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3 ways to involve young rural residents

We need to be welcoming rural communities if we want our graduates to stick around.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

April 21, 2023

4 Min Read
Students celebrating graduation with caps and gowns
JUST ASK: Often, rural folks who have been around a while fail to ask younger rural residents what they want from the farm and ranch and their rural communities. Engaging each generation in community planning, volunteerism and projects helps to build a better future for everyone. Lacheev/Getty Images

An entirely new crop of rural high school graduates heads off to college this fall, or they have already entered the workforce, and a new group of college graduates are taking on their first full-time jobs this summer.

But how do we attract those young folks back into our rural communities and back on the home farm and ranch? I hear rural residents my age always talking about the need for young rural residents to make the decision to live, work and raise their families in our small towns. But I wonder sometimes how inviting we are to those young graduates, young couples and families, when they come back home or move into town.

There are a few methods of welcoming the next generation into our communities. These are ideas that are working in small towns across the country, but often are more difficult to implement than you can imagine:

Ask for volunteers. I hear leaders of local farm organizations or community groups say the same things over and over. “It’s just easier to do it myself,” they might say. “It’s always been done this way” is another one. Or my favorite, “The only way off this committee is to die.”

I know that most of the time, these are said jokingly, but usually, only half-jokingly. There is truth to each statement. It probably is easier for someone who has been successfully navigating a school fundraiser or church function for years to just do it themselves, but we have to remember that the time will come when someone else will have to carry the torch.

It is best to ask younger folks to get involved before that time comes. They can pitch in with community events, give feedback on success and challenges, and learn from the veterans who have been doing it over the long haul.

But they can also offer their own fresh take on things, suggesting new ways to work through problems or plan events and programs.

Ask for an opinion. Younger volunteers may be intimidated to share their ideas about community programs and church events, for instance, because they are often met with the comment, “We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work.”

A better answer to encourage our young rural residents would be, “That is an idea that has been brought up before, so what are your thoughts on making it happen in a new way?”

Staying positive and remaining open to those new ideas, even if they have been tried before, is part of encouraging someone to share their opinion. If we always shut those opinions down, they will stop sharing and quit because they are frustrated.

We have to remember — and I’m thinking of those of who have been involved in volunteer efforts for many years — that we were that age once and we have to treat people the way we would like to be treated. Give younger residents a forum to share their thoughts and ideas, and the support and encouragement to bring them to fruition.

Ask about the future. The future belongs to the young, and the young at heart. We need to ask younger residents what they want to see in their communities, their farm organizations, their churches and schools down the road. Allow them to bring ideas forward and take a strategic, long-view look at what they want the community to look like in five years, 10 years and 25 years.

Ultimately, it is their future we are talking about, so bringing them in and allowing for a supportive way to share ideas, strategies and dreams will help the community accomplish goals that no one thought was possible.

It doesn’t matter if it is a 4-H club or FFA chapter, a community volunteer organization, a school program, a local park board or a farm group. Being open to the dreams of the next generation is key to maintaining a vitality, freshness and forward-thinking spirit within the community and all of its intricacies.

Those towns that can meld the volunteer efforts and needs of all generations, including those who are quite young, seem to be the towns that keep moving forward — growing successfully. Those are the communities that will still be around for a long time.

Comments or questions? Drop me an email at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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