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Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

Attendance suffering at some meetings.

There was a time not so long ago, about 10 years or so, when it was standing room only in a cafeteria that holds 225 people for the annual meeting of the Johnson County Soil and Water Conservation District. Each soil and water district is required to hold an annual meeting during the winter months in the New Year. No two are alike.

Always a strong one, it was disappointing to only come up with 75 people at the 2011 Johnson County SWCD meeting a couple weeks ago. And that may have been using the 'count a few heads twice' method. The district still does a good job of carrying out soil conservation activities, operating an EPA 319 grant and conducting educational programs for both adults and school children alike.

Where have all the people gone?

As it turns out, it's just not Johnson County where annual meting crowds are dropping. I was honored to speak at the Dubois County SWCD annual meting held in Ireland- Indiana, not the country—I have the John Madden contract—I don't fly! They must not have publicized the speaker, because they had roughly 170 people there.

Actually, Judi Brown, award-winning district coordinator, said last year they had 200, and at one time, they had 300. Maybe the word did get out about the speaker. Although the honest truth is one gentleman drove from Pike County just to hear me—he's the dad of a good friend. Besides, he lives near the Dubois County line. It wasn't like he drove half way across the state.

Anyway, Judi confirms that when her fellow employees from districts all over the state get together, a common topic is dropping attendance at annual meetings. Some districts hold breakfasts, some lunches, some are thinking of trying Saturday meetings to get more people to attend and learn about what they do.

A drive through Dubois County before the meting convinced me that the conservation is definitely going on the land. Just everyone that dos it apparently doesn't come to the meeting.

Where have all the people gone?

These meetings have always attracted an older crowd, although there were people of all ages at both banquets I've attended so far this year. Some of the people who once came have passed on; others aren't spry enough to get out anymore.

But there's got to be more reasons than just that the audience is getting older. Is the younger generation who should take their place just too busy? Are there just too many activities, with kids doing one thing or another almost every night?

Where have all the people gone?

That's probably another piece of it. Some of it may be how hard the district reaches out to different sectors of its audience. Do they offer a poster contest, and invite the winner, parents, and teacher to attend? Do they recognize the winning soil judging team? Do they recognize 4-H'ers in the soil and water conservation project?

Where have all the people gone?

When I hear the Wayne County SWCD's annual meeting has attendance woes, I'll be concerned. Big-name speakers and lots of door prizes brought people in for years. But the trick was Quentin Williamson, now retired, who would personally call and invite people. He would make it seem special that they come, and to him, it was important that they come. Emails, letters, newspapers, and web sites they're all fine, but nothing beats a personal invitation.

The people are still out there. They still care about conservation. Maybe we all just need to be a little more innovative at figuring out how to get them through the door these days. Maybe it starts with reinventing the wheel—a personal invitation.  

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