What happens to Kansas when the oldest generation is gone?

It?s a story that has become all too familiar across the Kansas rural landscape. It?s about the people who?ve tilled the land for generations. It?s about their struggle for survival as fewer and fewer farmers and ranchers remain in the Kansas countryside and a slow, but steady, movement of population continues out of rural Kansas.

It?s also about those who are building their lives in agriculture or rural Kansas and believe in their agricultural vocation. They see a family venture, a family tradition, a way of life and a business that is slipping away.

Looking at Kansas census figures, 65 counties have suffered population losses or decline in every decade beginning in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Six counties have experienced continuous out-migration since the early 1900s.

This paints a drastic picture of communities that are not able to sustain their hospitals, schools, local governments?the kinds of services we as Kansans all rely on and have come to expect.

A study from Boston College predicts that $41 trillion will move from rural America to this country?s cities and suburban areas when the current ?oldest? generation dies.

Examples abound of heirs who come home for the funeral of their parents and stop by the local bank to make a withdrawal on their way out of town?heading home to Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, Denver, Dallas and other cities.

Those dollars are lost forever to rural economies. Estimates project Kansas could lose hundreds of billions of dollars during the next 30 years. This is an economic loss that, coupled with a declining population, will devastate rural Kansas.

Without capital and rural development in their communities, people tend to live and work somewhere else. Purchasing power is taken away and spending in our Kansas counties leaves too.

Additionally, when this oldest generation no longer inhabits rural Kansas, there will be a tremendous void in leadership, vision, stability and all of those intangibles that make up these smaller, rural communities.

Where do we go from here?

This state?s largest farm organization and its Farm Bureau members across Kansas have been working with Senate President Steve Morris, House Speaker Melvin Neufeld and other legislators and stakeholders to create the Kansas Commission on Rural Policy.

This think tank will be tasked with identifying resources that can assist communities seeking to build capacity among local leaders, attract and retain youth and wealth, and equip and encourage entrepreneurs.

While creation of this commission is an important step in coordinating what Kansas will be doing, including setting rural development policy, the real key will be folks at the local level who are willing to make this happen. Committed local leadership is all important. None of this will happen without empowering and equipping folks in rural Kansas.

The Kansas Commission on Rural Policy would be a big step and could provide the catalyst for supporting community development in rural Kansas. Rural Kansas faces a unique set of challenges and the commission will help our state address those challenges and keep our communities strong.

?As a native of a small Kansas community, I?m personally invested in the revitalization of rural Kansas and will work to make this rural policy commission reality,? said Steve Baccus, Kansas Farm Bureau president and a farmer from Ottawa County who raises crops on ground that?s been in his family for four generations.

?This commission will serve as evidence of this state?s commitment to rural development, and allow us to leverage resources from many sources to assist local leaders who want to make a difference but don?t have access to resources or programming,? Baccus said.

With committed leaders in rural areas across Kansas and active participation in the four critical areas of youth retention, wealth retention, fostering entrepreneurial opportunities and leadership development, citizens of this state can, ?get the job done.?

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.

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