Nebraska congressman and populist candidate for president Williams Jennings Bryan said long ago, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
I think he was onto something. I’ve been asked many times why our urban and suburban neighbors should care about and support places outside the big population centers. Corn mazes, county fairs, and truck dogs always come first to mind. But, in case you’re looking for more serious answers as to why Mr. Bryan was right, try this:
- Food – 85 percent of the world’s food is grown in rural areas. Billions of dollars’ worth of rural American agricultural products are exported around the globe each year and hundreds of thousands of trees are planted on farmland for sustainability.
- Energy – Large scale energy production facilities including fossil fuels, hydro, solar, wind, biofuels and others are often located in rural communities. These places are frequently tasked with making land available for these operations and providing the employees and ancillary services that make them successful.
- Water – Rural residents are often upstream stewards of rivers, lakes, and other waterways that have a profound impact on our downstream neighbors. As I learned in law school, “Leverage is standing at the top of a river with a shovel, not at the bottom with a contract.” In other words, where your water runs through matters.
- Recreation – Whether it’s our national parks, the lure of a back road, or the desire to ski, bike, hike, fish, hunt, kayak or just get away from it all, rural areas are big recreation destinations. Our national parks alone host millions of Americans and overseas visitors every year and U.S. rural tourism continues to grow robustly.
- U.S. Military – About 40 percent of today’s U.S. military comes from rural America and 41 percent of veterans are rural Veterans. Given that rural Americans represent less than 20 percent of the U.S. population, that’s a disproportionate contribution worthy of every American’s recognition and respect.
I’d like to think I’ll never be asked “why rural America matters” again. Just in case, I’m going to keep this list handy and memorize Mr. Bryan’s wise words.
Diane Smith is the founder and CEO of American Rural where she works to create greater awareness of the growing opportunities for those who choose to live, work and prosper in rural and small town America. Learn more about Diane by following her column here or visit American Rural at AmericanRural.org.