Time For A Rural Renewal?

Amidon, N.D. has the smallest county seat in the country. Its population is 25. The county has one-third the population it did 50 years ago.

"The greatest place to raise children is in this small rural area," says Jennifer Schaeffer. "It's not for everyone. I think you have to be a very resilient person to live in our communities."

Schaeffer and her family have a ranch outside Amidon. Kate Schaeffer is sixteen. Her brother, Colt, is ten. As much as they love where they live, children of ranch and farm families face an uncertain future.

"I plan on going to college for sure," says Kate. "If it happens that I come back to the ranch or marry a rancher, then that's where I'll be, I guess. But, people who live on a farm or a ranch most of their lives are moving out 'cause the money just isn't there."

The government used to have a name for areas this sparsely populated: wilderness. The depopulation found in Amidon is much the same throughout the rural Great Plains. The heartland is losing its soul — from North Dakota to north Texas and from the Missouri River to the Rockies.

"It's tough to make a living here," says Don Nordby, a cattle raiser. "The cows and the wheat sure don't pay all the bills. I've got quite a few friends that actually discourage their kids from coming back to the ranch or the farm."

In the past 20 years, 70 percent of rural counties have had major population losses. On average, rural population is down 30 percent. The farm economy has been contracting for decades. Other industries haven't picked up the slack. So people leave.

Peter Froelich of Dickinson State University in North Dakota has led a study of rural depopulation and he says towns are dying off.

"I think we have a lot of communities here that are on their last generation unless something happens to turn that around," says Froelich. "We're becoming sort of a bicoastal nation. The population is hollowing out from the center of the nation. The Great Plains, you know, is emptying."

The prosperity of the '90s never made it out here. Abandoned homes dot the countryside. Main Streets have shuttered stores, closed businesses. One-room schoolhouses, even churches, stand idle. Drought through much of the region has made this year tougher than most. Still, some are determined to stay.

"We work hard as hell out here and it's, uh, it can be a tough life," says Milt Hertz, a third-generation farmer. "Mother Nature can be very kind, but she can be very ruthless at time too."

Hertz's son, Shane, is a fourth-generation farmer. He says his family has occupied his farm since 1905, and he feels strongly that the legacy needs to continue. He hopes his grandchildren will pick up the legacy of their farm. Trying to "plant the seed" of encouragement in his grandchildren, he buys them toy tractors.

Shane estimates 90 percent of his childhood classmates has moved away and the next generation's population looks bleak.

"I graduated with 44 in my high school," says Hertz. "My nine-year-old daughter has 12 in her class, and my four-year-old son at this time will have four in his class."

"Our births peaked here 20 years ago at around 300 babies a year," says Dr. Terry Mack, one of 14 country doctors at a clinic serving 20,000 patients in North and South Dakota. "Last year we delivered 76 babies here."

He says it's more a geriatric practice now, as the population ages and the young people leave.

"You'd like your community to be everything it could be and when you're losing … a double-digit loss in population every decade, it's pretty hard to maintain community services that are essential," says Dr. Mack.

Some have suggested the heartland shouldn't be maintained. Write it off. Create a vast "Buffalo Commons" and return much of the Plains to how it was before the West was won.

That conquest of the West was spurred by the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave free land to pioneers settling the frontier. North Dakota was one of the last places homesteaded. European immigrants filled the territory at the turn of the 20th century.

Now, as communities die one by one, folks here say what's needed is something to keep their way of like alive — a homestead act for the 21st century.

"When America's cities suffered blight and problems, the country rushed to say let's save our cities — urban renewal, model cities," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "Now, the question is if the heartland of the country is losing its economic vitality, will the country decide that it's worth saving?"

Sen. Dorgan and Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, say it's time for a national commitment to rural renewal. Their plan, if passed, is to pay people to live in rural America. Sen. Dorgan says he wants a series of enterprising incentives to restore economic opportunity in the heartland, including, investment tax credits for businesses and college loan repayment for kids to relocate and work in rural areas losing its population.

There's no price tag yet for the senators' new Homestead Economic Opportunity Act. But Dorgan says what rural America has to offer the rest of the country is worth saving.

"There are in some parts of the country, people trying to re-create what we already have in these communities," says Sen. Dorgan. "Places where you have good strong schools, good places to raise a family, safe streets, good neighborhoods."

Government support of rural America is nothing new. Billions of federal dollars have poured in since the 1930s -- in the form of farm subsidies. Critics say that's led to overproduction, falling grain prices, and more corporate farms that have squeezed out the family farmer.

"We have to wean rural America away from dependency toward self-sufficiency," says Joel Kotkin of Pepperdine University who has studied rural America. "We have to look at how we can reanimate some of these communities, find economic purpose so that they can grow and prosper."

Kotkin says the cities are choking in sprawl and are increasingly becoming unpleasant and undistinguishable. "I think that we're a huge country," says Kotkin. "We can use more of our land productively so that our population can spread out and enjoy more of what America's all about."

Kotkin and others believe that a low cost of living and a good quality of life can attract industry and jobs to the heartland, now that new technology and telecommunications can allow remote towns to join the global economy. But it has to happen soon.

"What I'm afraid of is the digital revolution will have come too late to save a lot of these communities, because the process of deterioration and the exodus of young people will have gone too far to really save the day," says Kotkin.

It may not be the government, but entrepreneurs like Don Hedger offer the best hope for rural America.

"My wife and I both saw this area falling apart, literally," says Hedger. "We wanted to live here. We love this community."

After a career in aerospace, he came home to Killdeer, N.D., population about 800.

"We did our soul searching and said we're going to pitch in any way we can with our talents to try to keep our community going," says Hedger.

With just a few workers, he started Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing 15 years ago, making electronic circuit boards for airplanes. Now, he employs 130 people in four locations.

"I see it happening, that we can reach out to other communities and bring jobs and economic development into our area … keep these towns going," says Hedger. "I remember a quote by Teddy Roosevelt, 'What's good for North Dakota is good for America,' and I'm convinced that's right."

Back in Amidon, as he and his wife Sarah round up the bulls on their cattle ranch, Don Nordby would agree.

"All those people that talked about the buffalo commons, maybe that's what this country ends up being again, but I guess it's my dream that when I'm gone and dead, Amidon, North Dakota is still there," says Don Nordby. "You're very close to nature here — on her good days, and also on her bad days."

At the end of a good day, in Amidon and throughout rural America, it's that closeness that's held dear.