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What's happening on Main Street?What's happening on Main Street?

A shrinking population and unequal education funding are crippling rural Illinois. Here's how the farm community can help.

Holly Spangler

October 12, 2016

4 Min Read

“Downstate teachers are frontline social workers.”

Chris Merrett doesn’t mince words on rural schools — or rural economies. Yet Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, is both optimistic about rural Illinois and unrelentingly realistic.

“Underfunding in schools is an issue. The working poor is a real problem. Homelessness and food insecurity is a big issue. A snow day for some kids is a day they go hungry,” Merrett describes.

And comparing rural Illinois today to 10 years ago? “You see more empty storefronts, more uninhabited homes, farmhouses that are no longer being used. You see the impact of population decline,” he says.


It’s a hard description to read, but no doubt one that’s familiar to people in small towns across Illinois. Rural population decline has been obvious to both statisticians and the folks who live there.

As USDA reported in its 2014 Rural America at a Glance summary, population losses have affected nearly two-thirds of nonmetro counties. Those declines — or stagnant growth — happened across all types of rural counties, including those dependent on recreation, manufacturing and agriculture. 

Population decline is one of three big macroscale forces affecting rural Illinois, Merrett says. Others include technology, which has reduced the number of farmers and farm labor, and globalization.

That’s the reality. But there’s reason for optimism, Merrett says, even if you can’t attract large employers.


Consider North Dakota, where fracking has brought an actual population boom to the state. It’s not likely to happen very often, and certainly not in rural Illinois. Ethanol and wind energy bring a few jobs to an area, but they’re not going to double the population of a rural county. Perhaps, says Merrett, we need to look to entrepreneurship and small businesses and consider a community health approach.

“Or in other words, if we can’t grow the population, can we improve the population?” he asks.

In a lot of cases, that comes down to both education and behavioral health — a fancy term for substance abuse. Or as Merrett puts it, “We see preventable things going on that contribute to diminished quality of life.”

What can farmers do?

Merrett says the first step is to look at public school funding. Referencing the map showing Advanced Placement classes available throughout the state (below), he says we should want our kids to be as competitive as urban kids.

“You want them to have the skill set to do that and be as competitive as kids in Chicago. Clearly by the AP map, they’re not,” he says.

AP WHAT? This map reveals on a district-by-district basis where students are participating in Advanced Placement, or AP, classes. Red districts indicate fewer than 1% of 12th graders are in AP classes — because no AP classes are offered. In green districts, more than a third of the 12th graders take AP classes. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics)

Merrett blames Illinois’ property tax-dependent system. “We need a more equalized funding system that allows rural schools to compete with Chicago. And it seems to me a farmer would be interested in having an education system that’s not property-tax dependent,” he observes.

Education trickles down to economic activity: A better education system helps attract more employment opportunities, and employment results in better quality of life.

The good news is that in June, Gov. Bruce Rauner convened the 25-member Illinois School Funding Reform Commission to make recommendations on revising the current school funding formula to the General Assembly. And he set a deadline: Feb. 1.

In addition to education, farmers should be concerned about public health, Merrett recommends. Ask how your county manages rural health issues. To U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s point, are there addiction recovery services available? Is there access to quality health care? Can a small town teleconnect to a pharmacist to keep a pharmacy in town?

Merrett believes there are often foundations to revitalize a community, if the community can be realistic in its expectations. Or in other words, you probably won’t recruit a Walmart distribution center, he says. But the larger farm community can have an impact.

“Farmers are a huge and integral part of the rural landscape,” Merrett concludes, “and they’re a vital part of the foundation of rural America.”

Read about one innovative program that is working to revitalize rural communities.

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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