Sustaining rural communities


The big news coming out of a White House Rural Council conference I attended recently in Washington, D.C., was the announcement of a $10 billion investment fund promoting rural economic development.

My responsibility at the Rural Opportunity Investment Conference was to represent to the group of government, business, and finance representatives the role higher education plays in fostering talent and rural entrepreneurship. Rural America does need investment to promote sustainable communities, but that counts for little without talented people to sustain it and connectivity with networks and resources of the sort for which MSU is known.

There’s great concern about loss of population in many rural areas, underscored by accelerated job losses since the last recession and continued aging of the farming population. Our own agricultural stakeholders tell us that attracting talent is among their top concerns. One study puts the pool of agricultural students at just 60 percent of the needed talent. The need for new agricultural scientists alone is predicted to exceed 1,000 positions between 2012 and 2015.

The long view, of course, tells us that such worries are nothing new and that many demographic and technological factors are at work. When Michigan State was founded in 1855, about 93 percent of Michigan’s population lived in rural communities. By 1930, only about one third did. In that same period, about 54 percent of Michigan residents were engaged in agriculture. By 1930, it was just more than 21 percent, and today across America, only about one percent of the population farms, thanks to productivity advances and other factors.

But rural America has not exhausted its economic potential, and advocates need to promote the many opportunities agri-food affords young people considering careers.

At MSU, we discuss agriculture in terms of its importance to Michigan and the world and its critical components—food, energy, and the environment. All of these—up and down the supply chain—offer areas of opportunity.

I talked to conference attendees about how MSU is about “and,” not “or,” and how our engagement with partners across the landscape creates an engine of opportunity for rural communities. I spoke about the importance of including young people in our discussions and engaging them in our enterprises through internships and other high-impact educational opportunities.

Report after national report through the years has stressed the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates to maintain American economic competitiveness, and as president of the university that was first to teach scientific agriculture, I reminded listeners that agriculture is a STEM discipline. In fact, of the 874 alumni of the 4-H program who entered MSU between 2010 and 2013, two-thirds selected STEM majors.

Enrollment in our College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) reached 4,500 students last spring—a 30-year high. And our graduates are finding good jobs: our most recent graduate destination survey report found that 89 percent of our 2013 CANR graduates were employed, starting a business, or continuing their education. The average reported salary was $44,098.

Not every job requires a degree, of course, so our two-year Ag Tech certificate program creates another important talent-development resource. And as one of my fellow panelists pointed out, farmers and ranchers are inherently entrepreneurial. That comment gave me an opportunity to talk about how Michigan State has long supported rural communities by engaging with farmers and others where they live through MSU Extension, the MSU Product Center, and other services.

The final point I left with the conference attendees is the importance of being aware of how we think and talk about rural and agricultural issues. Rather than dwelling on the many challenges confronting rural areas, I urged attendees to look to our assets and networks, to build our teams, and to leverage education and other resources to better sustain our rural communities.


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