Renewing the Countryside: Five Reasons Why the Next Generation Can Revitalize Rural America

Talk about a recipe for potential disaster.  Combine a down economy, changing agriculture practices, rising unemployment and the end result looks grim.  But here’s the secret ingredient  revitalizing and greening our countryside:  young people under 35.

Profiled in the new book, Renewing the Countryside: Youth, this new generation is making their mark on rural areas, from starting new farms to putting out their own entrepreneurial shingle in small towns. Renewing the Countryside: Youth showcases fifty case study stories, one from each state in the United States, cooking up a super-size serving of inspiration for what can be done in similar communities throughout rural America.

Renewing the Country (RTC), a Minnesota-based non-profit organization, specializes in championing such stories, telling the story of the small-scale but big impact individuals and organizations that are creatively crafting livelihoods that positively impact their rural communities. While other RTC books focus on stories within specific states such as Wisconsin, this latest book project, published in partnership with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), uniquely celebrates rural youth.

In addition to the case study stories themselves, the engaging writing and photography also came from a team young artists across the nation. But beyond the inspiring read, this book serves as a starter blueprint for others looking to either return to or plant new roots in rural America, no matter one’s age.  Looking at these case study stories collectively, five themes emerge that identify why this particular group of young people are succeeding in the countryside: 1.   Glass Half Full Vision

Maybe it’s all that fresh country air, but the common ingredient among these stories is an overriding sense of optimism to transform their dreams into reality.  The common theme behind these case studies isn’t if their vision would succeed, but when and, importantly, how that vision evolved and grew along the way. Perhaps necessity drives this spirit of hope:  the individuals profiled in this book realize that the responsibility lies within themselves to create change.  As Kathi Wines reflects on her efforts to make ranching a viable career for future generations, she says, “The younger generation will determine the future of ranching.”

2.  Tap Into Resources

Whether someone started with deep family farming roots or came into the country lifestyle as a young adult, the people profiled in Renewing the Countryside: Youth readily take advantage of the various resources and networks available to support rural enterprises. Many of those raised on farm settings credit their active member in youth groups like 4-H and the Future Farmers of America (FFA) as the reason why they stayed in rural settings.  Others, like Jason and Laura Penner of Minnesota, new to raising hogs, participated in the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings program, a farmer-led educational training and support program that enabled them to develop a business plan prior to investing capital.  Others, like the multi-generational Bauman family farming together in Kansas, applied for and received SARE youth grants funding organic farming research.

3.  Honor Traditional Roots

The young people profiled in Renewing the Countryside: Youth share a common reverence for the learning and experiences of past rural generations.  They readily embrace traditional approaches that still make economic and environmental sense today.  Ragan Sutterfield of Arkansas focuses on animal power on his farm, aiming to use pigs to replace his tractor. “Why use technology when the animals are happy to do the work?” he explains.

4.  Embrace Technology and Innovation

Honoring tradition approaches to agriculture are balanced with tapping into new technology, making new business upstarts more viable in isolated rural areas.  Cain Bond launched Peddlers Bicycle Shop from an Internet connection in his bedroom in rural Indiana; his business has evolved into an enterprise grossing over a million dollars yearly that sells bicycle parts and strollers around the world.

Likewise, young people featured in Renewing the Countryside: Youth approach their enterprises with a constant sense of innovation, not afraid to experiment with new ventures and approaches. Noemi Alvarez farms with her family in Texas and has experimented with everything from raising broiler chickens to making strawberry ice cream.  While some ventures may succeed better than others, there remains a strong willingness to embrace failure as a learning opportunity.

5.  Collaborate

None of these case study profiles see themselves as an island.  They openly embrace collaboration and credit much of their success to support and resources received from their community, organizations, friends and family. Family remains a core reason these ventures thrive.  Some ventures involve multiple family members such as the three Connolly brothers dairy farming together in New Hampshire to wanting to create opportunities and a healthy living environment for their own children.  All ventures, however, embrace the realization that they can’t succeed alone.

Draw much more than an inspiring read from Renewing the Countryside: Youth.  Look at these pages are your personal cheerleaders on your path toward sustainability.  “We hope this book inspires you – whether you’re a teenager looking toward your future or a mom deciding what to buy for dinner.

Whether you’re the president of the United States or the mayor of a small town,” sums up Jan Joannides, co-founder of Renewing the Countryside and editor of this new publication.  “Despite the uncertain times in which we live, these stories assure us that we have great hope.  These young people are not just renewing the countryside, they are changing the world.”

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