Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Two Community Leaders Respond On Rural Aging Problem

March 5, 2007

I am a small town ag lender, volunteer firefighter and First Responder in rural Kansas. I live this situation every day.

Consolidation. First of all, we do seem to have enough young farmers to replace those that are retiring. I've been in rural ag banking since 1987, and although that has been a well voiced concern, it hasn't happened. Obviously, with larger farms we need fewer operators. The loss of farmers, being replaced by larger neighboring operations, has been ongoing at least since my dad farmed in the 50's.

Actually, you see that in all areas of commerce, not just farming. We have fewer grocery stores, fewer gas stations, fewer banks, fewer farmers, etc. etc. That won't change.

We are seeing a few small farm enterprises developing, usually tied to a specialty product, which is great, but the overall trend won't change much due to the economic factors that drive the consolidation. At least for the foreseeable future, with positive grain prices, some smaller operators will be able to hold on longer as there is profit at today's commodity prices, which again is positive.

Banks struggle. As a small town, rural banker, the aging population affects several things. First of all, when they die, their money leaves town because the kids don't live here anymore.

The population of older people were conservative; and saved and lived frugally. Those traits have served them well, but those assets are liquidated and dispersed when they die, or have to pay for nursing home care. So there have been some banks that have struggled with liquidity problems in small, aging communities.

Medical care. We have a nursing home near my home. Their census has been down and often below break even the past few years. They are a large employer in town, second only probably to the school system. The need for medical care is taking our seniors to larger towns.

They are more and more choosing to live in the next nearby "large" town because there are care services and medical professionals there. For us, that means Newton, which is home to four large retirement home communities, lots of doctors, and a hospital. Obviously, when they leave, they don't come back, which furthers the decline in our population and tax base. And we miss their wisdom, wit, humor, and economic impact.

Shrinking demographics. As the coffee shop gang ages and moves away or dies, we lose our coffee shop/cafe too. And our rural churches suffer. Many now share a pastor with another church or another town, as their members and offerings decrease. Again, although I am by nature a very optimistic and encouraging person, I must say that this isn't going to change.

Basic economics and demographics are at play, and I paid attention during my economics classes in college. Small towns - with rare exceptions - will continue to shrink, and at times disappear.

Volunteer fireman and emergency services. I am also a volunteer fireman. The declining population is really starting to hurt in this area. Especially in EMS work. It's just a constant struggle to have people, and people who are available daytime hours. We often only have 2 firemen available during the day. Mutual aid is 10 to 15 minutes away.

And again, it's getting worse. Fire districts are consolidating like the school districts have. The local Coop is often a source of many of our volunteers, but Coops are consolidating and eliminating locations also. I don't have answers, but I think we need to be realistic and plan for more of the same, as nothing indicates this trend will turn around.

This next letter is also from ag lender who is a local elder care program volunteer in rural North Dakota.

Loss of local allegiance. The 1980's were the most catastrophic years to ever clobber rural America. What happened was loyalties shifted from mostly local to little local. Small town main street was the obvious first casualty but public schools, local government entities, agricultural commodity stations - such as grain elevators and stockyards - and even churches are increasingly dealing with fickle and critical customer/patrons.

This pattern will only continue. Over the last decade "globalization" has been probably the most extreme philosophy but is certainly of the same cloth. The bar has been raised for expectations and fierce competition will keep a peaceful local status gone forever.

In a small town all is up for grabs as the traditional community has been thrown out the window. The problem is your traditional small town leadership cadre: a minister, local doctor, banker, attorney, shop owner - even the newspaper publisher, will probably give up the fight and cash out for greener, and certainly, more peaceful pastures.

At the local level what I see is local entities retreating to a single issue, almost cult-like approach, toward the community. (He gives examples of teacher’s associations and senior citizen center groups acting as advocates).

Does this make sense to have an organized community within a community of several hundred people? Why must loneliness and helplessness be solved through a victim mind set encouraged and enabled by government? Why must "Us versus Them" be the new coin of the realm?

I honestly believe the only path is to keep things local, accountable and to manage a better community for all.