Rural America is fighting for its survival.
The 2010 Census found that the share of people in rural areas over the past decade fell to 16 percent, passing the previous low of 20 percent in 2000. The rural population is aging, and young people are moving away.
Citing a “severe crisis,” President Obama even created a White House Rural Council to find ways to spur economic growth in small communities.
But the best ideas for renewing rural America may not come from the top.
That’s the thinking behind the “Big Rural Brainstorm,” which brought together about 200 people earlier this year in Newton.The two-day event generated a lot of discussion on how to help small towns stay vibrant and relevant in an increasingly urban world. Most of the attendees came from small towns scattered across Kansas, but some who live in larger cities came because they, too, are committed to renewing rural America.
"Everything is about ‘out of the box’ thinking,” said Marci Penner, the conference organizer. “It's largely about volunteer-led communities, which are 75 percent of the cities in Kansas.”
But it’s not easy to brainstorm ideas with 200 people. And so, several times throughout the event, the large gathering would break into a dozen or so smaller groups — each one tackling a specific issue related to renewing rural communities, such as dwindling populations, a lack of jobs and entertainment.
To ensure everyone remained positive, Penner armed every participant with a yellow card, like the kind used in soccer to indicate a foul.
"We feel that if someone's being negative, or draining the group with their comments, or dominating, then the yellow card, just lifted up,” she said. “It's sort of a signal to that person that you need to either change your negative statement to a constructive one, or just watch what you're doing.”
Pete Ferrell, a cattle rancher from Beaumont, Kan., took part in a small discussion on how to connect producers of local food products with people who want to buy those products.
This group was trying to figure out a way to create an online food map for local products — a virtual farmers market. Creating a web site with a local food map might not sound that hard, but there are legal considerations, health regulations and questions about product distribution.
Meanwhile, other groups tackled topics such as: How can small towns build better, more cohesive communities? How do small towns keep residents and attract new ones, particularly young people?
The Big Rural Brainstorm itself attracted young people —about 25 percent of those gathered in Newton were under age 35.
One of them was Christy Hopkins, of Tribune, Kan. She works as the community development director for Greeley County, which is one of the most rural communities in the state.
“There is just something magical about knowing everyone around you and knowing that a community's going to look out for you. It's a safe, welcoming environment where people know you and they'll take care of you," Hopkins said.
Matthew and Lindsey Deaver, of Lawrence, also attended the Big Rural Brainstorm. They plan to leave city life at some point to return to their roots.
“We want to be in a smaller community because that's where we were raised and so, we're completely sold on that,” Lindsey Deaver said.
Matthew Deaver said what holds them back is “our ability to create a job there.”
Clearly, the Big Rural Brainstorm participants were sold on rural life. But did the two-day commitment come up with that one big idea that will sell other people on the idea of choosing to be rural?
"I think the one big idea was that we should not have one big idea," Penner said recently.
Most importantly, she said, the Big Rural Brainstorm showed the key to revitalizing rural communities lies within the people who already live there.
"We need to encourage — especially our volunteer-led communities — to not wait for anything to happen from above. They've just got to go in and make it happen for themselves,” Penner said. “I think this kind of event really encouraged that kind of response."
Some communities across Kansas have already responded by holding local brainstorming events of their own.
Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.