Monday, May 13, 2013

Growth is growth is growth, right?

As our economy stumbles out of the Great Recession, three of America’s largest growth sectors – energy, agriculture, and manufacturing – are concentrated in rural America.

The country is in the midst of an energy production boom. While there is consternation about the environmental impacts of increased gas & oil production and a good deal of hemming and hawing about its real value to the domestic economy, our trade deficit, and the global energy market, the scaling of new extraction technologies has undeniably brought stunning growth to rural America. North Dakota has captured a lot of the attention, but the growth has been national:
Texas alone has added 180,000 mostly highly paid energy-related jobs. Oklahoma added 40,000, and the Intermountain West well over 30,000. In what could be a persuasive case, Pennsylvania, a blue state with a hunger for jobs, has joined the party; the original center of the U.S. energy industry is now enjoying a resurgence.
Agricultural exports are on an historic tear as well, driving economic growth in rural communities. The U.S. exported $135 billion worth of agricultural products in 2011, with a net favorable trade balance of $47 billion – the highest agricultural trade surplus in nominal dollars since the 1980s. This has been led by growing markets in the developing world that show no sign of slowing. For instance, China now consumes 60% of the world’s soybeans while producing only 5%, while the U.S. (led by Iowa) is responsible for a third of global production.

The manufacturing sector is growing as well, and rather than returning to legacy manufacturing centers in the Rust Belt, new operations are largely creating jobs in rural and exurban communities in the Great Plains and the South. A recent Boston Consulting Group report analyzes this incipient "reallocation of global manufacturing" fueled partially by foreign firms but also in large part by American firms bringing production back from China due to rising manufacturing and shipping costs there.

Rural communities often portrayed as stagnant are seeing development! At first blush this is fantastic news; can we finally lay off the hand-wringing regarding the future of our nation's pastoral communities?

I’m not so optimistic. This economic growth is largely driven by commodities – edible and otherwise – whose prices are driven by the whims of a global urban population. While the uptick in manufacturing-related jobs is welcome relief for an eroded middle-class job base, there’s no denying this sector’s steady march towards automation – in fact the BCG report cites sophisticated automation technologies as a driver of the reallocation of manufacturing back to the U.S. from China. And haven’t we seen the boom and bust cycle of extractive energy projects play out enough times to know that we can’t frack our way to sustainable economic growth? There are signs, in fact, that even as natural gas extraction begins to ramp up, the related economic boom in rural communities is already cooling down.

Inclusive, sustainable rural economic development thrives on many of the same ingredients as inclusive, sustainable urban economic development: local ownership of community visions for success. What’s missing in the current spate of headlines is local control driving these communities’ economic futures.

I see hope, however, in a host of organizations growing up in rural communities focused on generating sustainable, homespun economic growth. The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, for example, is building rural community capacity to advocate for community design that fosters economic development and contributes to livability. Others, such as the Center for Rural Affairs, are developing ground-up strategies and narratives that envision new rural futures, including an ‘un-apologetically rural’ campaign. Finally, while rural entrepreneurship isn’t a common phrase in our urban-centric media, there is increasing energy around cultivating economic growth untethered from urban actors.

Falling Sky Farm, in central Arkansas, is emblematic of that push. Cody Hopkins and his wife Andrea Todt identified a market for grass-fed livestock, and they’ve laid the groundwork for a network of environmentally- and economically-sustainable farms focusing on "food security, cultural production, and economic opportunity."

Economic recovery in rural areas is great news, but the nature of the growth matters. There are some healthy demographic shifts underway – growing migration to rural areas from urban areas and increasingly educated rural populations – that I’m hopeful will contribute to continued local movements that take the long view, offering alternatives to extractive projects and short-term booms spurred by outside forces.

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