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What will save rural America?

This question is much larger than the niche of our readership and perhaps the scope of our disciplines, but it’s always being asked nonetheless. And it matters — we’ve got a lot of rural. How do we reframe this type of question to better provide an answer we can solve? Will tech save rural America? Startups? Whose job is it and what, if anything, is our role?

Pausing for a moment to ask for your thoughts and welcome your replies – to either redefining the question or providing an answer. Please comment below the article or email your thoughts to

These questions have been swirling over the past several weeks with the continued news of budget cuts to the arts, education and health and humanities, but on the flipside, a continued increase in entrepreneurial partnerships — a dichotomy of the good and the bad targeting the rural within our state lines. (The question of rural salvation seems to also be at play in the recent episodes of Billions.) 

The bad news for rural America is not new news, with nearly the exact same question posed by the Editorial Staff of The Gazette almost two years ago. Populations have ebbed and flowed with a knack for more ebb than flow since the early 1900s when, as they shared, President Roosevelt’s State of the Union addressed the issue of young residents leaving. The “more active and restless young men and women,” he noted, were driven from rural families and off farms, “for they rebelled at loneliness and lack of mental companionship.” In 1903, Roosevelt had free rural mail delivery, the telephone and the bicycle to thank for a more attractive rural America.

But what makes rural America attractive today? What is enough to make restless young men and women stay within, or move back toward, the seventy-two percent of US land known as rural (but that only fifteen percent call home)?

Zachary Mannheimer, former Executive Director and Founder of the Des Moines Social Club recently joined McClure Engineering Company, and will focus on Creative Placemaking for rural communities, helping them achieve economic and population growth through cultural and entrepreneurial amenities, concepts and catalytic projects, as stated in the announcement.

“Obviously, people will go to the rural areas that feature the most livable amenities they are looking for,” Mannheimer said. “Ten years ago, young people were only coming to Des Moines for a job or a relationship. Today they are coming for other reasons including its relevant vibrancy. The same was true of San Francisco 100 years ago and Brooklyn 60 years ago. This thinking and work are not new.”

While we work through what it means to create “relevant vibrancy” we do know what it will take to sustain it — investment. “On one hand,” Mannheimer states, “rural areas will experience significant growth based on necessity, as artists and immigrants are always the first people to populate a low-cost area. And then, as we have seen in urban areas —Detroit and Des Moines for example, these influencers of culture will make these areas interesting, and therefore investment will follow.”

That investment can come from programs like the most recent announcement coming out of Iowa State University’s Ag Startup Engine at the ISU Research Park, in which Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa (RRIA) will bring education, mentoring and financing resources to young Iowa entrepreneurs. (The RRIA is a statewide economic development initiative created in partnership with Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa, Iowa Agriculture Finance Corp. and Central Iowa Power Cooperative.)

Kevin Kimle, director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative, shared the following statement in the partnership announcement. “The Iowa Farm Bureau has long been a significant supporter of agricultural entrepreneurs and rural economic development. They’ve been affiliated with the program since its inception almost a decade ago, and their ongoing support for the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative benefits the program significantly and results in formation of businesses and farms that positively impact Iowa’s communities.”

Just as generations before us, we’ll continue to ask the right and wrong questions and work hard to answer all of them. Even in times of a shifting political landscape, uncertain budgets and migrating millennials, there will be no shortage of changemakers. Does it matter where they live? Do we want them to stay or are we asking that they return?

We want to hear from you. Whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur,
we want to know your thoughts.

Here’s what we’re reading related to this topic, from blogs to classic paperbacks:

A Complex Portrait of Rural America. The Atlantic’s CityLab
Just What the Heck is “Rural America”? In These Times blog
How to Save Coal Country New Republic
The New Geography of Jobs Enrico Moretti
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier Edward Glaeser
On the Road Jack Kerouac

Jami Milne is the interim managing editor of Clay & Milk. Send her an email at

What will save rural America? | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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