By Jenny Russell, Jewell County Community Development Director
The Kansas Population Forecast from the Center for Economic Development and Business Research came out in February 2016 and I have spent time ever since trying to think up the words that I feel about it. In essence the study claims that 50% of the Kansas population will live in the Kansas City and 80% of the total population will live in metro areas by the year 2060. First of all, the study runs on a lot of assumptions. And you know what they say about when you assume.
There are many smart people working on this issue, including a team with Jewell County Community Development that has been working on this for years. Trends are showing that population figures are beginning to go towards a plateau in some rural counties and maybe even an increase. Sure, the County might not return to the 18,000 person population of 1900, but that doesn’t mean we cannot grow by a nice amount. Recent 2016 unemployment rates show an average of 3% unemployment or less. Studies show about 3% of the population are never looking for work. So in those terms we have less than a 0% unemployment rate. That means we need more skilled people to fill the positions that our businesses currently have.
The Agricultural Revolution
I had a discussion recently with someone who works on behalf rural telecommunication companies throughout the State of Kansas, most of these are in rural areas. From that discussion, he talked about a theory that he had that the “agricultural revolution” just might be very similar to the Industrial Revolution. As we all know, in the Industrial Revolution manufacturing went from being handmade out of most peoples homes to being mass produced in factories, often in cities. It took some time for rural markets to be reinvented, but that did happen to some degree.
The same can be true for the “agricultural revolution”. People didn’t leave rural areas because it’s not a good place to live. They originally started leaving rural Kansas because farming changed. In 1940, one farmer could feed 19 people and in 2010 that same farmer could feed 155 people (Prax. 2010). Instead of ten people working on a farm, you need one farmer with a modern tractor. Two hundred years ago, 90 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms (animalsmart.org). When you compound that with the farm crisis of the 1980’s and the astronomical increase of technology in agriculture, it’s a lot to figure out. Just like the Industrial Revolution, this “agricultural revolution” changed how and where people worked. It takes some time too for a rural area to figure out how to diversify again and fill in the gaps in employment opportunities that the “agricultural revolution” created.
Making a Comeback via the Internet?
Working in economic development, we are starting to see signs that rural areas are figuring this out. This is mostly due to the increased availability of high-speed Internet. Right now our rural areas have better and faster fiber-to-premise Internet than most people in Kansas City with Google Fiber or the East Coast of the United States. As telecommuting opportunities arise from urban employers, remote working becomes more common place, and entrepreneurs continue to come up with Internet-based businesses the opportunities for rural Kansas also increase. We are already seeing new people move here and our homegrown people return, because of these opportunities. For instance, I know someone who came back to the area and moved his Federal Government job back to work out of his house in a rural Kansas town of 400 people. He was doing that same job in the city, but is now able to enjoy life here doing the exact same thing.