I spent my lunch hour today at a fascinating Aspen Institute panel on Rural Grown, Locally Owned Manufacturing. This was part of an excellent series sponsored by the Rural Development Innovation Group. The panel included excellent fast growing rural firms: Microbiologics (St. Cloud, MN), Cascade Rescue Company (Sandpoint, ID), and Opportunity Threads (Valdese, NC). The company owners shared some deep insights. They face problems no different from their urban counterparts—finding talent is challenge No. 1 by far. Yet, they all savored their work in rural towns where they felt part of a wider community and could actively participate in local decision making and community building. They all also had a commitment to sharing the benefits of company growth with their employees and the community, in the form of employee ownership (in the case of Opportunity Threads) more general profit sharing, and their own local capital and real estate investments.
The event planners also shared an interesting new study of rural employment and poverty from the Carsey Institute. There is a ton of useful data in this study that looks at rural counties across the US and ranks them by their family income levels. The lowest performers tend to be located in the Deep South and Central Appalachia. Meanwhile, the top performers are located in the upper Midwest and Mountain West (especially North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado) and probably are affected by oil and gas activity. But, manufacturing mavens will also be interested in one final data point: in all rural counties (regardless of their income level), manufacturing is the second most important employer behind education services, health care and social services. So, any efforts to reinvigorate rural America must have a heavy focus on manufacturing as well.