Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

State’s rural population continues to shrink

December 13, 2005


Say good-bye to small-town Kansas. It's fading.

Three-fourths of the state's 105 counties - all of them rural - lost population between 2000 and 2004.

And for the eighth consecutive year, 60 percent of the state's school districts lost enrollment in 2005.

"Many districts are talking about consolidation," said Jim Hays, a demographer with the Kansas Association of School Boards.

But that's not to say it's a popular topic.

"Many small, rural communities believe that without a local attendance center - at least an elementary school - they have no hope of attracting young families to live there," Hays said. "And then you have the sentimental aspects that come with closing a high school and the more tangible concerns over what happens to real estate values."

Earlier this year, the Nes Tre La Go school district in Utica dissolved after its enrollment fell below 40 students. Ness County's Ransom and Bazine school districts consolidated in 2004.

Today, at least six districts - all in counties bordering Nebraska - are publicly discussing consolidation:

¢ Jewell County - White Rock and Mankato.

¢ Washington County - Haddam and Washington.

Most of the fifth-grade students in Gina Holwick's class at McLouth Elementary School line up to go to computer lab Friday. For the eighth consecutive year, 60 percent of the state's school districts lost enrollment in 2005. McLouth has lost enrollment six out of the last seven years.

Most of the fifth-grade students in Gina Holwick's class at McLouth Elementary School line up to go to computer lab Friday. For the eighth consecutive year, 60 percent of the state's school districts lost enrollment in 2005. McLouth has lost enrollment six out of the last seven years.

¢ Republic County - Cuba and Belleville.

"This is my ninth year here," said Belleville school Supt. Larry Lysell. "My first year, we had 640 students. Today, we have 455."

The Cuba school district, he said, has fewer than 100 students.

"The goal is to keep something in Cuba for as long as we possibly can," Lysell said. "We're trying to take a negative and turn it into a positive for our students. That's the main thing."

Dying towns

The future is hardly bright. According to Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Republic County's 83 deaths last year were offset by only 46 births.

"We've got to find things people can do to stay in Republic County," said Lysell, who's also active in the county's economic development efforts. "What we have now is a sort of cycle - we give our kids a really good education, they go off to college and then they don't come back because they can't make the kind of money here that they can make in the larger cities.

"And then with fewer people here, we start to lose businesses," he said.

Lysell said he's also noticed young families are having fewer children than previous generations.

That's true throughout the United States, Hays said. "The baby boomers had fewer children than their parents did and they spread their child-bearing over a longer period of time, in some cases waiting until they were in their 30s."

Kansas public school enrollment peaked in 1973-74 at 479,344 students and in 1998-99 at 469,758 students. It's at about 466,000 now.

"Those are the baby boomers and what's called the 'baby boomer echo' or the baby boomers having kids," Hays said, referring to the early 1970s and the late 1990s.

"Barring something really dramatic happening, one can speculate that in the foreseeable future, at least, we'll never approach those numbers again," he said.

That's because the state's farm economy requires ever-fewer workers, said Joshua Rosenbloom, director of the Center for Economic & Business Analysis at Kansas University.

"Rural communities are dealing with some really difficult economies," Rosenbloom said. "At some point it becomes a little like trying to fight gravity."

Fewer farms

According to U.S. Census figures, Kansas had 110,000 farms in 1960. Today it has fewer than 64,000.

"You simply don't need as many people to farm the same amount of land today that you did 10 or 20 years ago," said Janet Harrah, director at the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

That's not true just in western Kansas, said Jean Rush, school superintendent in McLouth in Jefferson County.

"Our counselor did an informal survey a couple years ago and found that we had only one family that made its sole living off of farming," Rush said. "We had a lot that farmed on the side, but only one that farmed full-time. That's a huge shift for this community."

McLouth has lost enrollment six of the last seven years. It now has 553 students.

But McLouth, Rush said, is close enough to Lawrence and Kansas City that, eventually, housing developments will reach eastern Jefferson County, bringing children with them.

"I really believe it's coming," she said. "But right now housing availability in McLouth is really limited."

Most small towns aren't as fortunate.

A lone driver makes his way over a rural Jefferson County road south of McLouth. According to the U.S. Census, three-fourths of the state's 105 counties - all of them rural - lost population between 2000 and 2004.

A lone driver makes his way over a rural Jefferson County road south of McLouth. According to the U.S. Census, three-fourths of the state's 105 counties - all of them rural - lost population between 2000 and 2004.

"If you look across the country, the rural areas with the least growth are those that are not adjacent to a metropolitan area," said KU's Rosenbloom.

Those that have bucked the trend, he said, tend to be near recreational opportunities "like lakes or casinos" or have niche economies such as the meatpacking industry in Dodge City and Liberal.

But "these are exceptions rather than the rule," said WSU's Harrah, adding, "I don't expect to see a turnaround."

Getting older

Coupled with young families and high school graduates leaving, small-town populations are aging.

"We have many counties in Kansas where the median age is 50 - that means half the people are over 50," Harrah said.

Jim Beckwith is executive director at the Northeast Kansas Area Agency on Aging based in Brown County, where the median age in 2000 was 40 and where one out every five people is 65 or older.

For comparison, Douglas County's 2000 median age was 27; 8 percent of the population is 65 or older.

"The 80-acre farm is no more, and the kids are leaving for the high-tech jobs in the big cities," Beckwith said.

"You may not see it there in Lawrence," he told the Journal-World, "but out here this shrinking-population stuff is for real. Half the people I've got taking care of seniors are seniors themselves because the pool of caregivers just keeps getting smaller and smaller. You can't get a young person to care for a senior when they can make the same money standing outside a casino (in neighboring Jackson County) saying, 'Hi, welcome to Harrah's.'"

The declines have the attention of Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington.

Kensington, population 500, is in Smith County, where almost one-third of the population is 65 or older and where school-district enrollment is below 200.

Last year, 65 Smith County residents died; 32 were born.

"It's been devastating," Lee said. "I don't know the answer, but I think it's pretty clear that economic efforts that have been undertaken in this state haven't worked. I don't think they have a clue what we're dealing with out here."


sharron5rs 12 years, 6 months ago

What about the small towns in Douglas county? It seems to me that Eudora is growing by leaps and bounds. From having 2 schools in the late 80s to 5 at present. and talking of adding trailors soon. The amount of "country land" that has been sold for development in the last 5-10 years is very high in the Eudora Township, not including what is being anexed into the city itself. Could that be some of the decline in the smaller schools through the state?

gccs14r 12 years, 6 months ago

Loss of population out west is what will flip Kansas to blue in another 20 years.

hawkbygod 12 years, 6 months ago

The Eudora population increase has more to do with younger people moving from Johnson County/Lawrence/ and adjacent rural areas to find affordable housing in which to start/raise a family rather than people moving from western kansas.

As for the "blue" factor. Have you seen Olathe? It is the fastest growing city in the state, and it is more "red" then anywhere out West. Heck, just look at Olathe's State Reps and Senators. Know matter what happens out west, Kansas is not turning "blue"

Liberty 12 years, 6 months ago

I would like to know about all the good deals on 80 acre farms in the area. Why don't they advertise around here? Many people looking to get out of the big taxing counties like Johnson county and Douglas county. High tech jobs are dead, or soon will be in the city. At the rate that companies are outsourcing to foreign countries computer jobs and other high tech, the 80 acre self sufficent farm just might make a come back.

badger 12 years, 6 months ago

Guys, don't pick on bankboy.

Kansasans are supposed to be compassassionate.

badger 12 years, 6 months ago

On topic, I think this is a big problem.

Small towns near urban centers, like Eudora, are essentially getting absorbed and turned into bedroom communities where a large part of the population gets up in the morning, drives off to work in the city, probably socializes, shops, and dines predominantly in the city, coming home to sleep. Eudora doesn't even have much of a grocery store (I count the C&S as a glorified convenience store; I got bad chicken there and returned, only to be given another package of bad chicken in exchange - with the July date label slapped over the June one). A lot of its new residents spend as little money there and utilize as little local business as they possibly can. It's headed towards turning into just another collection of suburbs on the fringe of the KC metro area.

Without a major metro area, however, or some 'draw' to the county, other towns just dry up and die. Corporate farming has made family farming less profitable, so fewer kids are following into that tradition. When the old farmes die off, their land can be snapped up nice and cheap by the corporate farms if the family doesn't want it and locals are too strapped to buy it for themselves.

Whoever talked about a 'self-sustaining 80-acre farm' might want to take a closer look. It's nearly impossible to make a living farming these days, to bring in enough income to keep the farm out of the red. Most farmers have at least seasonal second jobs. Those 80 acres would be a wealthy man's hobby farm, most likely. I have nothing against hobby farming; it's just an expensive hobby.

Rural America, not just rural Kansas, is fading - either absorbed or emptied as the cities grow. I think it's tremendously sad.

Janet Lowther 12 years, 6 months ago

Well, I understand you CAN still make a living on an 80 acre farm - If you are willing to live and farm like the Amish.

Now, making a living on 80 acres with tractors and air-conditioning? You might still pull that one off if everything is already paid for, the house is super-insulated and you like a "back to the land" lifestyle. Even then, it is unlikely unless you produce a product which will bring more than commodity prices: Organic vegetables or fruit; Free range chicken & eggs (Have you priced those at the Merc? Several times the price of factory farm chicken & eggs, but you get a better tasting product.)

badger 12 years, 6 months ago

I'm all for the family farm shifting to organic/free range choices. I think it's one of the few ways that the lifestyle can survive. Oddly, it also means a regression of sorts, because most of the organic methods are also similar to the much older traditional ones, and that entertains me a little, the notion of going forward by also going backwards on some things at the same time.

However, the transition is expensive, because you can end up having to let fields lie fallow, or farm organically for a certain number of years without charging the 'organic' prices until your soil is free of chemicals and you can get the (sometimes expensive and very restrictive) organic certification - depending on what you're raising and how you've farmed in years past.

Then there is the trouble of getting your produce to people willing to pay that price for it. You have to be producing enough to make the speedy transport of it over several hundred miles to the nearest place where people will pay for organic food worthwhile. 80 acres, though it sounds huge to me in my patio-balcony apartment with my tomatoes in pots, may just barely give you the capacity to merit transport.

If you have the ability to lose some money on it for a few years, the transition to organic/free range is a great one, but you have to have that safety net.

Jamesaust 12 years, 6 months ago

And yet Kansas seems determined to drive people and business out - I guess ideas do have consequences.

Densmore 12 years, 6 months ago

As someone mentioned above, 80 acres is a hobby farm.

If you want to survive in this state with 80 acres, build a neo-Nazi survivalist retreat, complete with pop-up targets and assault rifle training. Sort of a Kaliban training grounds, western style.

bankboy119 12 years, 6 months ago

Wow, yeah I made a really good point. Me and my Kansasans are going real far.

As for "What's the Matter with Kansas?" I don't read liberal trash.

How many of O'Reilly's or Coulter's books have you read? Many of them have been on the best seller list as well.

Now...I don't think there are any more spelling errors in here. At least I hope not.

badger 12 years, 6 months ago


Read both O'Reilly and Coulter. They're not nearly as funny.

By the way, is he still 'liberal trash' if a large part of his argument is, "Man, boy howdy did the Democrats EVER mux this up!" or does he get to be another kind of trash?

'Cause a lot of the book is in fact devoted to castigating Dems for getting totally played.

Densmore 12 years, 6 months ago


How do you know that it is "liberal trash" if you have not read it? Oh, I forgot. You were home schooled. Never mind.

Liberty 12 years, 6 months ago

For the nay sayers out there that say you can't make it on a farm: take a quick look at this web site...

This guy built his own house and has real things that work. But you would have to go into it without a bank loan.

go_jayhawks 12 years, 6 months ago

If rural communities want to grow, they need to act like it. Local government needs to support growth instead of fighting it. The community needs to welcome newcomers instead of isolating them. Some things young families are looking for are affordable housing, EXCELLENT schools, job opportuntities, available daycare and modern conveniences such as broadband internet service. Without these rural populations will continue to decline.

athene 12 years, 6 months ago

I was born and grew up in Lawrence, moved to northern California during college, have lived in other places and now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our farmer's market on Tuesday afternoons in Berkeley is mobbed. Organic farmers from the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley south to Fresno do well selling their fresh sparkling-tasting produce and naturally-raised red meat, eggs, and just-caught-today salmon. There are well-off middle-aged north Berkeley types (the ones living in those paid-for $1 million houses) and single mothers and disabled on food stamps (yes, the farmers take them in payment).

Yes, there's no more market niche for more oil-fertilized grains and tasteless underripe junk. But there is a future for organic. It costs more and it should, because it's building the body, not filling it with sludge. It's an investment in yourself, your arteries and your healthy old age.

So, California is filled with small organic farming operations now. Why don't Kansas rural people go that direction? They'll have to adapt to a lower water table, no longer depleting the aquifer so egregiously, dry-farming, going with the seasons, researching their markets--but CA organic farmers are already doing that.

I spent a couple Septembers recently travelling in central KS, including Republic Cty where my father's father's father homesteaded. Yes, those towns are withering, and it makes me sad. But maybe it doesn't have to be that way. As (jayhawks) pointed out above, if schools and housing get upgraded (considerably! unfortunately KS has a ways to go with the former, now...) perhaps there are still options for those areas.

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