Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rural Places, Presidential Politics and $$$

A story in yesterday's New York Times focused on North Dakota -- in particular the fact that the state's populace are the lowest per capita political donors in the country. Journalist Monica Davey doesn't reach any clear conclusions on why this is but does note that North Dakotans (presumably like many others in "fly over" states that don't hold very early primaries or caucuses) would like to have the candidates actually come visit their state, and they don't like the idea of "bribing" the candidates by donating money.

My favorite line of the story is a quote from the chair of the political science dept. at the University of North Dakota, Mark S. Jendrysik: "A lot of people look sort of askance at all the money that’s been spent in places like South Dakota.” He also explains that campaigning in North Dakota is about "personal meetings with candidates," which is what one might expect from a largely rural state where people tend to know each other.

Davey notes that Republicans hold most state constitutional offices, while North Dakota's two Senators and one congressperson are all Democrats. Again echoing that familiarity/lack of anonymity them, Davey writes of the U.S. congressional delegation from N.D, "People here know them. They bring money home to North Dakota. They drop by a lot."

Davey again quotes Prof. Jendrysik: “Even for a statewide political campaign, you have to get to the lutefisk feed *** Putting commercials on TV is not going to work. And there’s a feeling that you shouldn’t be doing the fund-raising, that it’s somehow corrupting."

OK, this sent me to find out, once and for all, what "lutefisk" is! In any event, the NYT story also reminded me of a post I saw on The Daily Yonder a while back. It listed the 50 rural counties that contributed the most money to Presidential campaigns in the third quarter of 2007. Not only was no North Dakota county on the list, many of the counties in the top 20 were not counties that I consider authentically rural. They include, for example, the counties that are home to Aspen, Colorado, Jackson, Wyoming, Nantucket and Edgartown, Massachusetts, and Key West, Florida. But the list also included some places that are probably more traditionally rural, such as Jasper, Tennessee and Ada, Oklahoma.

Indeed, here's a plug for the Daily Yonder's coverage of the Presidential election in relation to rural places and issues. See their Racing for '08 archive.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Disdain for the Rural in Vandalization of Robert Frost Home

A story by Dan Barry in yesterday's New York Times tells of the vandalism of Robert Frost's farm house in Ripton, Vermont. The story is titled "A Violation of Both the Law and the Spirit." It's not at all clear that the drunken youths who had a party there, vomiting, urinating, and spraying the fire extinguishers as a parting gesture, knew the history and significance of the house. One anecdote, which Barry no doubt shares for shock effect, certainly caught my attention: An officer at the state police barracks where some of the youths were booked for unlawful trespass and unlawful mischief tells of one of them, apparently unrepentant and unruffled by his arrest, asking if he could use his mugshot on his Facebook page.

To me, the youths' actions constitute a disregard for more than Robert Frost and his "spirit." They represent more than the defilement of a historic house. In part because of the house's locale, in part because of who Frost was, they show disdain for the very rurality that the poet observed so keenly and about which he wrote so eloquently.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reliance between rural towns and prisons falters in upstate NY

A story in today's New York Times, "Plan to Close Prisons Stirs Anxiety in Rural Towns," tells of fallout from Gov. Spitzer's recently announced plan to close several low and medium security correctional facilities in upstate New York. The facilities, established in the early 1980s, have been under capacity since 1996. Closing them will save money that can be used for rehabilitation programs and other needs.

The story provides some background on the rural prison building boom that began in the 1980s in places like New York (and which continues today in states like California).

The boom, experts say, provided employment, but it also fostered a cycle of dependency. Depressed rural communities came to rely on the prisons as a source of jobs, economic sustenance and services, with little effort devoted to attracting other viable businesses.

As for her story on upstate New York, journalist Fernanda Santos focuses on Franklin County, which is home to five state prisons and one federal prison. The prisons have a huge economic impact there, in jobs and otherwise. “There ain’t much else the local people could do for gainful employment,” said Peter Martin, 48, the town’s supervisor and a corrections officer at Camp Gabriels for 22 years.

Santos covers the political angle, too, noting that prisons are a "valuable political tool" because inmates are counted as residents in the U.S. Census. This often equates to more more state and federal aid and influences the drawing of congressional districts, too.

Sad as this story is, at least from the perspective of Franklin County residents whose livelihoods will be affected if these correctional facilities close, I feel worse still for rural California residents living near new prisons. Rural Californians have yet to see many of the economic benefits, such as jobs, that they have been promised in relation to the state's prison-building boom. Because most rural Californians have yet to realize any gain from their prison neighbors, unlike their New York counterparts, they have nothing to lose.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Informal Economy in a Place not Usually Thought of as Rural: Martha's Vineyard

The New York Times Style page today featured a story about "townies" on Martha's Vineyard whose subsistence is based partly in an informal economy that is grounded in land (agriculture) and sea. It's worth a read.

It reminded me of (and made me re-think) one of my earliest posts, in which I poked fun at the federal government's designation of Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, as "rural."

An unlikely (and ultimately unsuccessful) source of economic recovery in the Mississippi Delta

A story in today's New York Times, "A Woodpecker Boom and Bust," offers a distinctive angle on the supposed re-discovery three years ago of the ivory-billed woodpecker near Brinkley, Arkansas. Brinkley, population 3,940, is in Monroe County (population 10,254), and is one of the poorest places in the state. Residents there hoped for economic resurgence when Cornell ornithologists and the Nature Conservancy announced that they had found the rare bird there. Journalist Laura Farrar tells of how the reported sighting fueled hopes of an "economic turnaround not seen since the soybean boom of the 1970s":

After the sighting was announced, local economies seemed to benefit for a while as scientists, bird-watchers and news media outlets from around the world flocked to Brinkley and to the other communities in the patchwork quilt of fragmented forest and farmland that surrounds the Big Woods.

“People came from everywhere,” said Gene DePriest, who still has an ivory-billed cheeseburger, salad and dessert on the menu of his barbecue restaurant in Brinkley. “I sold over $20,000 worth of T-shirts in six months.”

Now, however, with no confirmed sightings of the bird, the boom is past, leaving Brinkley and neighboring communities to look elsewhere for economic rejuvenation.

The Small World of West Virginia

Two stories in the past two weeks have highlighted the "incestuous" links among public and private institutions in the rural state of West Virginia. The first noted personal links between the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, Elliot E. Maynard, and Don Blankenship, chief executive of Massey Energy. The two spent time together on vacation in Monte Carlo about a year before Justice Maynard voted with a 3-2 majority to overturn a $50 million jury award against Massey. Justice Maynard consistently maintained that he need not recuse himself because he could be fair and impartial.

These events reminded me of my discussion of judicial recusal in my 2006 article, Rural Rhetoric. I wrote:

[J]urists have characterized their states as rural due to their sparse populations and the familiarity such sparseness begets. For example, in 2000, a member of the Mississippi Supreme Court understated the conflicts of interest that arise for judges at all levels in a rural state when he argued that the judicial body should decide a matter regarding the former Chief Justice’s claim for benefits under the public employees’ retirement scheme. Declaring that “the buck does stop with us,” he added that, “being a rural state we are going to know some people.” More common conflict-of-interest problems are those which arise for trial judges in rural communities. These judges even more frequently know the parties and attorneys who appear before them. Commenting on rural judges’ acquaintance with local residents who may also be the parties appearing before them, a Tennessee appellate judge wrote in 1990, “if they were not so acquainted, there would be very little chance of their being elected judges.” (citations omitted).

Events in West Virginia seemed to go beyond the in "a rural state, we are going to know some people" scenario. I have no doubt that Justice Maynard should do what he finally did a few days after the story appeared: recuse himself from further consideration of the case.

The second story, which appeared yesterday, also highlights the nature of relationships among powerful people in rural states -- indeed, once again, West Virginia. The University of West Virginia is investigating whether records were falsified to show that the governor's daughter, Heather Bresch, was granted an MBA she did not actually earn. Ms. Bresch is employed by Mylan, Inc., the world's third largest generic drug company. Mylan employs 2000 workers in Morgantown, home to the flagship university. Because of the clout of Mylan, the University, and the governor himself, some have expressed concern about whether those with information about the matter are likely to come forward.

There may be reluctance ... to speak out against the university or Mylan, for fear of being blackballed by two of the state’s largest employers.

“In West Virginia, there is a proverb that says that everything is political except politics, and that is personal,” said Conni Gratop Lewis, a retired lobbyist for nonprofit groups. “It’s a tiny state, with just two major universities, just one major law school and where many of us grow up in the same small towns or counties, so there ends up being just one degree of separation between people involved in business and politics and whatever else.”
I'm not saying that such shenanigans only go in rural states, but there seems to be something about the "one degree of separation" among high-powered folks there that is conducive to such behavior.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tree Rustling as a Contemporary Phenomenon -- and Possibly a Distinct Crime

This story tells of the growing problem of hardwood tree theft in North America. Apparently the value of such wood has increased enormously on international markets, including those in China and Europe. Journalist Susan Saulny characterizes the phenomenon as "scattered and intimate, and often affect[ing] homeowners, parks and public forests."

While the tree theft is reported here as both an urban (in Flint, Michigan, black walnuts were stolen from along a main city street) and rural phenomenon (Vermont, Kentucky and Arkansas are among the states affected), the story spoke to the rural-ite in me. One New England land owner, for example, lost 30 maple trees to a neighbor's saw. Saulny writes of George Spaulding, 78, who "loves the trees the way only someone who grew up with them could. But beyond that, he counts on the syrup sales to supplement the family income, which comes mainly from the twice-a-day milking of three dozen cows." The attachment to trees struck me as part of the attachment to place that no doubt keeps Spaulding and his wife Agnes on their farm near Royalton. It reminded me of the emotional distress my family felt when my grandfather sold the virgin timber on our family homestead in Arkansas. His doing so seemed a betrayal of the family and, indeed, of the land. It felt like a small step away from selling the land itself, which had been in our family since shortly after the Civil War.

There's a legal story here, too. The Appalachian Roundtable provides resources and legal help to victims of tree theft. Dea Riley of that organization is quoted as saying,“[i]t’s getting so much worse that I’d say in every county in Kentucky we have timber theft issues .... So many more people are showing up to say, ‘Hey, my timber got stolen.’ The phone just hasn’t stopped ringing. We have a waiting list of victims that we won’t get to in a year.” She goes on to note that most of these rural residents don't have the resources to fight for themselves, even though these represent "huge losses to the landowner." Riley sees socioeconomic causes behind the tree rustling. Like others in Kentucky and elsewhere, her organization is working for stiffer penalties.

But reliable data on the phenomenon are hard to come by because it is often reported along with other property crime. Albert Goetzl, a forest economist studying the phenomenon, is uncertain that the problem is greater now than it has been in the past. He seems to dismiss it, saying "it's more of a local nuisance than anything."

Local nuisance, indeed.

But What about Rural Schools?

A front page story on the NYTimes this week featured the headline: "Urban Schools Aiming Higher than Diploma." It talks about a trend in urban schools to put all students on track to attend college and compares urban schools with suburban ones in this regard. Not a word is included, however, about rural schools. Yet the most recent statistics available (from 2004) indicate that while 37 % of urban and suburban students went on to college, only 24% of rural students did so. That's a sizable gap.

This made me wonder about the aspirations of your average rural high school -- if there is such a thing as "average" in this context, given the vast regional, funding, and cultural differences among rural school districts. Rural students often face the obstacle of physical distance in literally getting to school, but myriad additional challenges prevent them from realizing their potential with college degrees. First, education is often under-valued in rural areas, where a college degree often dictates a departure from the rural place. A quick search of my hometown newspaper turned up this recent story which shows how little locals value education: an overwhelming "no" vote, 701 to 90, on a millage increase for maintenance and debt retirement of the district's two schools. At the same time, the nearest community colleges are 30-40 miles away for many of the county's residents. Given these economic and spatial realities, what are rural schools to do if they want to put more students on the path to college?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The disappearance of blue-collar jobs is hardly news anymore, though Its Impact on micropolitan areas is often overlooked

This NYT story about blue-collar jobs disappearing from the Midwest seems to have attracted a great deal of reader attention. The phenomenon is certainly not limited to rural (or perhaps more precisely micropolitan) places, although Jackson, Ohio (population 6,100), featured in this story, is such a place. Journalist Erik Eckholm, who often writes about rural poverty, describes Jackson as "where the northern swells of the Appalachians lap the southern fringe of the Rust Belt [and] thousands of people who long had tough but sustainable lives are being wrenched into the working poor." The story also notes the "turmoil and stresses emerging in the little towns and backwoods mobile homes of southeast Ohio, where dozens of factories and several coal mines have closed over the last decade, and small businesses are giving way to big-box retailers and fast-food outlets."

While the loss of good blue collar jobs is no longer news in our country, this story serves as a reminder how rural economies are often harder hit by globalization due to their lack of economic diversification. The story also reminds us of the particular hardship on women in such economies. One woman featured in this story works two jobs -- one in the school cafeteria until early afternoon and the next until 10 pm at Wal-Mart. Like many women in rural and non-metro areas, she has had to take up work (or even double up on jobs) as her husband's earning capacity has fallen. Fortunately for her family, at least two of her four sons are grown and less in need of parental attention.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Distance, and the promise of the digital era for rural Americans

A couple of stories in today's Sacramento Bee, coincidentally side-by-side in the Metro section, reminded me of the obstacle of physical distance in the lives of rural residents. One of them is also a reminder of the continuing promise of technology for bridging some of those distances.

One of the stories was the obituary of Jerry Marr, a long-time UC Davis professor who grew up on the Osage Indian reservation in rural Oklahoma. His obit tells of the mobile lending library sponsored by the Works Progress Administration that stopped every other week at the farm where he lived as a child. Marr called the lending library his "introduction to the world of ideas." We are implicitly invited to imagine what Marr might have made of his life had it not been for that bookmobile and the opportunities it represented and created for him.

The other story is also about the significance of libraries and features one right here in Northern California. It tells of the Kim Yerton branch of the Humboldt County Library on the Hoopa Indian Reservation, which is receiving a 2007 National Medal for Museum and Library Services. Situated "60 miles from the nearest stoplight," the branch library serves a community with a 30 percent poverty rate and 27 percent unemployment. Yet in the month of December alone, 11,000 people used the library's services, "not just to check out books, but to sit and do homework, read newspapers, apply to college, do their taxes, or apply for unemployment insurance, medical or financial assistance though federal agencies." For those of us now so accustomed to high-speed internet in our offices and homes, this story is a important reminder that for some, such ready access to online information and services is a luxury.

Distance as an "excessive burden" in the voter ID case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on January 9 about Indiana's voter identification scheme, giving rise to the opportunity to note, however briefly, the issue of physical distance. Here's how it came up: Indiana's voter ID scheme permits those without identification to cast provisional ballots. Such a voter's ballot is counted, however, only if the voter travels to the county clerk's office within the next ten days to show the required identification or to sign a sworn statement that he cannot afford to obtain such an identification. The plaintiffs argue that this requirement imposes an unnecessary burden, one not required of voters in other states that require voter identification.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who grew up in Indiana, suggested during oral argument that the burden was not excessive because "County seats aren't very far for people in Indiana." Given the state's division into 92 counties, the largest with a land area of 657 square miles, it is possible to identify scenarios that would have rural-dwelling residents traveling 50 miles or more, some of it on secondary roads, to reach a county seat. That's a lot farther than they would have to travel to reach their polling place. On the other hand, it isn't as far as many residents in California, with 58 counties dividing a much greater land area, would have to travel to reach their county seat.

Makes one wonder what distance would be considered "excessive" in the eyes of our urban-dwelling Supreme Court Justices. For we have seen, in the context of assessing so-called "undue burdens" on the right to abortion, how unsympathetic the Court has been regarding distances that women must travel in order to reach abortion services. We have also seen the Court's resistance, in that context, to engaging the hard factual realities of spatial isolation and the hardships it creates.

A rural angle on a tragedy repeating itself around the nation

The New York Times yesterday kicked off a new series called War Torn, and the initial story was about the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have killed or been accused of killing since returning home or while home on leave. One of those featured was veteran Seth Strasburg of Arnold, Nebraska, a small town in Custer County, in the central part of the state. He killed another young man in his town on New Year's Eve, 2005, while drunk and inexplicably toting a gun. He is serving 22-36 years in prison for manslaughter.

All of the profiles offered in this series are tragic, but I am highlighting this one because of its rural angle. In a town of just over 600, there is no doubt the killer and the victim knew each other, although their familiarity was apparently not a factor in the killing. The repercussions of an event such as this are different for a town the size of Arnold, where families know one another. The reporter quotes one citizen of Arnold: “To lose one young man permanently and another to prison, with Iraq mixed up in the middle of it — the town was torn up.” The story also reports that Strasburg's mother, "believing that the shooting was a product of his combat trauma, started an organization to create awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder. Her activism, however, deeply offended the victim's parents," one of whom is quoted as saying "I'm sorry, but it feels like a personal affront, like she's trying to excuse our son's death with the war."

In fact, many of the 121 veterans who have killed or been charged with killing since returning from Iraq are from small town America. But this shouldn't cast rural America in a negative light. The correlation is almost certainly attributable to the disproportionate number of rural citizens serving in these wars. It surely also reflects the dearth of social services -- mental health support in particular -- in rural places.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A state twice as rural as the national norm

This NYT story entitled, "Arkansas Proves its Worth as a Political Testing Ground," seeks to summarize the profile of the Arkansas electorate. It does so, of course, in the wake of Mike Huckabee's ascent, which invites us to see Clinton's rise from this obscure state as something other than a fluke.

Some of the descriptions of Arkansas and rurality are interesting, such as its characterization as an "unusual blend of Southern conservatism and Western populism." Later, the reporter writes of a "state-sized village of 2.7 million people, geographically compact, ethnically homogeneous and politically heterogenous. Arkansas is twice as rural as the national norm and poor, ranking 47th in per-capita income — and for much of its history was outside the American mainstream." A political science professor from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, says that rural white voters are the state's critical constituency, and that they are "not easily wooed by an unwavering conservative line."

The story quotes a number of Arkansas voters, both for against Huckabee. Here's the one that I think best reflects Arkansas values: “I think the guy’s basically grounded,” he said. “I bet Huckabee is closer to that triple-wide mobile home than he is to that White House,” he added, referring to Mr. Huckabee’s residence while the Governor’s Mansion was being renovated in 2000. “It’s the type of upbringing people are here: they have meager backgrounds.”

I have to admit, though, that the reason I couldn't resist commenting on this story is that I needed an excuse to direct readers to the photo that accompanied it. For me, the photo so captures the essence of rural Arkansas -- it could easily have been taken at the Ozark Cafe in my home town in NW Arkansas, Jasper. Note the absence of women (except a "waitress" no doubt hovering in the background), as the men sit around discussing the issues of the day.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

"August: Osage County" as a window into rural America

I saw "August: Osage County" today. It's been all the rage on Broadway for the past month, since a positive review in the NYT in early December, further fueled by an NPR story in late December. Knowing that the play was set in Osage County, Oklahoma, in the rural northeastern part of the state, had me wondering to what extent its plot would be rural specific, or rural driven. These speculations were further fueled by my knowledge that the play featured a family whose members displayed a wide range of dysfunctional (even socio-pathic) behaviors, including alcoholism, pedophilia, drug abuse, adultery, and incest.

As it turns out, the play's rural setting is largely incidental. Most of what goes on in "August: Osage County" could happen anywhere. So, to the extent that Tulsa, Oklahoma native Tracy Letts, the playwright, thought that by setting his play in Pawhuska (current population 3,600) he was offering a commentary on rural America, I would disagree. Oh sure, some of the language suggests the rural mid-South; indeed, my jaw dropped at some turns of phrase (too off color to be repeated here) by family patriarch Beverly Weston because I had never heard them spoken by anyone except my own father in rural NW Arkansas. A few more substantive aspects of the play also struck me as peculiarly rural. Among them was the mother's emotional blackmail of her eldest daughter for leaving Pawhuska to live in Colorado, where she went for a job appropriate to her credentials and presumably not available in Pawhuska and environs. There, the message was less "you left us," than "you left here." What I saw in that exchange was the multi-generational "attachment to place" associated with rural families.

While some might associate some of the dysfunctions on display with rural folk, I was relieved that Letts does not present us a "Beverly Hillbillies"-type family or "Deliverance"-style psychopaths. Rather, the Westons are relatively affluent, highly educated (perhaps with the exception of matriarch Violet, who nevertheless was the first in her family to finish high school, as was Beverly), and quite sophisticated in many ways. Each of the three daughters graduated from college and two, like their father, are employed in some capacity in higher education. Again, its not your typical rural family (excepting, I suppose, academic families that move to "rural" college towns). Yet the fact that Beverly and Violet are natives of the Pawhuska area and that they pulled themselves up by their proverbial (and perhaps literal) bootstraps from childhoods of deprivation, thereby creating opportunities that permitted the next generation to leave rural Pawhuska, is an important component of the emotional tension driving this marvelous play.

Friday, January 4, 2008

America's Love-Hate Relationship with Rural People, as Manifest in the Hucakbee Phenomenon

This commentary in the New York Times, under the title Two Buck Huck, reflects the love-hate relationship this country has with rural America. On the one hand is the "love" -- that which propelled Huckabee to victory in Iowa. On the other is the "hate," that which keeps Huckabee out of the mainstream of the Republican party and which will ultimately play a role, I believe, in preventing him from getting the nomination.

I found Timothy Egan's comment a bit painful to read. It begins:

"The rap against Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and ex-Arkansas governor now doing for the Republican Party establishment what three-alarm chili does for an afternoon nap, is that he’s too inexperienced to be president, too na├»ve — a rube straight out of Dogpatch."
That had me saying "ouch," even as I acknowledged that I'd written some similarly critical things about Huckabee in the past few days. The difference was that I didn't invoke "Dogpatch" to mock him. Plus, it's a bit like being comfortable with criticizing your own mother but getting upset if someone else does so. I'm an Arkansan (by birth, upbringing, and somewhat still by identity), and Huckabee reminds me of some of my relatives. I can criticize them, but I'm uncomfortable with Egan getting too carried away with the pejorative cultural references.

Plus, Egan's commentary gets more biting still, and it's hard to say who gets the worst of it from Egan's keyboard: Huckabee or the Republican Party establishment. Egan continues with the observation that few of Huckabee's critics are being very frank about what's bugging them. Egan says the source of the discomfort is class, noting that we are more comfortable with "faux rubes," such as the Bushes, than we are with Huckabee as the proverbial real thing. He continues:

But Huckabee, despite an inept last week of campaigning, has forced the Republican party to face the Wal-Mart shoppers that they have long taken advantage of. He’s here. He’s Gomer. And he’s not going away.

"Huckabee revels in the class war. He’s Two-Buck Huck, and darn proud of it. He likes nothing better than playing the Hick from Hope. He and his wife lived in a trailer for a while, he points out. His son killed a dog one summer, “a mangy dog” at that, as Huckabee explained to the befuddled national press corps. He said he used to eat squirrels, cooking them up in his popcorn popper. Ewwwwhhh!" ***

Egan's comment has been a top-ten emailed story for about the past 24 hours, and many have offered comments on it. I wonder what is in it that resonates so much with readers. Is it the "love" of the rural and a sense of indignity that Huckabee will always be an outsider? Probably not. More likely it is the "hate" -- or to be more precise -- the disdain that so many feel for the rural culture that Huckabee so heartily embraces and so vividly embodies.

Even as Egan gets in his digs at the Republican establishment for rejecting Huckabee, his word choice and cultural references -- Gomer, Two Buck Huck, Dogpatch, and Wal-Mart -- mock Huckabee. Egan's gratuitous, Jeff Foxworthy-esque digs aside, something about Huckabee's manifestation of rural culture makes most of the nation deeply uncomfortable, even those who think
he is getting a raw deal from the Republican establishment.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Following up on the "Rural Vote" in Iowa

The Census Bureau map (below) shows Iowa's population density. If you compare it to the maps at the New York Times here, you will see an apparent correlation between population density and candidate choice. That is, more rural places tended to support Hillary Rodham Clinton, more urban ones, Barack Obama.

Deaths Exceed Births in a Third of Counties

An article in USA Today indicates that a third of U.S. counties experienced more deaths than births last year, though some were saved from net population loss by in-migration. Focusing largely on middle America, the story reports a study by University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson. The report adds further perspective to my post earlier this week about the oil boom in North Dakota and what it means for the previously shrinking rural towns there. USA Today reports that Sheridan County, North Dakota, clearly not in the area of the oil boom, has a population of 1,408, having lost a third of its population in the last six years. The median age of Sheridan County's residents: 52.9. Without some economic catalyst for growth -- such as the oil exploration in the northwest part of the state -- already rural North Dakota's population density will continue to fall. Johnson is unsentimental about the trend: "There were a lot of counties in the Great Plains that had more people than they should have had. Agriculture has changed. You don't need as many people working the land. … You can think of it as sort of a triage."