Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media
The town of Brookfield in north-central Missouri is a tight-knit community of about 4,500 residents.
Becky Cleveland, who grew up here, says when she was a child there were four grocery stores. Today there is only one and a nearby Wal-Mart.
The vacant windows on Main Street make it clear that the city is no longer at its peak. Like many rural towns, Brookfield’s major silver producers over the past decades have been agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. While these industries still exist today, each has taken a hit. The city has lost an automobile factory. The station is no longer busy. And agriculture is not earning as much as it used to be.
This story is familiar to thousands of cities across rural America. It mostly boils down to technology – with advancements like herbicide-resistant seeds and more efficient tractors, farms need fewer workers. The number of agricultural jobs in the United States fell 14 percent between 2001 and 2013, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“What does this mean for a rural community? ” demand Marie hendrickson, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, who says there is a ripple effect. “How are you going to sell insurance if these people aren’t there? How are you going to have a bank if these people are not there? How are you going to have a grocery store?
Pair that with young people fleeing to cities, says Hendrickson, and you end up with small towns that just disappear. “These things sort of work in tandem,” she says. “We must therefore ask ourselves a lot of questions about the future of rural development in these counties dependent on agriculture.”
That is why rural towns must take a concerted approach to build sustainability, says Pat curry, with the extension of the University of Missouri. Rural areas need to diversify their economic options, he says, so that the economy remains somewhat protected if any of their industries are affected.
In some of the Midwest’s most productive farming counties, farming isn’t even the biggest industry, says Curry. “They have other things going on. Their economy includes manufacturing industries,” he says. Or, “they can have a prison,” which can employ up to 500 or 600 people.
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media
And so, rural communities must reinvent themselves to remain viable and sustainable, says Cleveland, economic development coordinator in Brookfield, Missouri. Her job is to make sure her city stays on the map by supporting existing small businesses and encouraging more economic development. .
And Brookfield has also partnered with neighboring towns to attract tourists to what they have dubbed the American Genius Highway, along which Walt Disney and Mark Twain grew up.
Kristie and Drew Harper, who recently moved to Brookfield from Seattle, embraced this bright new vision for the city’s future. The couple own a new bistro on Main Street. “[It’s] a little place where we can do art and we can do live music on Thursdays and Fridays, ”says Drew. They also bought a small piece of land, which they use to grow their own food for their families. “We can feed our family and feed Brookfield,” he adds.
Of course, they still have a lot to learn about running a business in a small rural town. They have some issues to sort out, Kristie says.
Ultimately, it’s critical to encourage business, education and healthcare leaders in Brookfield to collaborate and support each other, says Cleveland. The city lacks health centers and assisted living facilities to support the local aging population, for example. So, city leaders are working together to push state legislators to provide broadband access to local health care providers, enabling rural people to obtain care through telemedicine.
Meanwhile, educators are working to retain their youngsters and convince high school students that it is good to go home after college. Upon graduation, these students receive DVD slideshows filled with elementary school photos and tagged with emotional music. A section of the slideshow features many graduates who have returned to this city. It ends with an “endless invitation” from the entire community to make Brookfield their home again.
This story comes from Harvest public media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production. Kristofor Husted is based at the KBIA member station in Columbia, Missouri.