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Observations out the windshield

Change in rural America is inevitable, just like the rest of the country. Take a drive, you will see it.

Over recent months, I have spent a lot of time driving in a Hertz rental car attempting to avoid the interstates. This time spent on the road allows for reflection and observation. Over five decades of traveling on backroads in the U.S. and Canada has provided me insight into the future of agriculture and rural America. Let's begin the journey with observations from all seasons and in different weather conditions.

My first job fresh out of graduate school was in agriculture economics at Virginia Tech. This position allowed for a good deal of travel in the Midwest. The Harvestore and upright silos of that era are now few and far between. Now, one can be amazed at the number of wind turbines and solar panels providing revenue to active farms, ranches, and absentee landowners.

Some small towns now have ethanol plants that are taking as much as one-third of the corn crop in many areas! The trains in rural areas are transporting ethanol to both domestic and international markets.

In recent decades, grain storage has been one of the biggest changes. One producer from Minnesota indicated that having grain storage saved him financially this year as weather extremes seem to be more frequent occurrences. Speaking of weather, I have observed road closures, flooded roadways and highways, towns flattened by tornadoes, and dead cattle along the road as a result of snowstorms, which are all reminders that there is a bigger force out there in control.

Farmsteads that were once very diversified with crops, livestock, and other products are now larger and more specialized. Many of the farmsteads of yesteryear that represented rural life are gone. Yes, the small-town police are still patrolling country roads. However, boarded up shops and schools with an increasing number of elderly care centers are signs of the demographic shifts in rural America.

At one time, many cooperatives, machinery dealerships, and stockyards could be found across rural America. These businesses are quickly disappearing as mass consolidation has occurred in these industries.

Moldboard plowing has been replaced by no-till buffer strips and signs of conservation easements. Increased environmental stewardship can be seen in many areas.

An interesting trend I have observed is if a bank or bank branch is in the area, the rural town still exists and, in some cases, is growing. If not, it is a sign of a declining area. McDonald's now has neighbors in the form of Taco Bell, Chinese, and Asian restaurants as rural demographics are changing. Now, in most growing communities, I can find a YMCA or other workout location which is much different than decades ago.

I often observe new schools in rural areas which were built approximately five to ten years ago during the good economic times in agriculture. The downside is these schools are now a fixed cost for the community in the form of increased real estate taxes which squeeze landlords, farmers, and ranchers in many areas.

People and communities can be outspoken, which is observed by signage along the road. Proud accomplishments of the community such as sports, academics, and historical markers are often a sign of pride in the area. A stop at a local business often results in a conversation with a nice, polite individual. For the most part, people in rural communities are very sincere and gracious, a lesson many urbanites could be more attuned to.

The next ten years will see many of these seismic shifts accelerate. Some change will be for the better, and some will not. As you reflect on the changes out your windshield, think of how it will impact your business, your family, and your personal life.

The opinions of Dr. David Kohl are not necessarily those of Farm Progress.

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