COURTLAND, Kansas — Rural Kansas has a storied past, but decades of population decline stand poised to turn many once-vibrant places into ghost towns.
The struggle for survival reveals itself in emptied Main Streets, shuttered factories and tired-looking neighborhoods dominated by houses built before World War II.
An exodus that started more than 100 years ago and gained momentum during the Great Depression has now thinned the population of most of the state’s 105 counties to fewer than 10 people per square mile.
“Quite a few counties peaked in the 1890 census in terms of total population and have never recovered,” said Kansas historian Virgil Dean.
At 2%, Kansas’ population growth rate lags far behind the nation’s 6%. And it’s uneven. Most of it is concentrated in the state’s urban areas — Kansas City, Wichita, Lawrence, Topeka and Manhattan. A forecast by researchers at Wichita State University projects growth in less than a fifth of the state’s counties over the next 50 years.
Still, Kansans fighting the trends cling to a different vision. They insist that population isn’t the only measure of a livable community.
“Rural Kansas is going to survive,” said state Republican Rep. Ken Rahjes from Agra in north-central Kansas. “We have that sense of pride in our communities. We’re not going to let them die.”
It will take more than defiance to save them, said journalist Corie Brown, a native Kansan whose career has taken her to newsrooms across the country. She recently returned to write a magazine article: “Rural Kansas is dying. I drove 1,800 miles to find out why.”
“As I’m driving around to these small towns, I realized there’s no one here,” Brown told the Kansas News Service.
Brown’s April 2018 article painted a stark picture of decline.
“The small towns that epitomize America’s heartland are cut off from the rest of the world by miles and miles of grain, casualties of a vast commodity agriculture system that has less and less use for living, breathing farmers,” Brown wrote.
Dramatic changes in agriculture hollowed out rural Kansas, Brown argues. Specifically, she blames the decades-long trend towards bigger farms that yield ever more abundant crops of wheat, corn and soybeans. Those bountiful harvests often don’t return a breakeven price to farmers forced into debt to buy land and the sophisticated machinery needed to work more acres with fewer people.
“That image — abundance at the center of a depopulated landscape — sums up the reality of rural Kansas,” Brown wrote. “It masks a harder truth: Kansas’s plentiful grain crop has come at the expense of nearly everything else.”
The move toward bigger farms run by fewer farmers — along with other changes in the economy — threatens the existence of towns that sprouted up to support larger family operations and to supply workers for railroads, mines and homegrown manufacturers.
But like the economic factors that forced railroads to consolidate and sent many of America’s factory jobs to foreign shores, those driving change in the ag sector can’t be reversed, said John Leatherman, an agriculture economist at Kansas State University.
“There are economic forces at play,” he said, “that we can’t make go away.”
It’s not realistic, he said, to “turn back the clock” to a time when smaller family farms dominated the rural landscape.
“That is going backward in time and that is not what happens in life,” he said.
Luke Mahin merely wants to slow the pace of decline. He hopes to give those fighting to save rural communities a chance to experiment with new strategies.
“I see more energy now, more coordinated effort,” said Mahin. He returned to his hometown of Courtland, population 285, to run Republic County’s economic development organization.
Communities that competed against each other for generations, Mahin said, now join forces in desperate attempts to revitalize entire regions. They want to make them more inviting to people looking to return to their rural roots — particularly young people.
“We want to connect those dots for people who are looking for housing, looking for resources to start their business,” he said. “We know there’s more people out there who want to come back than we have opportunities for.”
It’s a tough sell. Measures of net migration typically rank Kansas in the bottom teir of states. One shows it losing 25- to 29-year-olds faster than any other state.
Still, Mahin and others working to stem the depopulation tide may soon get help from two new state initiatives. One launched by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, the other by the Kansas Legislature.
Soon after taking office in January, Kelly created the Office of Rural Prosperity in the Kansas Department of Commerce and put her lieutenant governor, Lynn Rogers, in charge.
Rogers crisscrossed the state over the summer on what he called a “rural prosperity listening tour.” He’s now working on a set of policy recommendations aimed at helping rural communities tackle some of their biggest challenges — spotty access to the internet, crumbling infrastructure, financially stressed hospitals and a shortage of affordable, modern housing.
“Now,” Rogers said, “we have to do something.”
This is the first in a series of stories investigating the decline in rural Kansas and efforts to reverse it. The next story looks into the role that changes in the farm economy have played in that decline.
Support for this season of “My Fellow Kansans” was provided by the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, working to improve the health and wholeness of Kansans since 1986 through funding innovative ideas and sparking conversations in the health community. Learn more at healthfund.org.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.
Kansas News Service