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Community Life & Neighboring In Iowa

Community Life & Neighboring In Iowa

Friends and neighbors are a critical part of social support networks and influence the quality of life. The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has tracked changes in rural social networks for 30 years.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is an annual survey that collects and makes available information on issues of importance to rural communities across Iowa and the Midwest. Conducted every year since its establishment in 1982, the Farm Poll is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation.

Iowa State University Extension and the Iowa Ag and Home Economics Experiment Station, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Ag Statistics Service are all partners in the annual Farm Poll effort. The latest poll was taken in 2010 and results have been analyzed for the questions and answers. Discussed below are the survey results on the topic of "Community Life and Neighboring."

Figure 1.

Latest poll focus is on community and economic development

Much of the 2010 Farm Poll survey focused on community and economic development issues. The survey was mailed to 2,224 farm operators in Iowa and useful responses were received from 1,360 farmers. Copies of this or any other year's survey reports are available from your ISU Extension county office, the ISU Extension Online Store at or the ISU Extension Sociology site

"We thank the many farm families who responded to this year's survey and appreciate their continued participation in the Farm Poll," says J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., ISU Extension sociologist, who coordinates the poll.

Highlights from poll on "Community Life & Neighboring"

Friends and neighbors are a critical part of social support networks and influence quality of life.

Figure 2.

The Farm Poll has tracked changes in rural social networks for nearly 30 years. Similar to previous years, the 2010 survey points to mixed perceptions of the current state of rural social relations.

On the down side, nearly 90% of farmers agreed that people do not depend on each other as they have in the past; 71% believed that they have fewer neighbors than they did 10 years ago; 55% indicated that they only see their neighbors when they drive by their farms; and only 32% agreed that their neighborhoods are close-knit (table 1). Questions examining changes in relationships between neighbors over the last 10 years provided similar results: 58% believed neighbors helping each other had declined, and 79% indicated that visitation among neighbors had declined (table 2).

Not all assessments of community life and neighboring were negative. On the positive side, 72% of farmers agreed that they can always count on their neighbors if they need help, and only about one-third indicated that people do not seem to help each other as much as they did in the past (table 1). And 69% agreed that when people in their communities need a hand, there are always neighbors who are willing to help out.

Farmers' assessments of changes in their own relationships with neighbors indicated stability over the last decade: 77% of farmers rated their level of helping other neighbors as either unchanged or improved and 59% indicated that the amount of visiting they do with neighbors had stayed the same or increased (table 2).

The Farm Poll has been tracking quality of life (QOL) among Iowa farmers every even-numbered year since 1982. Results from 2008 showed the largest increases in QOL in several years. Assessments from 2010 were largely positive as well.

Eighty-three percent of farmers reported that their families' quality of life had either stayed the same (52%) or increased (31%) over the previous five years. Farmers' appraisals of how other families in their communities had fared were somewhat less positive, with 52% reporting no change and 17% reporting improvements.

Attitudes about future QOL were generally bright, with 79% of farmers predicting no change or improvement for their own families and 69% forecasting the same for other families in their communities. Projections regarding the overall economic prospects for Iowa farmers were less optimistic: 41% believed that they would deteriorate, 17% predicted improvement, and the remaining 42% expected no change.

Population loss has occurred in 75% of Iowa's counties

More than three-quarters of Iowa's counties have lost population since 1980, and half have seen their populations drop by more than 10%. Counties that rely the most on farming have generally been the hardest hit, with a number of Iowa's farm-dependent counties losing 20% or more of their population between 1980 and 2000.

Over that same period, the rural population that lives on farms declined from nearly 400,000 to under 200,000. While this is a long-term trend, population loss, especially the loss of young, educated people from Iowa's rural areas— often referred to as the "rural brain drain"—has garnered increasing attention over the last several years.

This year's Farm Poll included two sets of questions to explore farmers' perspectives related to population decline, and especially the loss of young people from rural areas. The first asked farmers to evaluate several key issues related to population decline. The second set of questions focused on the loss of young people to other areas and examines reasons underlying that out-migration.

Are you concerned about the loss of rural population?

The first set of questions asked farmers to rate the degree to which a series of population-related issues are a concern in their communities on a five-point scale ranging from "not a concern at all" (1) to "a major concern" (5).

The highest-rated issues were directly related to the out-migration of younger community members. Three items were rated at 3.5 on the five-point scale: inability to attract or retain young people; loss of the brightest young people to other places; and, an increasing proportion of older residents due to out-migration of young people (figure 1). Following in order of level of concern were the loss of young people to urban areas (3.4) and declining viability of local schools (3.4).

Interestingly, general population decline, while it did rate as a concern, was rated lowest at 3.3 on the five-point scale. This finding suggests that overall population decline is less of a concern in rural communities than the loss of young people.

Figure 1. Concern about population loss bar chart place here

Farm Poll participants were provided a list of 11 statements about factors that may be considered potential contributors to rural out-migration among Iowa's youth and young adults. They were asked to indicate their level of agreement with each statement, "about the reasons that young people leave," on a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

Analyses focused only on the farmers who indicated that this phenomenon is a major concern in their communities. Only responses from farmers who selected four or five on one or both of the five-point concern scales for the items, "the loss of young people who are moving to larger cities," and, "the loss of the brightest young people to other places," were analyzed.

Economic factors are main reason why young people leave

Not surprisingly, economic factors top the list of potential reasons for leaving. Around 95% of farmers agreed or strongly agreed that young people have left their communities because larger cities or towns offer higher paying jobs. And 94% agreed that a lack of good jobs in their communities has contributed to young people leaving (figure 2).

Two other statements received levels of agreement greater than 50%: "There is really nothing here to retain young families," (60%); and, "Young people are no longer interested in farming and rural living," (51%).

Several other statements run counter to recent assertions about community actions and reactions to the out-migration of young rural Iowans. Some analysts suggest that many rural communities have done little to retain their young people, or have actively encouraged them, especially the best and brightest, to leave in search of opportunities elsewhere.

On the whole, Farm Poll participants do not agree with those assessments. Only about one-third of farmers agreed that community leaders do not appear to care about loss of the younger population, and just 32% agreed that their communities have ignored the issue (figure 2). Only 30% agreed that young people are encouraged to leave.

Nevertheless, these levels of agreement with statements about inaction and/or explicit or implicit encouragement to leave, indicate that a substantial minority of farmers believe that their communities haven't done enough to retain young people.

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