Irish Blessing

Irish Blessing

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Innovation not Stagnation: Discover Kansas

Scott County, Kansas (April 2018)
Not long ago, a headline popped up on my Facebook feed:

Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to find out why.

It was an article in The New Food Economy. The subtitle claimed: A native Kansan returns home to find that the broken promises of commodity agriculture have destroyed a way of life. 

OK. That made me squirm. After all, I've been a resident of rural Kansas all my life, and I'm involved in commodity agriculture. So the author is talking about me and a lot of other people like me.

You may have seen the article, too. Several of my Facebook friends linked the article to their own timelines. Most of them went on to explain what they were doing to help their own small Kansas towns thrive. Our son, Brent, read the article and sent it to me, too, to make sure I'd seen it, and we had a good conversation about it.
Photo courtesy of Millie Dearden
Ironically, the article was making the rounds at about the same time that Randy and I went on a field trip to Scott County with our Kansas Master Farmer/Master Farm Homemaker group. I couldn't help but wonder what the author of the article would have thought had she visited Scott City.

I also came away with the same thought I usually have after reading how modern farming practices are destroying rural America: How is it that farming is the only business that is supposed to exist in a time capsule? Why do some consumers want us to farm like our ancestors did 100 years ago? And isn't it interesting that these same people are espousing their views from the latest cell phone or computer while eating what they want, when they want to?

In 2011, Scott City was designated an All-American City. Their economic development tagline is: "We've Invested Millions in Ourselves." More than $80 million in capital improvements have been made in the county during the past decade, including a state-of-the-art hospital. Now, they are addressing the need for assisted living options for the aging population. Building houses for young families is another priority. "Come Thrive With Us," they say in one of their full-color brochures.

Shortly after we returned from Scott City, we also watched a segment on CBS Sunday Morning. In it, they interviewed James and Deborah Fallows, the authors of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
For the last five years, the Fallowses have been traveling across America in a single-engine prop airplane, visiting dozens of towns. They met hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, business people, city planners, students,and entrepreneurs to take the pulse and understand the prospects of places that usually draw notice only after a disaster or during a political campaign.

They came to a different conclusion about rural America. James Fallows said this:
"Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself."
Wow, a glimpse of optimism from a national journalist! Fallows, who writes for The Atlantic magazine, wrote a portrait of the civic and economic reinvention taking place in America, town by town and generally out of view of the national media. (I've signed up for the book from my library, and I'm anxious to read it when my name gets to the top of the reserve list!)

The Fallowses acknowledge the problems rural America face, but they also found people who are  crafting solutions on the local level. They found people with energy, generosity and compassion, dreams and the determination to make things better.
America is becoming more like itself again. More Americans are trying to make it so, in more places, than most Americans are aware. Even as the country is becoming worse in obvious ways—angrier, more divided, less able to do the basic business of governing itself—it is becoming distinctly better on a range of other indicators that are harder to perceive. The pattern these efforts create also remains hidden. Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself. 
James Fallows in The Atlantic
And, yes, he found some of those places in Kansas:
“We may be ‘conservative.’ but we’re progressive,” Melissa McCoy, who grew up not far from Dodge City and is now the city’s Project Development Coordinator, told Fallows. “There was a time when we had a really negative self-image as a town. But people thought, If we won’t invest in ourselves, how can we expect anybody else to? It was a matter of getting the community behind it and realizing that we needed to back ourselves up to get outside investment and support. Now we’re starting to see it pay off.”
From an article in The Atlantic, Why Not Dodge City, Why Not Stockton
The authors could have discovered that "can-do" spirit in Scott County, too.  Leaders and citizens embrace their historic past. But they put a modern spin on them by tying history to tourism and business. Another of their taglines is "Where History and Progress Meet." The Kansas Master Farmers/Homemakers experienced that firsthand.

Next time, more on our trip to Scott City and the first in a series of blog posts about possible Kansas Staycations.

On Memorial Day yesterday, I posted these photos to my Facebook page. While this doesn't have a thing to do with the economy of small-town Kansas, it does show there are fringe benefits that aren't possible to compute in dollars and cents.
 On this Memorial Day, I'm thankful for small town Kansas patriotism. Thanks to the Patriot Guard who accompanied a Korean War veteran to his final resting place on Saturday and who stood at attention as people arrived at the memorial service. I also appreciate their raising the flag at every home football game. I'm thankful I live in a place that still pulls over for funeral processions as a sign of respect.


  1. Now you’ve got me curious and I’m going to reserve the Fallows’ book, too.

    1. I'm anxious to read it. Let me know what you think.

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