Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, a migration from enclosed urban settings drove some people to the countryside, further highlighting the need for rural infrastructure improvements and other measures.
In March of 2020, many urban dwellers found themselves confined to the four walls of an overpriced studio in a downtown metropolis only braving the outside world for a quick grocery store run or a walk around the block to escape the solitary lifestyle they came to accept as their “new normal.” As sweeping COVID-19 lockdown measures were instituted across cities, a majority of residents decided to hunker down and stick it out. Some residents, though, decided they wanted a change of scenery to ride out the pandemic—a great migration back to the countryside began.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed nearly every facet of life for most Americans. The way we work, the way we socialize, and the way we learn has been altered, some would argue, forever. Remote work, social distancing and online learning showed many Americans that commuting to an office building would soon become a thing of the past, and employees could be just as productive in rural communities as they were in skyscrapers.
From D.C. to Kansas
Fifth-generation sorghum farmer Julia Debes moved back to Kansas from Washington, D.C., in 2014 with her husband and their first child to be closer to family. The couple knew they wanted to end up back in their hometown of Hoisington, so their children could grow up close to grandma and grandpa. When the circumstances aligned, they jumped at the opportunity. Since their move, Debes has grown her family while working as a contractor and full-time employee from their farmstead in rural Kansas.
Debes has endured obstacles while teleworking, namely connectivity and high speed internet, for the past seven years. “I did a side-by-side speed test once with a co-worker in D.C., and the internet in the headquarters office was 100 times faster than my rural internet connection,” Debes said, explaining that establishing an internet connection required neighborhood-wide cooperation and various satellite devices.
Debes said that her work as a communications professional is hindered by large file sizes, high-quality photographs and raw video. Luckily, Debes works for people who understand the limitations of her internet connection and have extended grace to her as she navigates a communications career from her family farm in Central Kansas.
While Debes has fared well teleworking from a small community, those who relocated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have not all shared a similar experience. She said as the rural migration continues, however, she expects to see expanded opportunities for those who chose to ride out a global pandemic in less developed regions of the U.S.
Increased telework options benefit those who chose to relocate during the pandemic while also benefiting those who permanently reside in rural communities. Online modality expands employment opportunities to people who may not be willing or able to live in large cities for their careers by bringing the office to wherever they are.
“The COVID-19 pandemic really opened the door wide for a lot more people to better understand the opportunities and limitations of remote work,” Debes said. “I believe there will be more opportunities for people to work remotely full time—maybe not for every position, but more than before 2020.”
A relocation starts with…the Chamber of Commerce?
For many people looking to relocate, the first step is to scope out an ideal community—evaluating the economy, finding adequate housing, job availability, child care and health services. One way of sourcing this information is to request a relocation package, a marketing document containing relevant community information, to learn about what a particular city or town has to offer its residents.
“Historically, people always call the Chamber to get information about relocating or visiting the community,” Lubbock, Texas, Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Eddie McBride said. “We still get plenty of queries on a day-to-day basis to satisfy people’s interests.”
Relocation packages are becoming increasingly popular among rural communities’ Chambers of Commerce looking to take advantage of urban dwellers moving to the countryside as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consolidating trusted information—economic statistics, housing options, other relevant selling points—into accessible assets for distribution among interested parties has been a successful recruitment tool for many rural communities looking to host new urban residents.
Delivering on promises
Appointees and elected officials are feeling pressure to deliver on promises made on the campaign trail. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made promises to improve infrastructure to aid agriculturists coping with inefficient transportation, broadband access via 5G connectivity and with economic stimulants.
New leadership in the USDA Office of Rural Development has outlined several key initiatives to improve rural living, including telecommunications, broadband access and various programs backed by sufficient fiscal resources. Federal assistance, on both individual and community levels, aiding rural development initiatives could prove to be the catalyst in persuading past urban residents to permanently reside in improved rural areas.
Rebuilding rural America
The mass migration to rural communities we have seen as a result of the novel coronavirus has highlighted infrastructure struggles rural America has been combatting for decades—crumbling roadways, insufficient broadband access, outdated waterway control and unstable energy grids, just to name a few.
The Rebuild Rural Infrastructure Coalition comprises more than 250 U.S. agricultural producers, rural businesses and rural families to advocate for investment into rural America’s infrastructure. Agricultural research, healthcare, broadband, housing, energy, transportation, financing and water rank as top priorities for the coalition.
National Sorghum Producers is a proud partner of the Rebuild Rural Infrastructure Coalition. This partnership helps the association leverage the coalition’s power to make meaningful infrastructure improvements for the sorghum farmers it represents.
“Rural communities are the lifeblood of our country and need clean and safe drinking water and wastewater, affordable housing options and access to high speed internet, modernized ag research facilities, improved affordable, reliable power and repaired roads and bridges millions drive on (and our farmers rely on) everyday,” said Mark Hayes, spokesperson for Farm Credit Council and the Rebuild Rural Coalition.
Is it worth it?
Debes said her community in Central Kansas has treated her family well. There is access to affordable child care, public education, health care providers and other accommodations that make her lifestyle feasible, she said.
She said the move from D.C. to Kansas poses challenges for her professionally, but connectivity and rural broadband limitations seem like minor inconveniences when she watches her children grow alongside their grandparents. Her family’s interconnectedness takes their rural lifestyle from a choice to an absolutely invaluable connection within their family, Debes said.
“Moving back to our hometown was absolutely worth every trade-off,” Debes said. “[Living here] while maintaining a professional career requires a bit more creativity, but the flexibility and support are aspects of my life that would be really hard to give up.”
While this is not the case for every person who moves to a rural community, progress is being made to ensure these necessities are being met for those interested in relocating to a small town. Federal assistance, infrastructure improvement initiatives and relocation popularity amid the pandemic have acted as catalysts for urban residents to live comfortably and productivity in whatever landscape they choose, whether that be a skyscraper or the turn row while also exposing needs rural residents have had for a long time.
“We’ve put down deep roots here on the farm,” Debes said, “and we’re here to stay.”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.