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rswfarms
Senior Contributor

Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Below is an article on the death of the rural Iowa small towns. It is occurring all across small town States in the cornbelt, nothing is new here, but it is increasing at a little faster rate than thought. Any thoughts? Article is below:

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Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed?

 

More than half of Iowa counties are dying, with deaths surpassing births

 

What is Iowa going to be like when there aren’t any farm kids anymore?

It’s a serious question.

Boys and girls from the farms and small towns have always been Iowa’s most valuable product. As they moved away from home, they populated the cities and suburbs, staffed the factories and offices, and shaped the state’s culture and character.

They did it generation after generation.

Even as Iowa became a predominantly urban state, it retained a rural and small-town feel, perhaps because most urban Iowans had roots on the farm or in small towns. It’s probably no coincidence that Iowa’s fast-growing suburbs bear remarkable resemblance to rural towns. Residents recreated their old hometowns.

People migrating from rural to urban areas have been the life force of Iowa for more than a century. Inexorably, as cities grew, population trickled away from the countryside and small towns.

That can’t go on forever. At some point, the rural population must get so small that it can’t get much smaller. Farm-raised kids will become so few that they are no longer a major component in the work force. The supply of bright, hard-working country kids will dry up.

And the experience of having come from a farm or small town will no longer be the defining, shared experience of Iowans. When that happens, and it probably already has, Iowa will become a different place.

The latest population estimates show a continuation of the historic pattern. The Census Bureau estimates that Iowa’s total population grew from 3,046,857 in 2010 to 3,074,186 in 2012, a gain of 0.9 percent.

As always, the overall population gain masked the decline in most of the state. Sixty-eight of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population between 2010 and 2012, according to the census estimates.

That has been the pattern since about the year 1900, due to out-migration — people moving away from farms and small towns to find better opportunities in cities and suburbs in and outside of Iowa.

Lately, this out-migration has been re­inforced by another trend. Demographers call it “natural change.” A natural population decrease occurs when there are more deaths than births in a given area.

More than half of Iowa’s counties suffered a natural decrease in population between 2010 and 2012, according to the census estimates. Natural decrease has occurred in some parts of Iowa in the past, but apparently never so endemically as now.

When more people are dying than being born, a community will lose population even if no one moves away. The only hope is to attract newcomers to move in, but, with few exceptions, small towns and rural counties haven’t had any luck getting that to happen.

Every town wants to be rescued by a new business moving in, bringing people with it. But what business wants to set up shop in a town where the work force has long since moved away and children are no longer being born?

The surrounding farms are not a promising source of potential workers, either. Consider that the average farm operator in Iowa is 56 years old, well beyond normal childbearing age. Not only does the number of farms grow ever smaller, the age of the average farmer edges ever upward. No wonder there are fewer farm kids these days.

Today, most Iowa children are born and will grow up in cities and suburbs. In 2011, the last year for which the Iowa Department of Public Health has full statistics, more babies were born in the 10 most populous counties than in all the other 89 counties combined.

Of the roughly 900 towns in Iowa, more than 300 had three or fewer births among their residents in the whole year. More than 50 towns had zero births among their residents.

In Iowa’s least populous county, Adams, there were 39 births in 2011 (and 52 deaths). That’s just one birth every nine days. In Polk County, 162 babies would be born in those same nine days.

You don’t need the statistics to know rural Iowa isn’t the kid-producing machine it used to be. Drive through any hamlet, and you’ll rarely see children. Mostly you’ll see old people. The few working-age adults you see might be living in a trailer or a once-abandoned farmhouse where the rent is cheap.

Those realities point to another change. Economic inequality might be especially acute in rural America. Some rural school districts in Iowa have poverty rates, measured by free and reduced-price lunches, as high as those in inner-city schools. While agriculture is enjoying an extended boom, most rural people are not farmers. They often live in towns where being a convenience-story clerk is the best, and perhaps only, job in town.

The late journalist Hugh Sidey, who grew up in Greenfield in the 1930s and ’40s, wrote that Iowa’s towns were one of God’s best works. Youngsters in a small town, he recalled, could roam in total freedom, yet never be out of sight of someone who cared.

Those ideal places to raise children must still exist, but not in the numbers they did. They no longer account for the typical childhood experience of being an Iowan.

Now and in the future, the typical Iowan will never experience childhood on a farm or in a small town.

One of Iowa’s problems is that elected leaders seem not to have fully adjusted to the reality. Politicians still promise the impossible “growth in all 99 counties.” Plans for rural economic development abound.

What’s missing is any plan for urban Iowa. Where are the strategies for improving life where most Iowans live, in the cities and suburbs?

The Legislature tends to ignore cities and sometimes to undercut them. A major thrust in the current Legislature is to cut commercial property taxes, which will constrain the ability of cities to serve their residents. Improving the quality of life in cities is never on the Legislature’s to-do list.

That needs to change. Iowa should turn its political energies to making this state’s cities and suburbs the most livable in the nation. It should be an official state goal.

By all means, let Iowa always celebrate its rural heritage. As cities grow, let’s try to infuse them with the best attributes of remembered country life even as we add urban amenities.

A new breed of uniquely Iowa cities, unparalleled places to live, could be the new state brand. They could be the state’s best advertisement and its engines of growth.

More attention for urban counties might be the best hope for a rural comeback, too, because about the only way for a rural county to grow is to be in the orbit of a metropolitan area.

The best way to bring back Iowa small towns might be to devote more attention to big towns.

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23 Replies
rswfarms
Senior Contributor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

As you know, I Custom Farm my Iowa dirt to the tune of $150/acre to maximize my net profits per acre and this worked exactly the way it should be in 2012, Custom Farming made an excellent profit level per acre in 2012, along with the years before this. However, my wife was raised on an Iowa Corn Farm and was dead-set against raising our children on an Iowa Grain Farm. She said raising children on a farm would be lacking in providing the kids with a "WELL-ROUNDED", STREET SMART" total Education to function best in our society. Although I disagreed with her assumptions on this issue with my wife, she got her way as usual and I was forced to comply with this rule. I would have enjoyed farming my dirt my dirt on my own, but it didn't happen this way. The $267,750 per year I pay for my use of the equipment, labor, and fuel would have bought alot of nice equipent, the "Little Lady" won this argurement early on in our marriage, it would had been very intesting to see how things would have turned out if I had been able to farm my own dirt and not "Forced Out" in my Farm Operation".

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rswfarms
Senior Contributor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Also, as you probably know, more and more High-Quality Iowa dirt is being owned and purchased by Non-Farmer, Outside Farmland Investors, so I see this trend of Non-Farmer ownership becoming more and more common. And hence, the de-population of the rural areas of Iowa will continue at a much higher rate than has been occuring in the past. It is a shame to lose this contection to our small towns, but it is in 20+ years that small towns will not be needed. Obviously some sort of Lifestyle changes will happen, but it is needed, a change for the worst I believe.

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Kay/NC
Honored Advisor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

A lot of this trend is driven by ever-increasing energy prices. Where someone with a good city job could afford an hour's commute up until just a few years ago, it is a factor in the emptying-out of many rural areas now.

I have written about watching as more and more, mostly older/harder to heat, country homes have gone empty around us in our NC county. Many others are occupied only because taxpayers pay the weight of keeping them warm in wintertime.

It is not uncommon for workers to call out near the end of a pay period , for lack of gas money to get to work, until after payday. And, yes, they run out even sooner before next payday....

In our VA county, where there are more and better employment opportunities, we run three rental houses. The agent who screens and places tenants for us cannot ask the same rents for our homes, 20 minutes from town, as for homes in town, much because our electric cooperative's rates are exorbitant, compared to utility rates on Progress Energy's lines.

Also, she says when gas hits $4 a gallon, renting out past a certain radius of town goes dead in the water. So, we rent a comparable home for roughly 2/3 of the same rental in town will bring. This situation has a dampening effect on young families moving into an area...and they are the most likely to rent, rather than buy.

James Howard Kunstler wrote about this in "The Long Emergency". His predictions as cheap energy disappears are not rosy for rural America, in any region. We are utilizing cheap heat in harvesting our prolific woodlands, which he forecast as an alternative for the Southeast. Our region's trees are now being heavily harvested for clean European electricity, which is, of core, unsustainable in the long run.

I would suggest you read that book, for a clearer understanding of the part energy costs are playing in driving folks out of rural Iowa. There is a back-to-the-land movement of sorts, mostly female-driven, which I have spoken of before on this board. For most, however motivated they may be, it is an unaffordable fantasy.
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rswfarms
Senior Contributor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Say Kay, that is a very interesting point on "Cheap Energy" or as in your example 'the loss of Cheap Energy" as contributing to the decline of Small-Town USA. i also blame for my part of the decline in Small Town Iowa is the moving of many high-paying manufacturing jobs to China from the small Iowa towns. These high-paying manufacturing jobs were really the back-bone of many small towns economic sector. The moving of these jobs to China caused the people to move to Big City Iowa to look for similiar pay scale job openings since there were zero and I mean zero of these manufacturing left in the small Iowa towns, Actually pretty simple, no jobs, people try and move to where these high-paying jobs might be located. Of course these out-of-USA jobs may be lost forever, so it may be a lost cause anyway, but these people need to try at least.

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Kay/NC
Honored Advisor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Conservatively, I would say the decrease in rental rates at our distance for commuters and on the cooperative's more expensive power service, cost us as landlords at least $1000 every month on rental income.

That isn't a deal breaker, but multiply it over every rural rental in that county alone, and it takes quite a lot of money out of every property owners' hands. In our case alone, that is the property tax and insurance on that farm. I wish the differential was reflected on how our property is assessed for taxation purposes, but it is not.

A lot of people who make it paycheck to paycheck are struggling to keep their heads above water. Those who have lost paychecks are going to see some of those entitlement benefits starting to shrink eventually...all sorts of sacrifice will be needed as our nation's fortunes wane.
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rswfarms
Senior Contributor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Oh yes, Property Taxes are a killer here in Iowa too!!!!!

I pay over $47,000/year in Iowa Propert Taxes and that is not on any outbuildings or houses. Everytime I bought a farm with a house on it we bulldozed the house into a 15 foot hole and burned it till nothing was left' just ashes. This $47,000/year is just on RAW, UNIMPROVED fARMLAND, yes, just raw farmland!!!!!!!!!

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Kay/NC
Honored Advisor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Your rates must be next to nothing, compared to ours, then. If you were paying anything near what we do per $100, on what you say your land is worth, your taxes would be over $300,000 every year.
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rswfarms
Senior Contributor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Yes Kay, $47,000 is for only $23/acre and change, seems like alot when you write out the check!!!!!!! LOL

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Kay/NC
Honored Advisor

Re: Doak: Where are we, and rural Iowa, headed? / half of Iowa counties are dying

Just be glad you aren't in NC or VA....
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