leadership and team-building skills as they work together.

To parents and school administrators who want to prepare children for rural life as an option.

- Help rural teens to appreciate rural values and literature as they portray a distinctive way of life with logic and value in its own right. This can be done with exposure through English and Social Studies programs that take regional and local literature and history as a part of their course of study.

- Through programs on entrepreneurship, connect them with local people who are successful and outstanding in their fields and businesses from a local base. Expose them to examples of how to think globally and live locally. If there is a future in small towns, it will belong to the entrepreneurs and those individuals who find a niche and excel in their field of chosen endeavor.

- Have a youth-friendly community. Serve them. Give them opportunities to serve the community. Help them feel connected to the community before they leave. People love what they serve. Their memories of their own family life and having positive experiences in a rural community will exert a pull on them as they assess career opportunities.

To parents, church leaders and school administrators.

- Rural teens can focus too much on teen drinking and entertainment without catching the urgency of having a quality education. There can be too much complacency that is not good for the world they are about to enter. Youth need parents and educators who push them to excel and to be goal-oriented.

- Sports consciousness can be too powerful and occupy the minds and energies of youth and parents at the expense of an education that will make a difference. Sports need to be handled in moderation. Other facets of the curriculum need appropriate emphasis.

- Finally, family life and religious education is important to help youth succeed no matter where they live to avoid the pitfalls of debt, sexual mistakes, cohabitation and poor marriages. Without being grounded in good values, youths can make a mess of their lives that will make career success even more arduous and personal happiness elusive.