Small Kansas towns struggling

10/16/2011 12:00 AM

10/16/2011 7:21 AM

Hudson is a sleepy little town buried in the heart of Stafford County. Like many rural towns in Kansas, it has already lost its school and its liquor store. Bauer's General Store, which served as a meat market, hardware store and the morning spot for locals, also has closed.

Now, the 125 residents are losing their post office.

"It's a psychological blow," said Hudson Mayor Pete Witt. "You don't want to lose your identity."

Call it a sign of the times.

All across Kansas, budget cuts and a sagging economy are dealing blows to communities that have for more than a century survived floods, droughts, dust storms and school consolidations.

You can see it with the closings of post offices, schools, grocery stores and sometimes even in the lack of Internet and cell phone services available in areas of the state.

"People will miss these small towns," Witt said. "But the trend started long ago. How can we change it? You can't legislate it. The government can't keep a Hudson going.

"But it is a standard of living that's hard to beat."

Rural values

Rural values founded and funded the state for most of its 150 years.

"The folks now in rural Kansas represent the people who first came to Kansas — who broke the sod and worked so hard and made Kansas what it is," said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman, which nurtures rural lifestyles.

"The early agriculture of Kansas made us the Breadbasket of America," Penner said.

"All you hear in the media is how these towns are dying. But when you go to those towns and get to know the people, you begin to see the successes and why people are still choosing to live there.

"There is a value in these towns different than in other places."

But in recent decades, there has been a growing shift of population. Rural counties are losing their populations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly three-quarters of Kansas' counties lost residents over the past decade.

Some western Kansas counties have less than 2,500 people in the entire county. Young people are leaving; the older ones are dying off.

And what few people do replace them are finding housing shortages and few jobs to hold them.

"One of the reasons why Kansas gets pigeonholed is that urban folks now dominate the national discussion," said Brian Mann, a native Wichitan and author of "Welcome to the Homeland," a book that examines the clashes between urban and rural cultures.

"It is unfortunate because it creates really deep divides between the urban and rural cultures."

The nation as a whole, Mann said, has become more accepting of issues such as homosexuality and same sex marriages. They are more likely to believe in other faiths than Christianity and more of a melting pot of other cultures.

"Kansas may be pursuing a different model that tends to be more traditional," he said. "What Kansas needs to be thinking about is how is it going to fit into the other pictures? What if we get to a point in the future where all the coastal states have legalized same sex marriages and offer huge incentives to the best, brightest and most entrepreneurial Americans? What will Kansas offer as incentives?"

The rural and urban cultural divides, Mann said, may be initially perceived as bad but it also provides the opportunity for great conversation.

"Each side has good points," Mann said. "Kansas is in a great position to stay involved in the discussion."

Down on the farm

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since two Rutgers University researchers — Frank and Deborah Popper — suggested their plan for the Great Plains: return much of it, including Kansas farmland, into a Buffalo Commons.

It made sense, they said at the time, in light of declining populations in rural counties, dwindling economies and the continuing depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the sole source of water for much of the Plains.

For those who struggle to make a living from the land, the Popper plan still cuts deep, particularly when future generations are at stake and more and more federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations are added each year.

"They are trying to get us to keep the dust from blowing out here and the cattle from smelling," said Ron DeGarmo a rancher and farmer from Rolla in Morton County. "That's a bit ridiculous.

"We've been growing up with dirt storms out here, and we are going to have them on occasions. That is just part of living out here."

Jay Garetson of Copeland is part of a family-owned business that runs a grain elevator, Providence Grain, and 7,500 acres of farm and ranch land in Haskell and Gray counties. He said water is one of the biggest issues facing Kansans, especially rural Kansans..

He has served on the Ogallala Aquifer Task Force and the Kansas Board of Agriculture. The biggest issue in western Kansas is the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, Garetson said.

And with a record-breaking hot summer and an ongoing drought, Garetson said he is worried. His part of the state has received just three inches of rain in the last 18 months. The majority of his family's farm is irrigated. And he, like other western Kansas farmers, are mining the water from the Ogallala.

Under the current law, Garetson is allowed each year to use the equivalent of 48 future years of irrigation. He thinks that law needs to be changed.

"The problem is I can't do anything about it myself," he said. "If you were farming out here next to me, it wouldn't matter how conscientious you are. If I have a mind to mine the aquifer, I can mine it out from underneath you. Property lines don't go to the Earth's core.

"Until we get a handle on this, anyone of us who slows down their water usage amounts to unilateral disarmament."

He doesn't advocate eliminating irrigation in western Kansas because "that would be a death sentence for the western third of the state," Garetson said.

"We know what the problem is. We haven't created an overall political will to plan for future generations."

He does advocate using better technology — better hybrids crops and drought-tolerant seeds and GPS technology that senses where the water is will help reduce the need for so much water.

"There is no reason we should be allowed to farm 24 inches of water per acre," he said.

In small towns

It concerns Nikki Schwerdfegger, Hamilton County commissioner, that her town post office in Coolidge closed down.

The inefficiency makes no sense.

"We are on the Kansas-Colorado line," Schwerdfegger said. "When the people of Colorado would drive their mail to our office, it was like overnight delivery. Now, our mail from Kansas goes all the way to Wichita, then back to Denver and back to Holly (Colorado). It went from overnight delivery to four days time."

And, in Hutchinson, Steve Wyckoff worries how "No Child Left Behind" fits into rural schools. Wyckoff is chief innovation officer for the Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas, which serves 53 school districts across Kansas.

"No Child Left Behind was designed to solve problems in the largest 25 school districts in America," Wyckoff said. "It has done not a lot more than create extra work for rural schools. The issues in Stafford, Kansas, are light years from what they are in New York City.

"The issues I see in rural America is that our rural communities are dying and going out of business in slow motion. If we are going to save these communities, we are going to have it do it through a collaboration between schools and communities."

Traditionally, schools, have been the source of entertainment and pride in rural communities. When they close it decimates the town.

"We do the best we can to educate the best and brightest who leave and never come back," Wyckoff said. "We don't do much for the 'stickers,' the term we have for the kids who stay. We are doing little to prepare the stickers for life in rural communities."

In Hudson, Mayor Witt is grateful for the three major anchors that help keep the town vital.

It's the home of the Stafford County Flour Mills, which produces Hudson Cream Flour.

The Wheatland Cafe, which not only acts as the local morning gossip spot but also has a thriving catering business during the week and one of the best fried chicken buffets in Kansas on Sundays. It faithfully brings crowds from several counties.

And, UMB — a branch of the Union Missouri Bank. For years, it used to be the Hudson State Bank until about five years ago.

"When we lost the school, that was hard. But when we lost the general store, that hurt our community more than anything," Witt said. "It was a gathering place for farmers and a place of gossip and information sharing."

Thankfully, Witt said, the Wheatland offers coffee in the morning for the locals.

But now that the post office is closing, it has dealt another heavy blow to the community. The post office served as a place to post notices on the community bulletin board.

"We need a place for city notices," he said. "We have an older population and the highest percentage of them don't have Internet. They don't have computers. We are still old-fashioned and like to have hard copy to get our information out.

"It's an issue we will take up at our next city council. We'll brainstorm. We'll find a solution. We take our knocks when they come, and we'll survive."

In the meantime, Witt said, there is a quality of life that's rapidly disappearing in the heartland of America.

The smaller, family farms have disappeared and have been absorbed by larger farmers.

"As far as a culture, we have lost the neighbors next door who grew up helping each other," Witt said. "The big custom operations have taken over what neighbors used to do. Those who didn't grow up with it, don't know how it worked."

To help address some of the population issues small towns are struggling with, Gov. Sam Brownback has created a rural "opportunity zones" program. In allows non-Kansans who move into the designated counties to be exempt from paying state income tax for up to five years.

Making it work

In McCracken, Eric Davis went against the norm.

At age 28, he and his wife, Melisa, moved back to McCracken two and a half years ago to start a cafe.

At first glance, the Rush County town of only 200 people didn't have much going for it.

It had a grain elevator, gas station and post office. That was it.

Davis, though, had a dream. He wanted to open a restaurant. It was where his grandmother had run the Davis Cafe for years.

"I wanted to carry on the torch," he said. "My grandmother had it. And so many people tried it since, but no one had made it more than a year."

A French chef in Omaha and North Carolina, Davis wanted to feature classic comfort food and upscale bar food at the Boondocks Bar and Grill.

"This would be my pedestal," he said. "I figured if we could make it happen here, we could do it anywhere."

So he has fresh seafood flown in from Hawaii and cooks things like coral cod, apricot glaze sockeye salmon and coconut butterfly shrimp with caramelized Brussels sprouts.

"I was determined not to do hamburger steak and chicken fries," Davis said.

People from Wichita to San Diego have made pilgrimages to his restaurant.

"From my perspective, for the younger generation who wants to come back here, there is little to nothing for them to do," he said. "With food, you can bring people together. You can get people talking.

"Even in this town, they wouldn't get a chance to talk with one another. Yet, they have an opportunity every day to come to the restaurant and eat."

How long will he stay?

"I own a house, and I got a nice farmstead on the outside of town. I enjoy it here. I like the flow of pace."

Since Davis moved back to McCracken, he said, four other young couples also have moved back.

"We are building a foundation here," he said. "We may get paved roads around here, yet."

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