Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Homeward Bound in Holt County, Nebraska

Homeward Bound in Holt County, Nebraska
Jeff Yost, President and CEO, Nebraska Community Foundation

For a long time “experts” have been telling those of us who live on the Great Plains that unless we are located close to an Interstate or near an urban center there’s no hope for the future of our  small towns. Sometimes the experts get it wrong.  In many small towns across Nebraska, people are learning how to increase prosperity by building on their own assets.  And through the work of the Nebraska Community Foundation, local philanthropy is becoming an ever more important asset.
Jon Schmaderer, president, Tri-County Bank with his daughter

Holt County, with just over 10,000 people, is located in north-central Nebraska. It’s about 100 miles north of Interstate 80 and 200 miles from the state’s major metro areas. It doesn’t have a four-lane highway. It is a place where small businesses, farms and ranches are the norm. Only 10 employers in the region employ more than 20 people.

Five years ago, the Nebraska Community Foundation worked with leaders in Holt County to launch a new economic development office and hire a director. New jobs, business start-ups and expansions followed.

Then in 2010 the program received a three-year grant commitment from NCF’s Rudolph Elis Donor-Advised Fund.  The economic development program expanded by adding a business coach. Today, Holt County Economic Development (HCED), an NCF affiliated fund, helps businesses grow and attracts new families to the area. A young professionals group meets regularly; seminars for business succession help retiring owners plan for transition; youth entrepreneurship camps and a “HomeTown Leadership Institute” with 130 graduates, are all part of the mix. 

Since 2007, 29 new businesses have been created, 18 have been expanded and 10 have successfully transitioned to new owners, resulting in 239 new or retained jobs. More than 120 families and/or individuals have moved into the county.  

 This economic progress – tied to philanthropic investment – attracted the attention of NET Television, Nebraska’s public television network. In 2012 Holt County Economic Development was the focus of NET’s program, “Nebraska Philanthropy: Investing in our Future.”

Holt County is a place where small businesses, farms and ranches are the norm. But, as the NET production crew discovered, something unusual is happening in this otherwise typical county of nine small towns and villages: It’s called HomeTown Competitiveness.

HomeTown Competitiveness is not about towns competing against one another. It’s about hometowns competing in a global economy.

“If you think of a business model, the best way to generate more business is to start with the people and the products you already have,” says Jon Schmaderer, the 41-year-old president of Tri-County Bank in Stuart, Nebraska. “It works in the business world. It works in economic development, and it’s worked for us.”
Holt County Economic Development (HCED) helped pharmacists Amy Krotter and Tyler Laetsch set up shop in Atkinson.
HomeTown Competitiveness (HTC) links together four key resources that nearly every rural community – no matter how small – already has:
o   Leadership – to mobilize communities with a long-term vision for prosperity
o   Entrepreneurship – to support innovation and economic growth
o   Youth Engagement – to cultivate a sense of belonging and opportunity 
o   Philanthropy – to provide financial resources for economic development activities

The framework was developed by three nonprofit organizations:  The Nebraska Community Foundation, the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and the Heartland Center for Leadership Development.

“They took time to educate us on the whole process of building community affiliated funds with endowments, and the importance of the intergenerational transfer of wealth,” said Schmaderer.

“But what really changed things was our leadership program. It started in Stuart and Atkinson. It’s amazing how little you know about people who live just a few miles down the road. By the end of the 12- or 18-month process we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. There were a couple of really large projects that we needed each other’s help on. Probably what made everything go a lot better than we expected was that young people, kids who went to high school together, were at the leadership classes from the start. They just energized us,” Schmaderer said.

It wasn’t long before O’Neill, the county seat, joined in, and soon after, the leadership program became a county-wide effort.  With the help of the Nebraska Community Foundation the county applied for and received a Building Entrepreneurial Communities grant and a Federal Home Loan Bank JOBS grant.

These successes did not go unnoticed, and thankfully, community-based affiliated funds through the Nebraska Community Foundation were in place to receive the generous response from the community. In addition to small and medium gifts from a broad range of individuals and businesses, several major gifts and bequests have materialized.

By reaching out to alumni, HCED has helped bring back 
 young families and many have returned on their own.

A $130,000 gift of grain launched the Karen and Paul Seger Family donor-advised fund to benefit the area. An $800,000 estate gift of two sisters, Mary and Martha Linhart, funds scholarships to non-traditional students and students who intend to return to the area. And the $2.3 million donor-advised fund of the late Rudy Elis supports entrepreneurship and people attraction in the area. Its first grant, $87,500 over three years, is matched two-to-one by other local sources and supported the hiring of a business coach to work alongside HCED executive director, Nicole Sedlacek.    

Today, Holt County has more than $3.5 million in endowed assets through several NCF affiliated funds. Grants support non-traditional scholarships to improve the skill levels of adults working in the community; high-quality health care for families and seniors; small business development and transition; youth engagement programs that encourage young people to return home; and arts, recreation and public safety to make Holt County a place where young families can thrive.

Duba’s Trailer Customizing is a small family business in Chambers, 
but it reaches a national market for its specialized equestrian trailers and campers.

“The Nebraska Community Foundation, RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, the Heartland Center—they had a framework for raising funds, involving youth, identifying entrepreneurs. But they told us right up front that we had to do it ourselves. And not only that…don’t spend time on things that can’t happen. Why spend time trying to get an Intel chip plant to move to Holt County? For one thing…we might not like that,” Schmaderer said.

Instead, Holt County follows a proven business model. It works with the people and the assets it already has. 

Holt County Economic Development Director Nicole Sedlacek

Each spring Nicole Sedlacek visits every graduating high school class in the county. Each student receives a full-sized, personalized mailbox, with a reminder that they are always welcome home and an invitation to come back. 

As so many NCF affiliated fund leaders across Nebraska say, “We don’t give our kids suitcases for graduation anymore!”


Monday, December 31, 2012

Agriculture + rural architecture = agritecture

By Krista Hulshof, Founder of VELD architect

Architecture is about more than pretty buildings.
As a young architect, my training was really about problem solving,
design thinking, sustainable technical training, and yes, aesthetics.
Rural spaces can benefit from these skills, too.

When I tell people I am an architect I usually get a response of awe. Most people associate architecture with building tall flashy buildings, and although some “starchitects” get those projects and those roles, I want to work in my childhood communities, with farmers and the rural community.

I grew up on a dairy farm and loved it, but for some reason I always knew I wanted to be an architect. So I went to the “big” city of Waterloo to study at one of Canada’s premier architecture schools. Upon completing my undergrad degree and starting my masters, there were a lot of ideas and projects in the architecture world focused around food and urban farming. Being a farm girl, I was disappointed with the lack of knowledge about farming and where people’s food comes from, so I set out to create a sustainable farm project that started with an actual rural farm. My colleagues were designing vertical farms that I thought were “pie in the sky”, but those city slickers had one thing going for them: no preconceived notions. I spent many months breaking out of my box of what farming “had” to be, so that I could create a sustainable farm. 

Woven Lea Farm from author's "agritecture"thesis

My goal for my thesis was to apply my new background of architecture to my old understanding of agriculture. Having spent four years learning how to design energy efficient buildings, I was amazed that this technology was not being translated to the rural construction industry. But sustainability means more than energy—it also relates to the economic, cultural, and ecological aspects of agriculture.  I spent 12 months researching, diagramming, calculating and of course designing my sustainable farm. 

Through those 12 months I dreaded the approach of graduation and the real world. I wanted to make a career out of designing farms, but what farmer hires an architect? There were only a few agriculture projects that I knew of that involved an architect, such as fifth Town Cheese, and the University of Guelph Diary research farm. 

Inventing the role of "agritect"
Nevertheless, after graduation, I took the leap and started my own architecture firm that specializes in “agritecture”. My goal is to bring passive heating, cooling, ventilating, and lighting technologies to farmers and rural communities, to reduce energy costs, and create more sustainable farm buildings. I bring an outside view and big picture thinking to a farmer. I strive to help find efficiencies and wasted possibilities, and help with long term planning. I want to create a more sustainable agriculture industry one barn at a time.

Mason Lane Farm (from deLeon & Primmer Architects)
Farmers are meeting more stringent building codes, municipal regulations, and policies that need navigating and negotiating. I also know that many rural policies are not up-to-date with the realities nor the needs of the communities and farmers they serve. Architects are trained to assist with precisely these issues, helping farmers creatively negotiate and design to minimize burdens, and meet standards. 

I also feel there is a role for me to play in agritourism. Agritourism is about creating a brand and an authentic experience for visitors, with limitations. Just because the farm smells does not mean the general public wants to experience the full force of the manure tank! Designing an agritourism experience to be fun, exciting, safe, efficient, and unobtrusive is important, and putting this puzzle together is the role of the architect. The rural community has a great opportunity now to present themselves in the best possible manner to the general public and urban culture.

As an architect I would be remiss if I didn’t mention aesthetics. You might be thinking to yourself, “here comes the artsy fartsy part”, but there is a reason we all draw a red gambrel roof barn with a green tractor and fences when we think of "rural" as children. There is a collective understanding of the rural landscape as a place in harmony with nature, beautiful, and peaceful.  As we continue to lose traditional bank barns, we destroy our own rural culture and the rural landscape. 

Building for the future
My design intent is to create buildings that are true to materials, site specific, and culturally sensitive. I combine traditional and contemporary architecture to both tie our rural landscapes to history and show off our modern future. Farmers, through every barn they choose to design and build, shape the image of the rural landscape. With the help of good design they can leave a legacy for many generations just as past generations have left us a rich history.

Architecture in my practice is about the design of buildings, big or small, and helping people live and work in effective, beautiful, and sustainable spaces.
While many people worry that the rural population is declining, I am one example of farm kids that are coming back to their communities with more creative and professional skills than ever before. It is a great time to be involved in the rural communities, where young professionals can have a bigger impact in a smaller pond. 

Krista Hulshof is an architect with a strong interest in agriculture and sustainable building design. She is an avid cyclist as a way to enjoy the rural landscapes on Ontario, Canada. Check out her services at http://www.VELDarchitect.com. You can follow her on twitter @VELDarchitect, keep up with information, ideas and trends at theagritect.wordpress.com, like VELDarchitect on Facebook, or be inspired on Pinterest.

Visit RUPRI and the Rural Futures Lab for more research, policy papers, and news.

Images provided by the author.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Climate change and rural adaptation "Down Under"

By Geoff Cockfield, Associate Professor at University of Southern Queensland (Australia)

Earlier this month, some Australian news media ran articles about a future in which average temperatures would increase by six degrees. Previously discussed scenarios were generally limited to ‘plus two’ to ‘plus four’ futures. But with the failure of efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, evident in the very modest progress on mitigation from the latest UN climate talks in Doha, and rapid industrialisation in China and India, more dramatic change is being considered.

In Australia the ‘Millennium’ drought of 2002-2009 provided a picture of what such a future might be like, at least for us. Since 1970, rainfall trends have generally conformed to climate change models that suggest less rainfall in the southern and western areas, with some increases in the tropical and sub-tropical areas. If current trends continue, they will contribute to the reshaping of rural areas.

Climate Change Hotspots in Australia
Source: WWF, click on the image to enlarge.

Rural trends in Australia

The demographic trend is to fewer people on farms, in small agriculture-dependent towns and in remote areas, other than where there are mining projects. Higher temperatures, less water for irrigation and large high-tech farms will leave an even more sparsely settled inland. Already, 80 percent of people live within 100 kilometers of the coastline, with 64 percent of those in five major metropolitan areas. Climate change will add to the reasons for people to move.

The ‘long dry’ as well as the wages paid in the burgeoning mining sector accelerated the long-term trends of farm aggregation and the replacement of labor with large-scale machinery, especially in Western Australia where the dry years continued through 2011 and 2012. Farmers are reducing livestock numbers, especially sheep, with some farmers especially affected by having to shoot starving animals during the worst of the drought. The economic effects of the decrease in livestock numbers flow through regional meat processing businesses and contractors such as shearers, accelerating the overall decline of small rural towns.

The hot conditions, which disproportionately affect the elderly, will tend to leave some inland areas as places to work for periods of time, rather than places to live in the long term. Other disadvantages could include greater exposure to mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue and Ross River fevers, as the tropics ‘expand’ south and the increasing costs of energy and transport as a result of the new national carbon tax (http://www.carbonneutral.com.au/organisations/the-carbon-tax.html).

Threatened water supplies

This coastal and urban migration will place even greater pressure on urban water supplies. During the Millennium drought, the five mainland state governments all developed desalination plants for each of their major cities. These have however, proved costly to build and run. From 2007, the Federal Government promoted the use of recycled water. However, there remains a real resistance to full-contact uses of this water, illustrated by the resounding defeat of a recycling proposal in my home city of Toowoomba in a referendum. The problems of desalination and recycling led some state governments to seek more water from river systems, including those providing most of the water for irrigated crop industries.

Irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin is a source of
contention among conservationists and farmers.
Source: The Guardian

The Millennium drought highlighted long-term conflicts over water, especially around Australia’s most agriculturally important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin. The rice industry, an important exporter in the central Basin areas, was in virtual shutdown for two years because of the shortage of irrigation water. The dry conditions also increased political negotiations to manage water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin, which crosses four states. The negotiations resulted in a process whereby the Federal Government will ‘buy’ back water licenses, which will reduce irrigated crop production in some areas and further reduce the size of some regional economies.

There are some, including in the Opposition political parties, who argue that there is still scope for an expansion of irrigated agriculture in the northern areas, effectively reconstructing Australian agricultural geography.  However, scientific and economic reviews are cautious given the erratic rainfall, uncertain environmental impacts of development, and the remoteness of suitable sites.

Rural adaptations in Australia

The early signs of climate change are driving various adaptations. There is research on animal and human housing insulation, alternative energy strategies for rural and remote areas, and alternative crops and crop production. Mitigation policies, such as carbon tax provide opportunities for carbon farming, including land management for conservation purposes that will yield income. This may be especially important for Aboriginal communities managing traditional lands. In addition, rural areas will provide the sites for other forms of energy generation, including solar and wind, although there are some local objections to wind farms.

Source: AhramOnline
The prospects for rural leadership on adaptation are somewhat hindered by a reluctance to acknowledge that there is any such problem as climate change. In survey after survey, including in the US, there appears to be higher levels of ‘skepticism’, actually outright disbelief in some cases, of climate change in rural areas and especially amongst farmers. Perhaps this goes with the tendency to political and social conservatism, an anti-green tendency, or the fear of the existential threat of climate change.

Yet rural people are good at adaptation, being so exposed to natural events and volatile markets and perhaps the incremental nature of climate change will encourage innovation and adaptation that is couched in terms of addressing the existing issues that afflict rural areas.
  • Do you see the same issues and dilemmas in the US, or at least in some regions?
  • How do you think the US political system is coping with water conflicts?

Geoff Cockfield is Associate Professor in politics and economics at the University of Southern Queensland. His research areas include rural policy, climate change adaptation and natural resources management. Before working in a university, he worked in agriculture and in rural journalism.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Superheroes in training: Envisioning a new future for agriculture

By Melissa L. Lamberton, research assistant at Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Introduction to the Superheroes in Training series

Graduate students are the unsung heroes of sustainability. As universities publish new research about innovative practices to create healthier and more resilient agricultural systems, grad students often toil behind the scenes, sitting at a lab bench, spending long days in the field, crunching numbers and writing reports. Although you won’t find them fighting crime in red capes or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, I call these students superheroes—people who work against the odds to make a better world.

Stefen Gailans is a Superhero in Training
(photo courtesy of the Leopold Center)
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture tells the stories of some of these students in a new series of vignettes called “Superheroes in Training” on our Facebook page. I asked graduate students involved in research projects funded by the Leopold Center to talk about their work, their inspirations, and their visions of the future.

These students help the Leopold Center pursue its mission to identify and reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of farming and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources. The Center funds research projects in ecology, marketing and policy as wide-ranging as developing local food systems, finding ways to protect waterways from pollution, and helping landowners include conservation practices in farm leases.

The interview below, with Ph.D. student Stefan Gailans, illustrates how the students we work with envision a future for agriculture that not only protects the environment, but also supports the livelihoods of farmers and invigorates rural communities. As Gailans says, more people making a living in rural areas means more people caring for the land. After all, that’s what “sustainability” means—sustaining ecosystems as well as people—and that’s why we think superheroes can be found in the research lab.

Superheroes in Training: Meet Stefan Gailans

The Leopold Center is proud to introduce Stefan Gailans, designer of alternative cropping systems. This interview is part of a series, "Superheroes in Training," that spotlights students who are involved with Leopold Center research projects and work to create a more sustainable world.

Stefan is a Ph.D. student in Crop Production & Physiology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Stefan in his natural habitat
(photo by ISU student Rosie Olander)
  • Where is the place you call home?
Now a full-time resident of Ames but originally from Mequon, Wisconsin (north of Milwaukee).
  • What is your research, and why is it important?
In a nutshell, my research lab investigates alternative crop production and alternative cropping systems—apart from corn and soybean these systems include crops like canola, wheat, and red clover. Expanding the suite of crops grown can potentially reduce the risk of pest outbreaks in our cropping systems in Iowa. Winter varieties of canola and wheat included in the alternative systems serve as cash grain crops as well as cover crops that aim to reduce soil erosion and leaching during the “off season.” Basically, maintaining a high level of agricultural productivity while being more environmentally benign.
  • What got you excited about studying this topic?
I got excited about this kind of research when I realized the intersection between agriculture and the environment many years ago. As one who cares for wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and productive agriculture, I find this intersection is very important.
  • Describe a favorite moment or surprising lesson learned.
When studying or conducting agricultural research, one is subject to the time clock and whims of Mother Nature. And one cannot get too hung up or frustrated by this. Having set target dates for certain field operations (planting, sampling, harvesting, etc.) is unrealistic—these need to be more like moving targets for the goals to be attainable. As a technician once told me when I first started out, “That’s agriculture.”
  • What's your dream job?
My dream job would include opportunities to reach out and educate students, community members, and farmers alike as to this important intersection between agriculture and the environment. Communicating the importance of both agriculture and the environment is of key interest.
  • How do you spend your time when you're not out saving the world?
I spend a lot of time listening to music and going to see local music live with my friends. I’ve also recently gotten into science fiction literature, primarily the works of Isaac Asimov. I also enjoy fishing and, as per the seasons, very much enjoy hunting for waterfowl and pheasant.
  • If you could make one change to make the world more sustainable, what would it be?
I’ll draw a bit from my previous answer here. In some of his novels, Asimov portrays a world (not necessarily positively or negatively) where nearly all humans live in dense population centers with very few working the land with many machines to grow and produce food. I would much rather see the opposite of this. The more people in rural settings, the more people there are to care for agriculture and the environment.
  • Who is your favorite superhero (real or fictional) and why?
I always liked Batman because he didn’t have any super power conferred to him by virtue of being an alien or some random accident. Sure, Bruce Wayne has a lot of money and seemingly unlimited access to resources, but when it comes down to it, he’s just a human being who had to work really long and hard to achieve superhero status.

Melissa L. Lamberton is a research assistant at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a candidate for a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. She is interested in how poets, writers and artists can communicate about science to create a better future for people and the environment.

Read more Superhero in Training stories on the Leopold Center's Facebook page.

Visit RUPRI here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Rural Differential: Drilling down into the data

By Kathy Miller, RUPRI Program Director

We are introducing a new monthly blog post that will focus on "the rural differential". Each month, we will focus on a particular social, economic, or demographic indicator and examine what the data shows us about rural America.

For this very first edition of The Rural Differential, I thought we should talk about data in general. Where do we get data for rural America?

While most national data sets do include some geographic comparison level (mostly metropolitan and nonmetropolitan), we often need to drill down to small area data, usually county level, to really understand the conditions and trends in rural America. This allows us to not only see national level trends, but also differences across regions and states. Plus, small area data lets us create maps. Maps often tell the story better than any table, chart or graph.

So where do we go for small area data? Mostly, we use the American Community Survey (ACS) from the U.S. Census Bureau.

American Community Survey, you ask? Haven’t heard of it? This is the way the Census Bureau collects all the detailed information – everything from housing conditions to ancestry.

That information used to be collected in the once-a-decade long form, but we needed more timely data to understand conditions and trends, and to make decisions about how to spend federal dollars. A study by the Brookings Institution found that over $400 billion in federal dollars is allocated based on ACS data. Instead of collecting this information once every 10 years, the Census Bureau is now collecting the data continuously, and then aggregating over time for accurate estimates that are much more frequent.

Sounds great, no?

Well… there’s a bit of a catch to “frequent.” In lots of rural places, data has to be collected over a lot longer period than in more populated places in order to obtain a reliable estimate.. In most counties, in fact, it takes five years to get a reliable estimate.

So, think about a large county in the West. We’re already averaging data over a large geographic space, but now we’re averaging it over time as well. And think about what a five year span can represent: 2005 to 2009 had some good years and some really bad years in it.

Frequency of ACS estimates by county (click to see an enlarged map)
So, while it’s true that there is absolutely an inequity between rural and urban places. Urban areas have more timely data, let’s be clear that this doesn’t outweigh the overall benefits of the ACS. The bottom line is that this data is indeed more timely. Even if we can’t get annual estimates for all places, at least we’re seeing more current and more accurate data.

It’s not perfect data – there’s no such thing as perfect data – but for understanding rural America, this data is absolutely essential.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Youngest Guy in the Room

By Warren Vaughan, Senior Planner for a county development district in SW Montana
I am in my mid-30s, and have worked in local government for the past eight and a half years. For the first two years, I made the rounds - the daily grind of permitting, the phone calls with people asking about zoning, the front counter work with the public. I enjoyed it, but I also struggled: I had gotten a degree in land use planning because I loved the idea of building community, not processing permits as a low-level bureaucrat.
Then I got lucky. A convergence of events led me to suddenly being the primary facilitator of three separate community planning processes across our large and rapidly growing county in Montana. I have spent the past six years working directly with citizens groups and local nonprofits on first-ever community plans, new sidewalks, sewer infrastructure, and a two-county economic development district.
A community meeting in SW Montana
And through all of it, one very personal fact is always apparent to me: I am the youngest guy in the room.

I often wonder where everyone else is - out starting businesses, out raising families? Certainly, the challenges of becoming civically engaged in my mid-30s are very apparent to me. I work full time, am raising my own family, and am enrolled in a doctoral program. Juggling it all is a complicated experience.
The author and his daughter
As someone who is directly involved in day-to-day activities of civic engagement, I think about how community work best gets done in today’s world. Sure, we have our share of Rotary Clubs and American Legions, but most of those organizations are aging and being replaced by local professional organizations.

Rather than focusing on community work, the local associations I see are often not tied to civic service but rather provide venues for people making business and professional connections. Because a significant part of my job involves economic development, I heartily support these sorts of associations...but I also recognize that something is lost. And it isn’t just my own experience: civic engagement, nationally, looks very different than it used to.

Civic engagement in America

Historically, Americans have been civically engaged on multiple levels. Alexis de Toqueville, the most well known early commentator on democracy in the U.S., famously described Americans as constantly forming, dissolving, and reforming local groups to deal with local issues [1]. One of the consequences of all this association, argued Toqueville, was that we were literally practicing democracy at all levels of society. Importantly, the practice of democracy was scalable. Learning how to take part in civil dialogue at the dinner table allowed for a healthy exchange of ideas over a game of cards. The skills that allowed friends to discuss the local politics of the day could work during one’s tenure on the school board; then, what worked on the school board or Lion’s Club could work as a city council member. Moving up, those skills, in turn, would also work in state legislatures and even on a national scale.

Photograph by Kestral Aerial
Toqueville’s work has cast a long shadow. In 2000, Robert Putnam put him back on the map with Bowling Alone, Putnam's account of the decline of social capital in America [2]. Putnam argued that that strong ties and face-to-face interaction in groups created democracy from the ground up. Putnam warned that civic engagement had been on the decline since the 1960s and suggested that any discussion of democracy needed to get serious about social capital and civic engagement.

So what changed since the 1960s? Theda Skocpol, a sociologist from Harvard, provides an historic view [3]. For one, the types of groups Americans join today are different than the ones they joined 50 years ago. Membership in volunteer-driven organizations like the Rotary Club is on the decline, while professionally run organizations with centralized headquarters are up. Single-issue groups are replacing broad associations based on socializing. Vietnam caused a generational rift in community organizations based on military service.

 The upshot of it all is that the character of our civic engagement began looking a lot different. The result, according to Skocpol, is a “diminished democracy”. 

Moving forward

So what’s to be done about this? If we take seriously the idea that a thriving civic life is key to our success as a democracy, then what do those of us working on rural policy issues do about it? How do we encourage a new kind of civic engagement, one that takes into account the realities of striking political polarization, digital communities, and a modern life that leaves little time to get involved in issues larger than oneself?

Public trails in the author's home county

One thing I do know is that civic engagement in politics in my own community looks very different than it did just four years ago. Our local and state tea party group has largely come to dominate my county’s politics, and the process by which they’ve done so is worth understanding. In contrast to many of the political groups involved statewide and locally who depend on professional staff, mailers, and requests to contact legislators at key times, our local tea party group consists of ordinary people who track political issues, are placed on planning commissions, and have been elected to local office.

Regardless of how one feels about the politics involved, the fact remains that this is civic engagement happening on a capacity not seen in 50 years. The process is worth our attention as professionals involved in rural policy and development.

On a professional level, I swing between valuing civic engagement as an end in itself and just wanting to get things done as a professional. The challenge is that local work is inextricably bound up with the national conversation. Sitting down with someone week after week at meetings to try and hammer out local solutions for and by local people simply isn’t going to work if the larger public sphere has been taken over by a divided national conversation, and I often question whether the endless night meetings build social capital or simply entrench positions.

A personal choice to participate

In the end, I find the question of civic engagement a deeply personal one. What does it mean for me to engage in the larger questions of today’s society? How can I effectively move beyond my own self and my private concerns to connect with larger values of community and hope and faith? How do I, as an employee of local government, conduct myself at a time when much of the public sphere is dominated by debates over the value of government?

These questions extend to larger ones about youth engagement. How do we engage people younger than me in questions about the common cause? Youth turnout in the past couple of election cycles has been encouraging, but civic engagement goes beyond casting a vote at the ballot box. 

To quote Robert Bellah, “democracy means paying attention” [4]. In my mind, that means understanding that every one of us is embedded in layer upon layer of relationships, and recognizing that how we engage in these relationships has systemic impact on our civic life and democracy. As challenging as it is in these days of hostile political discourse, we’re all going to have to start paying a lot more attention. I don’t want to be the youngest guy in the room anymore.

I don’t have ready answers, but on a personal level, I put myself firmly in Toqueville’s shadow: I believe civic engagement is the practice of democracy. As I survey my own life as a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, and a professional who deeply cares about the future of my own community, I am moved by the idea that my relationships are part of the practice of democracy. That, indeed, is a powerful idea.


[1] Toqueville, A. de. (2003). Democracy in America. In V. Hodgkinson & M. Foley (Eds.), The Civil Society Reader. Hanover: University Press of New England.

[2] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[3] Skocpol, T. (2003). Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

[4] Bellah, R., Madsen, R., Tipton, S., Sullivan, W., & Swidler, A. (1991). The Good Society. New York: Knopf.

Warren Vaughan works in community and economic development for local government in Montana. When he finds the time, he squeezes in work on a PhD in collaboration and community at Fielding Graduate University. His favorite thing in the world is getting distracted by his wife and three year old daughter. He can be reached wvaughan [at] email.fielding.edu.

Photo credits: Landscape photographs (including Kestral Aerial photo) courtesy of Gallatin Valley Land Trust. All other images provided by the author.

Visit RUPRI here or the Rural Futures Lab here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

RUPRI Policy News: Rural Health Care

By Jocelyn Richgels, RUPRI Associate Director, Policy Programs

Rural health care policy is getting a rare surge of national attention. Two leading health care policy institutions, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPac) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), have released major reports that touch on rural health policy from two important angles. MedPac examines health-care policy that influences rural providers’ decisions and beneficiaries’ access to care, while IOM studies payment policies that are affected by the differences in cost of providing care across the geographic spectrum.

These reports are likely to have an influence on rural health payment considerations well into the future. Major health care organizations with an interest in rural health care policy, such as the National Rural Health Association, have weighed in with numerous studied reactions to the reports’ findings. Both Houses of Congress have reviewed the reports, staff have questioned the authors and will ponder how, if at all, report findings will factor into future health care policy legislation. 

Each report was undertaken to respond to different charges from policymaking bodies. However, both reports addressed geographic variability in health care across this country, albeit for different purposes.  

Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPac)
MedPac is the independent Congressional agency that advises Congress on issues affecting the Medicare program. It released its biannual report in June, with Chapter 5 devoted to “Serving rural Medicare beneficiaries.”  MedPac last included a rural-focused chapter in its 2001 report and has released reports on rural-specific policies in the intervening years. Congress required that the Commission report on rural access to care, quality of care, rural-specific payments to hospitals and the adequacy of Medicare payments to rural providers.

The factors that affect access to care and the quality of care across the rural-urban continuum has a large research base and is better understood with each new study. This report, however, highlights variations across regions in the country.

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Source: MedPac Report, chapter 5, page 132
MedPac finds less variation across rural-urban places within regions than across different regions (see Table 5-7 above), particularly in access to and volume of care. The geographic variations across regions are noticeable in rural physician-to-population ratios, in the volume and utilization of care across regions, and the use of post-acute care, such as skilled nursing facilities and home health care. For people familiar with the variations in poverty, wealth, and health care status across different rural regions of the country, this finding from MedPac may not come as a surprise. The question now is whether there is enough research to understand why these variations exist, and whether and how much influence policy can have on evening them out. 

One area that federal Medicare policy already tries to address is geographic differences in the cost of providing care, through geographic adjustments to fee-for-service Medicare payments. Payments in high-cost and low-cost areas are increased and decreased respectively, relative to the national average.

Institute of Medicine (IOM)
The IOM is the independent health division of the National Academy of Sciences. IOM was charged through the Affordable Care Act to produce two reports on improving the accuracy of the data sources and methods used for making geographic adjustments to Medicare payments for both hospitals and physicians.

IOM’s major recommendation is that physician payment areas be transitioned to the same current payments areas as hospitals, which are divided into 441 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) and statewide non-metropolitan statistical areas. Given that MSAs are established based on resident populations and employment commuting patterns, payment rates based on existing known labor markets is the rationale for moving physician payment rates to the same structure as hospitals. The report also argues that using the same labor market definition for both hospitals and payments is in line with increasing integration of hospital and physician care settings and movement toward Accountable Care Organizations, where hospitals, physicians and other providers are jointly responsible for care delivery. 

The effect of payment changes on rural providers was an explicit consideration of the IOM, because as the report points out, the current physician payment areas were partly designed to attract providers in nonmetropolitan areas through payment calculations. Under this MSA/non-MSA approach, nonmetropolitan provider payment areas would see a decrease between 2 and 3 percent, under slightly different payment structures, while large metropolitan areas would increase payments by less than 1 percent to about 1 percent. IOM also found that “geographic areas used for payment adjustment are large relative to the locations of specific underserved populations. Thus, geographic payment adjustment is a blunt instrument for resolving these more localized disparities and is not sufficiently targeted to be an appropriate use of resources.”

As the federal government continues to consider unprecedented actions to address the country’s deficit, while at the same time new policies of the Affordable Care Act continue to be implemented, these reports from two respected institutions are well-timed to add to the policy considerations. Expect to see continued analysis and counter-analysis of both reports by rural health research and policy analysis institutions to add to this growing body of knowledge.

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