Just 45 minutes outside of Springfield in southwest Missouri sits the small town of Stockton. Surrounded by rolling hills, rocky terrain, wooded acres, winding rivers and a beautiful lake, it is the place Kalena Bruce calls her hometown — and a rural community she wants to save for future generations.
Stockton historically has been a growing community. From the 1880s — when the town population was just 407, according to the U.S. Census — to the latest record of 1,859 residents in 2015, the town has sustained steady growth over the years. But Bruce knows that is not the case for many rural communities. She plans to use her new role as American Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers chair to encourage young people to return the farm and their hometowns.
"For me, it comes back to building our rural communities," she says. Bruce finds that too often, young people grow up and leave their farm and community behind in search of opportunity. "We need to make sure that there is something for them to come back for."
She is focusing on the younger generation, those ages 18 to 22, trying to reach them with the importance of farming and rural communities. College is not for everybody, Bruce says. "We are now seeing a generation coming out of high school that is seeing the value of developing a trade," she notes. "I hope that brings them back to rural communities sooner."
The Cedar County native was elected by her peers to serve as the AFB YF&R chair in January. She would like to see a program that reaches out to high school graduates and trade school students to show them the benefits of working in a small town, opening a shop in a rural community or returning to the farm. "I just really want to help bridge that gap," she says. "We need that next generation if our rural communities are going to not only survive, but also thrive."
Bruce will draw on personal experience to help others.
FAMILY FOCUS: The Bruces are fifth-generation cattle farmers in southwest Missouri. Billy (left) and Kalena Bruce (right) hope that their young daughter, Willa Grace, will be the sixth generation to return to their farm in Cedar County. Both Billy and Kalena serve on the AFB Young Farmers & Ranchers committee representing Missouri. Kalena was selected as committee chair.
The path home
Her family has been farming in Cedar County since 1847. They are cattle ranchers. Farming is in their blood. "This is where I was born and raised," she explains. Bruce farms alongside her husband, Billy, and 2-year-old daughter, Willa Grace. They are fifth-generation cattle producers. "(Willa Grace) loves everything about the farm," Bruce says, "We are excited to watch her grow into the sixth generation."
The couple operates a commercial cow-calf herd and backgrounds their own calves. They are also part of a family agritourism venture with U-pick strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries, along with a pumpkin patch and corn maze in the fall. "We are very diversified," Bruce explains.
However, they also have off-farm jobs. She is a certified public accountant for Integrity Tax & Accounting in the nearby town of Bolivar. Her husband is an auctioneer. Both are active in their communities through organizations like the Missouri Farm Bureau.
She hopes her experiences of returning to the family farm and rural community will encourage others to do the same. "I hope we can educate others," Bruce says, "so that they can become leaders in their communities."