NE1749: Enhancing Rural Economic Opportunities, Community Resilience, and Entrepreneurship

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active


Statement of Issues and Justification

The NE1049 group (Community Health and Resilience) formally requests consideration for a revision/replacement as its five-year term ends. The group is in its fourth incarnation (NE1029, NE1011, and NE162), and was originally organized prior to the establishment of the new NIFA focus areas.  This project will extend the group’s efforts by extending and expanding previous areas of research, while also exploring new issues facing rural areas. 


Overview.  Rural communities face a wide range of economic growth and development issues ranging from changing economic structure to public service provision.  A recent Congressional Briefing on the changing demographics of rural America, “Changing Demographics Reshape Rural America” (Population Reference Bureau, 2017) noted that around 2010, for the first time rural counties began experiencing an overall population loss, reflecting out-migration of young adults, decreasing births, and older adults aging in place. Populations with large shares of old, poor, or minorities have different needs for medical care, legal assistance, and social services, yet rural areas characterized by chronic out-migration are unlikely to attract highly educated professionals to provide those services as these areas lack urban amenities, good schools, and high-quality health care. A related area is retirement/wealth distribution issues, as we are facing the retirement of the first generation to fully embrace individual retirement accounts, which could lead to an intergenerational shift in wealth which didn’t occur with pension-based systems.  Rural areas are also more diverse now than they were 20 years ago, as jobs in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and food processing brought an influx of immigrants.


Additionally, U.S. military veterans are disproportionately represented in rural areas.  Since 36 percent of veterans who use the Veteran’s Administration (VA) for health care live in rural areas, distances to VA facilities pose challenges. These veterans could be an important resource for rural communities, bringing educational skills and leadership experiences. Finally, considering health, urban mortality rates have been dropping faster than rural rates since 1985.  “Deaths of despair” due to suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug overdoses are most prevalent in rural parts of the nation. “Accumulated disadvantage” related to low education levels, unemployment, poor mental and physical health, and isolation puts rural residents at higher risk of premature death (Population Reference Bureau, 2017).

USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Action Plan (February, 2012) presents a vision to address these rural problems using “Impact-driven agricultural science” to expand economic opportunity through innovation, promote sustainability and conservation, enhance environmental quality, and improve quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society.  Of the seven goals identified in the REE plan, four are relevant to the new NE1079 proposal:

  1. Rural-Urban Interdependence and Prosperity. While many rural communities have taken advantage of new economic opportunities, others have experienced persistent outmigration, poverty, and/or stagnant labor markets. How rural areas position themselves through diversification and enhanced entrepreneurship to better compete in a global environment where skills, knowledge, and innovation are key drivers of economic growth will be key to enhanced resiliency.  Rural communities need to take advantage of market opportunities (e.g. local/regional/organic food systems) and technologies (e.g. broadband, green technologies, and renewable energies).  There is also a need to establish determinants of rural prosperity and develop indicators to measure regional assets and performance.

  2. Sustainable Use of Natural Resources. Technologies and management prescriptions need to be developed to produce needed products while conserving natural resources, and provide reliable water sources for energy, ecosystem services, and water-rights claims of Native Americans.  

  3. Education and Science Literacy. Decreases in the rural workforce will exacerbate labor costs in rural areas; economic conditions in rural areas already make it difficult to attract and retain workers, particularly young people who leave rural areas for better social and career options.

  4. Responding to Climate and Energy Needs. Agricultural and forestry producers, land managers, and other decision makers need tools to help with greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation.    

It is notable that there is substantial overlap between these goals and the recent Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America (The White House, 2017) which establishes an Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.  Some of the functions of this task force include identifying legislative, regulatory, and policy changes to promote rural America agriculture, economic development, job growth, infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, energy security, and quality of life, specifically promoting long-term, sustainable rural development, expanding educational opportunities for students in rural communities (especially in agricultural fields), ensuring access to a reliable workforce, and issues regarding property rights, public lands, and advancing traditional and renewable energy production.

Recent and ongoing projects in these areas by members of NE1049 include local foods and sustainable small scale agriculture, water and environmental issues pertaining to rural communities, rural amenities and economic growth and development, rural tourism, agricultural tourism and recreation, rural access to information technology, links between broadband provision and employment, impacts of state tax and expenditure limitations on state and local governments, economic impacts of renewable energy industries on the local economy, and new measures to implement the community capitals framework.  In its 2017 annual meeting, the group identified three primary research areas which link to the priorities set out by REE and the Interagency Task Force on Agricultural and Rural Prosperity around which it wishes to engage in the coming years:  Rural Entrepreneurship and Community Well-being; Community Resilience; and Energy and Land Use policies in rural areas.  In developing a vision for the next iteration of the research project, we note that many rural areas continue the economic shift from extractive industries to retirement or tourism based economies, while some regions are moving toward energy development (e.g. fracking).  Changes in labor availability in rural areas, due partly to population decline, may cause substantial shifts in economic opportunity.  If labor becomes more expensive, more automation may result.  Land use issues also may play a major role in development and change in rural areas, with proposed changes in federal policies, federal land and water management, and land ownership which could affect income and employment.  Development of renewable energy sources like wind and solar also have the potential to cause changes in land use and economic structure in rural areas.  More “traditional” energy sources also affect local conditions, with the siting of pipelines and powerlines creating both opportunities and controversy.  These issues and the research they will motivate fit well under the goals outlined by REE’s Action Plan, as described in the objectives listed in a later section.

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