Caruso Waiting to deliver a load of sunflowers at a processing plant, dryland farmer Tim Peterson was of two minds about rural Kansas.
On one hand, some folks rooted in the vast stretches of empty landscape have become energized by innovation and entrepreneurship, he said.
On the other hand, global market forces are consolidating family farms into ever-growing corporate farms, chasing the population away.
"We're fighting what's going on globally. This is happening in all the industrial countries - increased urbanization, increased concentration of land in fewer and fewer hands," Peterson said.
Not keeping pace
Kansas is a poster child for migration out of the rural areas. Fifty-four of the state's 105 counties have less population now than in 1900. Fifty counties lost population between 1990 and 2000, 12 by more than 10 percent.
When William Allen White wrote his famous "What's the matter with Kansas?" screed in 1896, he complained about eight years of slow population growth.
"Little does he know that it is going to go on for the next 110 years," said Jim Hays, a research specialist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. "How quickly the world changed. The Kansas of the late 19th century - the growth, the vigor - it quickly changed. We had eight members of Congress back then, now we have four, and we're probably going to go down to three in the next census," he said.
According to Hays' research, in 1890, Kansas had 2.27 percent of the United States' population. Today that has decreased to less than 1 percent.
So-called frontier and rural counties continue to lose population while urban and semi-urban counties gain.
Trying to stem the migration, Laura McClure of Osborne spends most of her waking hours promoting rural Kansas.
It's a tough job. She said some communities are moving forward and others aren't. Countless studies have been done on why that is, but none seem to have a definitive answer.
But McClure said it comes down to local leadership.
"The biggest asset that communities have to have are leaders," she said.
"You can drive into a community and you can tell by the attitude, what the people are saying, if there is strong leadership that has hope and vision," she said.
She said Osborne County, which has about 4,200 residents, has seen some young families returning for the easier pace of life and safety. Connected to their jobs by the Internet, she said, they earn a living out of their homes thanks to broadband access.
For example, a family company in Downs competes worldwide in advertising and marketing farm equipment, she said.
Why should we care?
But with market forces driving people to leave western Kansas and many other rural areas, is there any reason to try to stop the migration?
In the 1980s, professors Frank and Deborah Popper raised hackles by saying the Great Plains should be given back to the buffalo. They said the population declines were inevitable because modern agriculture required fewer people and eventually agriculture on the plains would be unsustainable because of dwindling groundwater resources.
But Terry Woodbury, a consultant for small communities, said society needs rural, small-town and isolated parts of Kansas.
Woodbury splits his time between two worlds, living in an apartment loft in Kansas City, Kan., and his ranch in Wichita County.
When he speaks to urban high-rollers, he asks for a show of hands of how many grew up in small towns. Always, more than half of them had, he said.
Then he asks them to recall their childhood and say whether they believe their children, now living in cities and suburbs, were experiencing as full a life. The answer is invariably no, he said.
More on western Kansas
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- Basketball refs needed in western Kansas
- Regents' AccessUS program a slow-go
- State's rural population continues to shrink
- Corkins, Morris not well-received in tour out west
- Corkins, Morris to visit western Kansas
- School districts struggle to fit funding fight into budget
- Hanston, Pawnee Heights merge into same elementary school
"If we are abandoning our small towns where our core values of neighboring and community are formed, we will have a society that is in real trouble in 50 years," he said.
Woodbury has a missionary zeal to "rebuild the public square."
Getting small communities back on their feet, engaged in their futures, will produce the leadership needed to tackle the real issues confronting our society, such as the ones brought up by the Poppers, he said.
Currently, he said, there is too much cynicism and single-interest politics, which in turn chases away quality leaders from politics.
But he said he was optimistic that as small communities grapple with the tough issues of surviving, they will produce the kind of leaders that can help meet society's future problems.
"Anything is possible if you have a dozen people who have dedicated themselves.
"In these communities, I find incredible human beings at work. They have everything at stake, their life, history, future savings. It's all on the line," he said.
Peterson, the farmer in western Kansas, said he has tried to adjust to the market forces. He plants corn and milo and said his 400 acres of sunflowers are used for a specialty food oil low in trans fats.
"There are isolated pockets of local people taking control on what is going on," he said.
What the candidates say about rural development
What have you done in the past and what will you do in the future to increase development in rural areas of Kansas and reduce the out-migration from large areas of the state?
Kathleen Sebelius: Rural Kansas is one of the treasures of our state that we must continue working to protect, preserve and grow. In 2004, I signed the Kansas Economic Growth Act, which included the rural business development program. This program provides $7 million in tax credits over a three-year period. This past year, I increased the rural business development tax credit from 50 percent to 75 percent. Also, I have recently called for and signed legislation that cuts the taxes on new equipment and machinery - which is a great opportunity for every business, and especially farmers. Ethanol use is a very important part of moving Kansas' economy forward. I chair the 32-state National Ethanol Coalition created by the National Governor's Assn. At home in Kansas, I signed legislation this year that removes ethanol labels on gas at the pump, and ethanol use has increased 600 percent in the last year in this state. I have also signed two laws that, combined, reduced the tax on ethanol by 7 cents in 2007 and 13 cents by 2020. Creating the foundation for strong development in rural Kansas is only half the battle. We must work to promote these great opportunities throughout the state, the country, and the world. In 2004, I signed the Agritourism Promotion Act, as well as traveling to Japan to lobby for reopening their markets to beef. Our agritourism industry is on the rise, and Japan is nearing a renewed relationship with Kansas beef producers. Providing accessible health care is a challenge for rural Kansas, and it is vital if we are to maintain a rural way of life. Since becoming governor, I have seized every opportunity to make health care more affordable and accessible. I proposed and signed a law that doubles tax credits for small businesses so they could afford to provide health insurance for their employees. I've also approved Health Savings Accounts that let people pay less for health treatment by using pre-tax dollars while saving for retirement. Moving forward, I will continue not only strengthening our bedrock rural industries such as agriculture and beef, but also expand our newest industries in renewable energies such as wind and bio-fuels. With Japan having reopened its markets to American beef, Kansas must regain our standing as a primary exporter of this product. Restoring this relationship will bolster the rural Kansas economy and reaffirm our relationship with a global trading partner. I have proven my commitment to these efforts for the past four years, and I hope to be given the chance to continue for four more.
Jim Barnett: In order to reverse the downward population trend in rural Kansas, we must provide greater economic opportunity, excellent education and quality health care. In the Kansas Senate, I helped write key components of the Kansas Bioscience initiative, which will help generate new business and new jobs in all parts of Kansas. I worked to secure funding for the Future Teacher Academy to expose kids from Kansas to the teaching profession and encourage them to consider teaching as a career. I have been very active in supporting Critical Access Hospitals for our rural communities, as well as the Kansas Health Policy Authority. Kansas spends approximately $150,000 for every child starting in kindergarten and completing a degree at one of the regents institutions. Too many of our graduates must relocate to a more urban area, or leave Kansas altogether, in order to find suitable employment. Job growth in Kansas has been at 1.9 percent during the Sebelius administration, compared with 3.1 percent in Missouri, 3.9 percent in Oklahoma and Nebraska, and 4.8 percent in Colorado. I have proposed a 10-percent investment tax credit for all businesses and farms, large or small. This would allow Kansas business to write off 10 percent of capital investments, encouraging more investment and greater job growth. This would be particularly beneficial to the key players in the future of rural Kansas, small businesses and those developing new technologies. Perhaps more than urban school districts, the schools in our smaller communities provide a center and an identity. We must continue to seek new efficiencies and greater opportunities for learning through technology in our rural school districts. As governor, I will continue to promote our network of rural medical facilities. It is much easier to grow our own health care professionals here in Kansas than trying to find them elsewhere. That's why I will fight to ensure that the KU Medical School retains as its primary mission the education of our future generation of doctors, nurses and other health care providers.