Live-Love-FarmBy Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

When I founded STEM-Trek, I began to investigate why economies everywhere had begun to unravel. I became even more convinced that we need a stronger support system for our focus groups, including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) scholars, veterans and the aging workforce. While volunteer work through STEM-Trek has taken me to sub-Saharan Africa where communities have always struggled, it has been especially difficult to watch conditions deteriorate in what was once my idyllic home town, Lincoln, Illinois-U.S. You might say it’s the heart of the heartland.

Subtle changes to a town are more obvious to people who move away, and return for holidays. For me, trips home have been infrequent since my parents passed away, but I’m returning in a few weeks for a reunion. I was in the process of booking a hotel reservation when I saw a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture article by John Cromartie, Christiane von Reichert and Ryan Arthunlast titled “Why Some Return Home to Rural America, and Why it Matters.” It inspired me to arrange time with my classmates to brainstorm about economic development.

Lincoln is a mid-sized, rural town in the center of the state. It’s the county seat, and sits favorably between two sizable, and economically-healthier cities. It was where Abraham Lincoln practiced law at the Postville Courthouse when he was a circuit judge. It has a classic downtown square surrounded by small businesses, and the region is steeped in Kickapoo Native American cultural history.

Just as the region’s indigenous ancestors did when geopolitical boundaries were rivers, my father’s generation sustained their livelihoods directly, or indirectly, from the production of agriculture. I recall seeing a photograph of my grandfather and his two young sons seated on one of their first tractors; their horses had been put out to pasture. It was one of the few photos of my otherwise dour grandfather wearing a huge grin. You could tell he was pleased with the acquisition, but I’m certain he didn’t realize that more than the horses would be displaced. After attending Lincoln College (business and agriculture), and a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army, my dad returned to serve the agricultural industry in other ways while his younger brother managed the family farm.

But mechanization was only one of many factors that caused the region to bleed out over a period of 35 years or more. The county enjoyed a period of prosperity from the 1950’s, through the early 1970’s when interest rates were low, and U.S. agricultural exports were booming. Farm families prospered, but they also began to accumulate debt.

With my generation it became more common for people to leave town after high school. Some found work in Chicago or St. Louis, or commuted to Springfield, Bloomington, Peoria, Decatur, or Champaign. Beginning with the oil crisis in 1973, fuel prices increased, which impacted farm profit margins. Commutes of 40 to 60-minutes became cost-prohibitive and forced some to relocate.

After graduating from the University of Illinois, my husband and I migrated to an even smaller and more remote rural town where he was employed as a bank vice-president (farm manager, loan officer, rural appraiser). My employment prospects in McDonough County were poor, but I was thankful to start what would become a career in post-secondary education service (communications, technology administration and research support).

The bubble burst in the 1980’s when interest rates peaked, and property values plummeted. It was impossible for many to carry debt, and banks began to foreclose on family farms and regional businesses that supported the industry. Suddenly, prospects for the region’s young would-be farmers were grim as many of their parents declared bankruptcy. In Champaign, Illinois on Sept. 22, 1985 a benefit concert was held on the campus of the University of Illinois. “Farm Aid” was organized by music artists Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. The event drew 80,000 people and raised $9 million to help preserve family farms.

Lincoln Developmental Center closed in 2002 which had employed 500-700 skilled workers. A few other large employers left town, and new businesses didn’t offer as many professional jobs. With fewer middle-income earners, the housing, retail and service sectors began to suffer.According to the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics, Lincoln’s population contracted 14 percent between 1960 and 2015 and unemployment peaked at 11.2 percent in December, 2009 and held steady through January, 2010.

Having inherited farmer genes, many of the county’s youths are creative and hard-working. They would make great engineers if they could begin to envision that path in life. But, again, where would they work? Unless they become an entrepreneur or inventor, they would have to commute, or move away.

As in many places around the world, Lincoln’s median age has increased, and disability claims are on the rise. While these individual trends may seem insignificant, when coupled with a higher unemployment rate, the combination quickly over-burdens the infrastructure that is supported by those who work. Consequently, many more now live below the poverty line.

Joblessness affects families, communities, governments, and the world–and we are more interconnected than ever before. Unemployed adults experience twice as much depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and drug abuse. This played out locally when three meth labs were seized in Logan County in 2006. Between January and September, 2015 the county reported 15 heroin overdoses that resulted in five deaths.

Logan County’s struggles reflect what’s happened in rural regions across the country. Lincoln native Kelly McEvers, who is now a National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent, wrote “Dwindling Middle Class Has Repercussions for Small Towns.” Her feature illuminated how the emerging drug culture has placed a much bigger burden on Lincoln’s policing and healthcare systems.

The agribusiness workforce pipeline has always been fed from towns like Lincoln, but their prospects aren’t improving. The USDA’s net farm income forecast for 2015 was down 32 percent from 2014. Therefore, it isn’t surprising they are exploring ways to revitalize rural communities since the future workforce could very well depend on it.

What about living/working spaces designed to accommodate rural, home-based STEAM professionals? 

I work from home in a rural region, and I know a lot of technical and design professionals who also work from rural, home-based offices. While we probably lack a local peer group and feel isolated at times, we prefer the lifestyle. Many would raise their children in their home town, if it weren’t for the lack of employment opportunities. As USDA suggests, the communities will benefit from their presence.   `

Here’s a rough concept: 

Rural-TechTopia is a facility with living, laboratory, education, training, and recreational space that provides a community of technical and psycho-social support for high-tech workers. Recreational, fitness and cultural options would not only benefit TechTopia residents, the site would become a weekend destination for people from nearby cities (vs. the other way around). It would stimulate the local economy, drive new businesses to the region, and give young professionals a reason to stay.

Not just anyone would be allowed to live and work in TechTopia. There would be a national, competitive process; awardees would be chosen for a combination of aptitude and their ability to augment a diverse demographic. In exchange for financial advantages (initially offered by federal, state and local governments, for example subsidized rent, startup loans, or debt forgiveness), participants would be required to engage with outreach programs so local children could begin to envision themselves working in scientific and technical careers. The project’s success would inspire community leaders to support complementary activities (after-school tech programs, community gardens, fitness centers, destination markets, and more). A self-sustaining financial model could be derived, in part, from alumni membership dues (if you move away, you pay). Maybe they will come for the perks, and choose to stay for the quality of life and the chance to restore what was once a thriving community.

A native American cultural center and museum would revive the history of the region’s first inhabitants, and house a collection to complement existing museums (in Logan county, that includes museums at the Postville Courthouse and Lincoln College–another destination for weekend historians to visit). A performance venue could host major attractions, as well as local high school and college thespian groups and bands.

TechTopia would sponsor local programming and robotics competitions, tech meetups, vocational training, and more. By living and working alongside like-minded individuals of all ages, entrepreneurship and innovation would be inspired. As new ideas bear fruit, TechTopia’s advisory board could assist with technology transfer and commercialization.

Transportation would be important. In Lincoln, the high-speed Amtrak will soon carry its citizens to Chicago or St. Louis in record time. They can leave their cars at home where nobody pays to park.

I pitched the TechTopia concept to FaceBook friends (about 7,000 global high-tech geeks), and received encouraging feedback. One suggested welcoming veterans (also a STEM-Trek focus group), plus artists. I can definitely imagine STEAM-powered innovation (“a” for art).

I could find examples of rural business incubators online, but none are places where people both live AND work. If you know of something, please send pointers with the subject line “TechTopia” to info@stem-trek.org. If there’s enough interest, I’ll share what we collect with the STEM-Trek community (below), and maybe someone will have enough traction to run with the ball. In true STEM-Trek grassroots style, we will encourage the development of a framework that others can adopt for their communities.

Read the feedback received via email, LinkedIn and FaceBook communities.