If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

And what we’ve got is an aging Rural America. So you might say, “Well what’s wrong with that? We each get older every day. And getting older is better than the alternative!”

And that’s true. But in our rural communities throughout Illinois, the old are getting older and the young (well, they are not getting younger)…they are moving away! And of the farmers who live there, almost 40 percent have off-farm jobs. For many, farming is actually secondary. Many work off the farm first and farm later. Further, they have fewer high school degrees and even fewer college degrees.

So what does that mean to us in USDA Rural Development? It means as a lender with loans and grants, we have to do our part to support business and business creation in rural areas so there are jobs for that off-farm work. And it means we have to support community improvement and development to encourage young people to stay in the area or attract them to come back. And it means we have to support entrepreneurship and innovation.

In a whitepaper released just a few weeks ago, Past Silos and Smokestacks: Transforming the Rural Economy in the Midwest, the author says, “The Midwest can no longer base its 21st-century future on this 20th-century playbook.” The report points out that for more than 50 years, the rural Midwest has followed one basic path to economic development: recruit a factory to the edge of town, and give away the farm to get it. Dr. Mark Drabenstott says, “In order to encourage new industry and job creation, the rural Midwest needs a bold new development strategy to transform its economy. It needs to partner regionally to compete globally.” It means a new game plan.

The Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development, Dallas Tonsager, recently said, “USDA Rural Development is central to the community-building effort. But the overall goal is to ensure that rural communities are creating wealth, are self-sustaining, are repopulating and are thriving economically.” That means rural communities will have to reinvent themselves in order for Rural America to be renewed. We have to break the mold in Rural Development and initiate a regional approach, not just a town-by-town or county-by-county effort. And that change of mentality will require seven points of focus:

With over 40 programs in housing, community facilities and business, USDA Rural Development can offer financial help in each of those areas. But first, community leaders and organizations—electric co-ops, local banks, agricultural organizations, community groups, elected officials and concerned residents—must “C the Need.”

Those are the “C’s” of which we are in need! But none of those “C’s” will happen without first initiating the most impactful “C”: Communication with and among each other.

USDA Rural Development is up to the challenge of addressing the current rural circumstances. We are committed to helping communities with their choices as they move toward a growing economy that allows them to have a sense of connection and create positive change…because…if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. iBi

Colleen Callahan is the Illinois Director of USDA Rural Development and was a long-time agribusiness reporter for WMBD radio and TV. She and her husband live on a farm near Kickapoo, Illinois.