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IS THE AMER­I­CAN DREAM STILL ALIVE IN RU­RAL AMER­ICA?

Successful Farming - - FRONT PAGE - By Gil Gul­lick­son, Crops Tech­nol­ogy Ed­i­tor Ty­pog­ra­phy by Daniel Pelavin

The 2009 book de­tails the rea­sons young peo­ple leave ru­ral ar­eas. Of­ten, it’s the com­mu­nity’s adults who en­cour­age it.

“Ba­si­cally, the straight-A stu­dents are told to go away and never come back. It’s only the losers who stay, right?” says the Lang­ford na­tive and vice pres­i­dent of ad­vance­ment with Dakota Re­sources, a non­profit com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“I never felt that way,” says the 1985 grad­u­ate of Lang­ford High School. “I al­ways felt like I had a place here if I wanted to come back. My hus­band had an op­por­tu­nity to buy an auto re­pair busi­ness, and it just seemed like a nat­u­ral fit. I al­ways knew that if I had a fam­ily, I wanted to raise them near their grand­par­ents and aunts and un­cles.”

Jensen’s not alone. Each spring, she speaks to ru­ral South Dakota high school stu­dents and asks how many of them would choose to live in their com­mu­ni­ties if they could.

“I was in Lang­ford a few weeks ago, and 80% of them raised their hands,” she says. “When I go across the state, it’s al­ways more than 50%. In some smaller com­mu­ni­ties, it’s 98%.”

Mark Nel­son, a loan of­fi­cer with Grow South Dakota (a non­profit eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment group) and a Lang­ford farmer, sees sim­i­lar re­sponses when he speaks to Lang­ford stu­dents.

“I find it in­ter­est­ing that the se­niors also ex­press their ideas on pro­jects that will af­fect Lang­ford’s fu­ture,” says Nel­son, a 2005 Lang­ford Area High School grad­u­ate. “Our youth are will­ing to come back. The fu­ture is promis­ing if we can re­tain them or give them an op­por­tu­nity to come back.”

FARM­ING IS STILL KEY

On a typ­i­cal day, farm equip­ment rum­bles down Lang­ford’s streets. Farm­ers grum­ble about crop prices, and a split-sec­ond later, they smile about how great their corn crop looks. Folks drink cof­fee in The Front Porch café and talk sports and pol­i­tics.

In short, it’s akin to the thou­sands of other small towns that dot ru­ral Amer­ica. (Full dis­clo­sure: Lang­ford is my home­town.)

Many such towns face a turn­ing point. John Ik­erd, a re­tired Univer­sity of Mis­souri agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist, sees the ru­ral mood as “a grow­ing sense of im­po­tence and dread.” Ul­ti­mately, a pos­i­tive ru­ral fu­ture hinges on ru­ral res­i­dents tak­ing the fu­ture into their own hands and work­ing to­gether for their com­mu­nity’s com­mon good, says Ik­erd.

This isn’t easy. Through the years, farm con­sol­i­da­tion has clipped pop­u­la­tion, school size, and busi­nesses. Bruce Lik­ness re­calls a packed Main Street on Wed­nes­day and Sat­ur­day nights in Lang­ford when he was a teenager in the 1950s.

“You couldn’t find a park­ing place on Main

Street,” re­calls Lik­ness, who, along with his wife, Jean, is a life­long Lang­ford res­i­dent. Still, change hap­pens. “I don’t know how we would have pre­vented or slowed down the trans­for­ma­tion in agri­cul­ture,” adds Lik­ness, whose fam­ily owned a farm im­ple­ment deal­er­ship at Lang­ford and nearby Brit­ton lo­ca­tions from the 1940s into the 2000s. “You would like to go back, but no one wants to go back to an (In­ter­na­tional) M trac­tor or a John Deere 70 trac­tor. The Amer­i­can psy­che of hav­ing the big­gest and best comes into play.”

Yet, Lang­ford has been, is, and will al­ways be a farm­ing com­mu­nity. David Planteen started farm­ing in the mid-1980s af­ter he grad­u­ated from South Dakota State Univer­sity.

“When I got mar­ried, our farm was not big enough to sup­port two fam­i­lies,” says the 1979 Lang­ford High School grad­u­ate.

So, he started work­ing as a loan of­fi­cer at the First

State Bank in nearby Clare­mont in 2002 be­fore trans- fer­ring to the Lang­ford State Bank in 2009. He also sells crop in­sur­ance, serves as the school board pres­i­dent of the Lang­ford Area Pub­lic School (LAPS), and is start­ing his 33rd year of of­fi­ci­at­ing high school sports.

“My dad had the fore­sight to say that even if you’re com­ing back to the farm, get an ed­u­ca­tion,” says Planteen. “He said your farm can be taken away from you, but your ed­u­ca­tion can’t.”

SCHOOL IS AN AN­CHOR

Bill John­son, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Farm Credit MidAmer­ica, says school con­sol­i­da­tion that leaves small towns with­out their school plays a sad but pre­dictable role. “Other busi­nesses then con­sol­i­date, and over time, the size of the com­mu­nity de­creases,” he says.

Lang­ford faced this dilemma around 20 years ago. Its ju­nior high and high school build­ing – built in 1926 – was fall­ing apart. Lang­ford’s pop­u­la­tion had steadily

Sev­eral steps taken in the past 15 years have helped sus­tain Lang­ford’s busi­nesses, says Paula Jensen.

eroded from a peak of 510 res­i­dents in the 1920 cen­sus to a low of 290 cit­i­zens in the 2000 cen­sus.

Af­ter con­sid­er­able de­bate, Lang­ford res­i­dents swal­lowed hard and built a new school build­ing. Skep­tics abounded.

“I was work­ing at the bank at that time, and I had a lot of peo­ple who would come in and say, ‘Your kids are never go­ing to get to grad­u­ate from high school in Lang­ford. There won’t be any school here in 20 years,’ ” says Jensen.

For­tu­nately, the pop­u­la­tion de­cline stopped. In the 2010 cen­sus, the pop­u­la­tion ac­tu­ally rose a bit to 313. The stu­dent pop­u­la­tion since 2000 has re­mained steady, bob­bing be­tween 188 to 222 for K-12 stu­dents. Some high school classes have had only eight stu­dents, while oth­ers have had 24.

Ge­og­ra­phy helped. “We’re a bridge be­tween three big­ger towns: Brit­ton, Gro­ton, and Web­ster,” says Planteen. Stu­dents who pre­fer a smaller high school of­ten opt for Lang­ford, he says. Lang­ford has also picked up stu­dents when smaller area schools closed.

Lang­ford’s fac­ulty also helps, says Jensen. “I think the teach­ers here in­still a level of ex­cel­lence,” says Jensen. She cites Kelly Wieser, the school’s long­time mu­sic teacher, as an ex­am­ple.

“Just yes­ter­day, a lit­tle boy came in here who was rais­ing money to go to mu­sic camp,” says Jensen. “She en­cour­ages stu­dents to do those kinds of things to make them­selves bet­ter.”

At­tract­ing teach­ers isn’t easy, as South Dakota of­ten ranks at the na­tion’s bot­tom for teacher pay. One fac­tor that helps Lang­ford bat­tle this is its school’s rep­u­ta­tion.

“There is a re­ally strong com­mit­ment that the com­mu­nity has to this school,” says Monte Nipp, LAPS su­per­in­ten­dent. “We had a teacher re­tire at the New­port (Hut­terite) Colony School (in Lang­ford’s school dis­trict), and I was wor­ried about how many ap­pli­cants we were go­ing to get. Well, we ended up in­ter­view­ing six. The word is out that peo­ple want to teach at Lang­ford.”

This year, 68% of the school dis­trict’s vot­ers passed a $3.4 mil­lion project for an ad­di­tion that will in­clude a new mu­sic room, a stu­dent and com­mu­nity well­ness cen­ter, a mul­ti­pur­pose gym, a special ed­u­ca­tion fa­cil­ity up­date, and fa­cil­ity main­te­nance. This time, few – if any – neg­a­tive voices spoke at five pub­lic meet­ings re­gard­ing the ad­di­tion.

“In­stead, it was a mes­sage of ‘Let’s make our fa­cil­i­ties ready for the fu­ture be­cause we want to keep at­tract­ing those fam­i­lies and stu­dents who want to come to a small school set­ting,’ ” says Nipp.

BUILD­ING BUSI­NESSES

“Peo­ple once thought we were go­ing to be­come a buf­faloroam­ing com­mu­nity be­cause there’d be noth­ing left,” says Nel­son. “I think we have more busi­nesses and in­vest­ment on Main Street than when I grad­u­ated from high school 13 years ago. We em­brace our lo­cal en­trepreneurs.”

Chad Hardy op­er­ates a thriv­ing lum­ber­yard. Stu­art and Krissa Sam­son started County Line Seed in 2012, and they mar­ket in­puts like seed and pre­ci­sion farm­ing equip­ment to area farm­ers. Mean­while, Jor­dan Deutsch founded a hunt­ing cam­ou­flage busi­ness called Fallin’ Fowl Camo.

Sev­eral steps taken in the past 15 years have helped sus­tain

Lang­ford’s busi­nesses, says Jensen. Glacial Lakes Area De­vel­op­ment helps sup­port lo­cal in­di­vid­u­als and in­dus­tries with tools like busi­ness de­vel­op­ment goals. In 2008, Lang­ford started a foun­da­tion that earns $10,000 an­nu­ally for com­mu­nity project grants. The Front Porch, a 5,000-square-foot fa­cil­ity, opened in 2015. It houses four new busi­nesses, in­clud­ing a restau­rant and bar. Fund­ing came in the form of loans from eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment en­ti­ties, lo­cal bank fund­ing, cash do­na­tions, and stock pur­chases from 110 area in­vestors.

A day­care spawned from a 2000 state pro­gram also sup­ports the com­mu­nity.

“I think it said some­thing to the com­mu­nity; namely, we care about fam­i­lies, we care about our kids, and we want to keep peo­ple here,” says Jensen.

It’s chal­leng­ing, though, to main­tain traf­fic for busi­nesses. “It might be packed in The Front Porch for din­ner on Mother’s Day,” says Lik­ness. On some nights, though, just a hand­ful of cus­tomers are present, he notes.

Hous­ing is an­other hurdle. On the sur­face, cheap hous­ing sounds great. Dig deeper, though, and these of­tendi­lap­i­dated houses cre­ate a tran­sient pop­u­la­tion.

“They are of­ten not com­mu­ni­ty­minded cit­i­zens,” says Jensen.

Nel­son says new peo­ple and for­mer res­i­dents want to move back, but of­ten they have no house to move back to. Mean­while, some­one has to in­cur the cost of tear­ing down di­lap­i­dated houses to make room for new ones.

“I would say the vast ma­jor­ity of South Dakota is not over­built, but un­der de­mol­ished,” says Nel­son.

THE NEW RU­RAL

“Iof think the phi­los­o­phy the new ru­ral is that we can’t re-cre­ate what we grew up with or what our par­ents or grand­par­ents grew up with,” says Jensen. “We don’t re­mem­ber those crowded Wed­nes­day and Sat­ur­day nights when peo­ple would come to shop on a packed Main Street.”

On the plus side, a Lang­ford Area Lions boy’s high school bas­ket­ball game – fea­tur­ing a team that’s made it to eight of the last 11 state bas­ket­ball tour­na­ments – still draws a crowd. Fans typ­i­cally have to park their cars up to four blocks away from the rafter-packed gym­na­sium.

“We need to be think­ing about the fu­ture and look to our younger gen­er­a­tion about what we need to cre­ate for this com­mu­nity,” says Jensen.

“The phi­los­o­phy of the new ru­ral is that we can’t re-cre­ate what we grew up with,” says Paula Jensen.

Paula Jensen

Be­sides bank­ing and farm­ing, Mark Nel­son is right at home in the foot­ball field tower as the voice of the Lang­ford Area Lions dur­ing foot­ball sea­son.

David Planteen

Gil Gul­lick­son is the Crops Tech­nol­ogy Ed­i­tor for Suc­cess­ful Farm­ing and our web­site, Agri­cul­ture.com. You can reach him at Gil.Gul­lick­son@ mered­ith.com. Fol­low him onTwit­ter at @GilGul­lick­son.

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