|The old homesite is overgrown by weeds and sunflowers|
The summer heat was oppressive as we pulled into the old homesite. It had been 25 years since anyone set foot in the place. Overgrown by weeds and giant sunflowers, the decrepit structure stood defiantly. Several turkey vultures were flushed from their roost and managed to catch an updraft in the still air. It was a bad omen. When these birds are circling, death is imminent. Rural Nebraska is dying.
Last weekend we departed from Colorado to attend a family reunion in Southwestern Nebraska. The early pioneers of my family homesteaded on the rolling prairie near McCook and worked the fertile land in the Republican River Valley. My childhood summers were spent at "The Farm" exploring the hills and tree rows in a quest for adventure.
We hadn't been back in a long time so I was excited to see the many relatives who still live in the area. I also wanted to revisit the old stomping grounds and get some photographs. Everything seemed smaller and quieter. A devastating drought has turned the hills brown and dried up the swimming ponds. Things were not the way I had remembered.
The region has been losing people for 70 years. The younger generation is not taking over the farms and businesses are not surviving. The factories are abandoned because they're too remote and not profitable. The stores are gone because the customers have left and huge discount chains have moved in. There is very little to keep the small towns going as they're struggling to stay alive. Rural Nebraska now contains several of the nation's poorest counties.
The rise of agribusiness has created federally subsidized mega-operations that have destroyed the traditional family farm. A strategically placed Wal-Mart can be devastating to the merchants trying to eke out a living in one of the smaller, rural counties. If the current trend continues, Nebraska will lose even more farms, stores and schools.
Most of the remaining jobs are dependent on farming but economists believe that must change in order for the struggling communities to survive. Stores that are successful sell the essentials such as gas, quick-stop groceries and coffee. Development experts think the future of rural America depends on small companies making unique products, artisans selling local crafts and historical attractions luring curious tourists.
It was a great time to be a kid. We wandered through the pastures, learned to ride horses and caught toads by the moonlight. Often we'd go into Lebanon and shoot hoops or grab a bottle of pop. It was a thriving community back then. Today, this part of the country is desperate for some good luck. I'm praying for a comeback but from what I observed, the vultures are circling.
|We learned to ride horses at the farm|
|The area is dependent on farming|
|Buildings are abandoned|
|The younger generation is not taking over the farms|
|Rural Nebraska is dying|
|We used to play hoops|
|Main street Lebanon is a ghost town|
|I'm praying for a comeback|