When working on a study about how rural communities in northwest Missouri can retain population and attract people to move there, Mallory Rahe noticed some interesting trends.
Working for the University of Missouri’s Small Business Development Center for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, she saw the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the preference of where many people she surveyed wanted to live, with interest rising in rural areas.
In particular, people from small towns who had moved elsewhere and came back said the COVID-19 situation had increased and reaffirmed their desire to live in rural areas. The main reason given was the connections, Rahe says.
“It was the connections with family and friends,” she says. “It was family. That’s what people love (about living in small towns).”
Rahe and others conducted the survey on behalf of Maximize Northwest Missouri and the Community Foundation of Northwest Missouri, trying to help 18 counties in northwest and north central Missouri understand what they need to do to thrive economically.
Missouri’s rural communities face challenges to keep thriving economically in a changing world, including population loss, broadband Internet access and having a skilled workforce. But several groups in the state are working to address those issues.
Rahe, a professor of ag and applied economics at MU, is from a rural area herself and says the population issue is huge for rural communities.
“Population loss is a real challenge for northwest Missouri,” she says. “…That’s a hard thing to overcome.”
It can be hard for businesses to thrive without enough people to meet workforce needs.
“A lot of people told us they just struggled to find people,” she says. “Agribusinesses have said, the job is there, but the people aren’t.”
Rahe says for rural communities, the best chance to increase population is to bring back people who grew up there. The top groups looking to do that are retirees and people perhaps looking to start or raise a family.
“People in their early 30s are much more likely to make a migration decision that takes them back to a rural place,” Rahe says.
She says it is important for communities to involve young people — some of those aged 25-40 — in these decisions and see what they want and need to consider living in a rural area.
Sarah Low is a professor of regional economics at MU and also worked on the northwest Missouri study. She says she recently gave a class lecture on Missouri’s rural population loss.
“The students were astounded at the net out migration from rural Missouri to other states,” she says. “… It’s really hard to grow jobs, grow the economy when you’re losing people.”
Low says that while the pandemic has caused problems and challenges for communities, the disruptions and working from home have prompted many people to think about where they want to live. She says the study conducted on behalf of northwest Missouri counties showed this trend.
“About 50% of the respondents said COVID has changed their views on where they want to live,” she says. “COVID presented opportunities for people to think about moving to rural areas.”
The Missouri Department of Agriculture has made improving rural broadband internet access a priority. Davin Althoff, who works as the director of the department’s ag business development division, says it is critical for rural Missouri.
“I believe the greatest challenge we have for rural Missouri is connectivity,” he says. “They have not had the opportunities to connect to high-speed internet at an affordable rate.”
Althoff says rural broadband internet “is a passion and a priority” for Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn and Gov. Mike Parson, both of whom live in rural areas when they are not in Jefferson City. He says the state has seen a mixture of allocating state funds, including from emergency funding sources, and securing grants and federal money to continue to improve internet access in the state.
Rahe says better internet access can help businesses get products to consumers more easily.
“Certainly broadband access is a big challenge in the state,” she says. “We’ve got additional challenges getting products to customers, especially with broadband issues.”
Skilled workforce and jobs
Low is the director of MU’s Exceed program, which works to promote economic development and entrepreneurship. She says good-paying jobs are a top concern for people in rural areas.
“It’s those jobs with a family-sustaining wage that we’re hearing,” she says. “Jobs is the big issue right now, particularly jobs that can feed kids and earn a living.”
Additionally, having a skilled workforce to fill jobs like that is crucial. Low says higher education helps with that, whether it is a traditional university or a tech school.
“If we have more talented workers, the jobs with family-sustaining wages will follow,” she says.
Low also says it is important for communities to develop a culture and systems that support entrepreneurship, including business counseling, loan availability and broadband internet access.
MU’s Small Business Development Centers offer free technical assistance and advice to help ag and small businesses.
Althoff says the Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority has grants, tax credits and loan programs to help ag and small business owners. MASBDA helps with feasibility studies, including on value-added products to help producers see how they can get more out of what they produce.
Low says involving community members in discussions can help rural communities combat the challenges they face, along with taking on several different ways to support their local economies. She says it takes more than simple solutions.
“I think it really is a multi-faceted situation,” she says.