Driving the rural Midwest can be a distressing, depressing experience. The countryside is as beautiful as ever -- not just the rolling hills and forests that look like a Grant Wood painting come to life, but even the flatter vistas across fields of corn and beans, so lush in summer and still majestic in winter, as evocative as the ocean, primed to spring into life almost any day now. The white farmhouses, red barns and blue silos seems to paint the spectrum of America.
But look closer. Too many of the farmhouses are derelict, their families gone, their land consolidated into the farm next door. Too many farm towns are derelict, too, their main streets reduced to a bar or two, their schools closed, their groceries replaced by a Casey's out on the highway, their residents often people who are there only because they are cheap places to live. Even more substantial towns are dog-eared affairs. Their population has been shrinking for decades. The high school graduates smart kids who leave and don't come back. On the edge of town stands a half-empty industrial park, the symbol of an earlier grab for prosperity that didn't quite work out.
Many of these towns look like they've surrendered to an economy, now global, that has no place for them. Some truly have surrendered and may have no future. But others realize that the world has changed and they must change with it.
To these defiant places, Mark Drabenstott has something to say. Drabenstott may be the leading thinker on rural issues in the Midwest. For years he was director of the Center for the Study of Rural America at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. More recently, he has been working with the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He's studied and consulted around the globe and looked hard at his own Midwest.
The result is a major report called "Past Silos and Smokestacks: Transforming the Rural Economy in the Midwest," which The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has just issued. It's the Council's latest Heartland Paper, a series intended to analyze the Midwest's biggest challenges and draw a roadmap to solutions.
Quite a lot has been written on the rural Midwest in recent years. It's hard to imagine that there will be anything better.
Drabenstott's title, "Beyond Silos and Smokestacks," is meant literally. Farming is still here and isn't going away. But for all the talk about micro-farming and locavores, farms are going to keep getting bigger and farm populations smaller. The truth is, it's been years since most Midwesterners earned their living on farms. Factory jobs, often tied to autos and farm equipment, have long supported the Midwest, perhaps more so than any other part of the country. Those jobs also have been dwindling for years, and they're the ones that are being most vigorously outsourced now.
So neither silos nor smokestacks can support us anymore. So what now? That's Drabenstott's theme.
He says individual towns and counties aren't big enough to chart their own futures in this new global age. Instead they must get together, act regionally, become big enough to leverage resources and assets: the optimal region, he suggests, is 15 to 30 counties, maybe even more in sparsely-populated areas. This, he says, is "critical mass."
Then, he says, the regions have to count their blessings -- think hard about what they know and what they're good at, so they know what cards they have to play. Each region varies. So what's your strong suit? Tourism? Health care? A still strong cluster of industries? He calls this "distinct potential."
Third, stress innovation and entrepreneurialism. Most Midwesterns towns and counties put all their efforts into smokestack-chasing -- trying to bribe companies to move their operations to town. This is a fool's game, he says. Work instead with schools, community colleges and businesses to incubate local ideas, in the hope that they will hatch into locally-owned businesses that, unlike the imports, are likely to stay around for a while.
Drabenstott urges new state and federal policies to make this happen. But I get the feeling that he's not counting on state and federal governments for much help. Instead, his stress is on local people getting together in local regions, to create their own futures.
This is the lesson he has learned in work from Europe to China. And it's the lesson he's putting to use in regions here in the Midwest. He's been working with the Southern Minnesota Regional Competitiveness Project, spanning 38 counties, and with Riverlands, a newer regional development project embracing 14 counties in northwestern Illinois, eastern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin. Working across Midwestern state lines is tough, as anyone knows who's tried to do it, and this project, even more than the one in southern Minnesota, could point to the Midwest's future, if Drabenstott and his colleagues can pull it off.
The Council is proud to put Mark Drabenstott's ideas before a larger audience. Much of what he says ties in with some of our other recent themes, especially our recent Policy Brief by Frank Samuel seeking new ways to inject venture captial into innovative startup businesses.
Both Drabenstott and Samuel want the Midwest to recover the knack of innovation that powered our economy for a century. Both want us to stop looking to the outside world and start inventing our own future. both think we're smart and hard-working, but we aren't turning this brainpower and diligence into a 21st century-economy.
I have the feeling there are a lot of Midwesterners who agree. Our purpose here is to give them a voice.