Photo by Joel Sartore
Near Austin, Texas
This is not your grandparents' rural America, and it's time to quit wishing it still were so.
That was one message at the opening of the University of Nebraska's first Rural Futures Conference May 8, as several speakers noted there's a vibrant future to be built in rural America, but only for those communities and leaders willing to adapt and adjust to new realities.
The conference, which continues through May 10, drew several hundred participants for what Ronnie Green, NU vice president for agriculture and natural resources, described as a way to rethink and reinvigorate higher education's role in supporting rural America.
Green said the time is right for such a reckoning. This year marks the 150th anniversary of two pieces of legislation that helped make America what it is -- the Homestead Act that helped populate the Plains; and the Morrill Act that established land-grant universities such as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
And, the transcontinental railroad proved key in establishing communities across the nation's mid-section.
NU is establishing a new Rural Institute, and conversations at the conference are expected to help inform its mission.
Although agriculture was the foundation of rural America, and still is a critical part of its economy, that's not all there is, said Green, who also is Harlan vice chancellor of the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
"It's not just an economy of production," he said. "It's a natural resources economy. It's a knowledge economy."
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman noted that many are nostalgic for the past when they think about rural America.
"It seems to me this is at heart a very pessimistic view," he added.
Noted photographer Joel Sartore, a UNL graduate, echoed those thoughts. Showing photos of idyllic rural scenes, he said, "I want that, I like that.”
"But it's a new day. It's time to step it up," Sartore said, showing examples of rural communities that have been creative in marketing themselves, from a town with an annual rattlesnake festival to another that attracts birders eager for a chance to see, or even just hear, a rare ground sparrow.
Gov. Dave Heineman and others said leadership is key in rural communities.
"We know communities in Nebraska that have great leaders, and they're going to move their communities forward no matter how small they are," Heineman said.
A few of those young leaders participated in a panel discussion and said they returned to their Nebraska roots after leaving them for a time.
Anne Trumble, executive director of Emerging Terrain in Omaha, remembers the mantra when she moved from her family farm to UNL.
"Oh, you've got to get out of here, you've got to move away. And I did that," she said.
Fifteen years later, in New York City, "it just dawned on me … they were wrong. It was hard for me to find a place there," Trumble said. She moved back to Nebraska.
Others said finding one's place in the world leads more and more natives of rural America back to their roots.
Caleb Pollard, executive director of Valley County Economic Development in Ord, said young people want to "live in places where they can have meaning and purpose," and rural America can offer that.
"I have a very strong sense of place. I appreciate where I came from," said Amanda Crook, a Nebraska City native who's now a graduate assistant at UNL. Echoing Pollard's comments, she said rural America can be a place where "people find where their strengths and their passions meet."
Pollard said the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act is an excellent time for land-grant universities to commit themselves, just as they did when they were established, to "change the trajectory of rural America."
One longtime university administrator said the challenge to universities is compelling.
Indeed, changing the culture within academia -- knocking down silos, getting over past disagreements and working together across campuses and disciplines -- will challenge universities in ways they haven't been before, said Bob Bartee, vice chancellor for external affairs for the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
But he agreed it's key that universities partner with communities to help rural America succeed.
"Government doesn't have to be the driver. It won't be the driver. But we can do it," Bartee said.