We could make it easier to attract young people to rural Iowa

January 6, 2023 1:28 pm

Farm equipment is rolling on the state’s highways as harvest gets underway. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

All our friends say they’re having a hard time finding people to fill good jobs. Mike Franken said it was one of the first things he heard while campaigning for the U.S. Senate last fall. It is a common lament in Iowa community newspaper circles — small towns have an increasingly difficult time recruiting young people.

We’ve been looking for a reporter for some time. It is difficult convincing someone to move to Northwest Iowa when you are competing with Des Moines or the Twin Cities or someplace West. Storm Lake proves a tough sell even with a college, lake and diverse population. It’s tougher yet in Cherokee.

It’s not just us. We hear it all over the state. It’s not necessarily about the pay or the benefits — a journalism grad we spoke with would rather wait tables for tips in the suburbs than move here for a living wage with health insurance. Others recently laid off at regional newspapers would rather take their chances on unemployment than take a job covering county fairs and rodeos.

The problem is widespread. We were speaking with Liz Garst of Coon Rapids about how there is an apparent enmity for rural places. The Garst family endowed Whiterock Conservancy, a fantastic nature spread along the Raccoon River which has been very successful, and is looking for an executive director. She hasn’t been able to convince great candidates who interview to move to a small town even for a dream job.

If you could build a more diverse food system that valued people and communities, perhaps people would value rural life.

We understand that it’s always been tough to keep them down on the farm. It gets tougher as the realities and perceptions of rural places drive young people away. The reality: You can’t ride your bike around the lake without risking getting flattened by a livestock truck. The perception: I can have a higher quality of life biking around Gray’s Lake in Des Moines safely.

Or, the reality: Northwest Iowa has supported anti-immigrant politics for at least the past quarter-century. The perception: Why would I want to live there when I have choices?

When we suggested in The New York Times that the Iowa Caucuses actually provide a venue for minority candidates, the blowback was vigorous with a strong hint that we are racist hicks. The perception in urban places of Iowa as a backwater becomes our reality.

We then tell it to ourselves and our children until we almost believe it.

The story we tell ourselves is important. That’s one reason we call ours The City Beautiful. It’s our frame of reference. It is beautiful. It’s a wonderful place to live. There really is lots to do if you give it a chance and you don’t mind the drive. You can build something here, honestly, no matter your race or creed. That’s true of Storm Lake. It’s important for us to think that way and project it. We have quite a marketing job to do, and we’re not doing well enough at it.


We also have to acknowledge that rural Iowa can be insular and exclusionary. Sen. Chuck Grassley summed it up in his final campaign ads that proved so effective: “Just leave us alone,” the ad closed. That thinking is what sticks Iowa in the mud. It is the way we think.

We help earn our reputation. Young people want clean air and water, and take a different view than their grandparents of how to approach the land. The prevailing attitude in this region is that if a million hogs are good, another million must be better no matter how bad it reeks.

Young people are voting with their feet while holding their noses. If you could build a more diverse food system that valued people and communities, perhaps people would value rural life. Iowa is not really putting its shoulder into it, because our state leadership is beholden to interests whose main concern is exploiting rural resources and people who have no leverage.

You gain leverage through education. Every successful rural town has at least a community college or a small four-year institution like Buena Vista University, or Luther or Warburg or Central or Northwestern. More than two-thirds of those graduates remain in Iowa, and many of those in small towns. They are our professionals and business creators. The state continues to disinvest in higher education generally. Many private colleges are fighting for survival (Buena Vista being among the more adept and fortunate).

One of the most direct ways to firm up rural Iowa is to drive students to these colleges through incentives that have been starved for generations, like the Iowa Tuition Grant. (Instead, Gov. Kim Reynolds is chasing vouchers for private K-12 schools, which will only subtract from rural education in our zero-sum game.) We could grow our own talent if they didn’t have so much debt they have to flee.

If we had the greatest pre-K-12 schools in the world, if college debt weren’t a barrier, if we embraced immigrants, if we reoriented agriculture toward healthy food and communities, and if you could build a bike trail around Storm Lake and revive the community concert series, you no doubt will have a better shot at revitalizing rural Iowa. Until then, the familiar exodus of talent that would prefer to stay closer to home will continue. We hope they can visit again at Christmas.


Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column first appeared, as well as Art Cullen’s Notebook on Substack. It is republished here as part of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Art Cullen
Art Cullen

Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column appears. Please consider a subscription to the Times Pilot or a tax-deductible donation to the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collective. Subscribe to Art Cullen's Notebook here.