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Renting land to highest bidder a stumbling block for young people looking to start in agriculture

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RAYMOND, S.D. — The rural brain drain is not a new plague in the Midwest. Young people leave rural communities in pursuit of higher education, and oftentimes, they don't come back.

Jim Kopriva believes the migration of youth away from rural areas isn't just a lack of career opportunity. It's a lack of habitat.

"What we see around here is land rented to the top bidder," Kopriva said. "Next thing you know, somebody from several hundred miles away is buying land right next door. The whole idea of renting for top dollar becomes like driving 40 miles to get gas for a penny cheaper."

For young people desiring to get started in agriculture, the concept of handing out land to the highest bidder becomes a challenging stumbling block. And on the heels of a short window when high crop prices turned marginal land into farm ground, many old homesteads that could have been handed over to young farming hopefuls are now gone.

Kopriva, who farms and ranches northwest of Raymond, initially began raising livestock on a small acreage while he held a daytime job in town. Without the chance to fix a rundown acreage as payment for a place to live, he might not have had the chance to pursue his ultimate passion of raising livestock. He believes that encouraging individuals to start small by making land available for them will bring young people back into agriculture.

"They need an opportunity to try and an opportunity to get their hands on some land resources," Kopriva said. "How nice would it be if land owners would prefer to rent to young people that are beginning farmers or just trying to get themselves established in agriculture?"

Living in the country provides families opportunities to become involved in agriculture even if it's not their primary occupation. Some of the most valuable ethics can be taught on a farm, and in Kopriva's mind those lessons are best taught through stewardship of livestock. Responsibility and commitment are quickly learned when those principles live right outside the back door for families that live in the country.

"Young people need livestock," Kopriva said. "If they don't go out and feed their bicycle nothing bad will happen the next day, but if they ignore their livestock, livestock teaches kids something they can't learn any other way."

Kopriva also sees benefits for the older generations that rent to younger families instead of holding out for the highest bidder. Younger individuals with families can tackle odd jobs to help out older neighbors while building a sense of community in the country.

"When that land owner needs a ride to town or needs snow removed from driveways, who's going to help them?" Kopriva asked. "I think it pays in a lot of ways."

The 2011 Center for Rural Affairs Census Report supports Kopriva's observation that fewer opportunities are available for young people to become rooted in small farming operations. However, SDSU Extension community development specialist Peggy Schlechter notes that South Dakota communities as a whole are growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, South Dakota's population swelled by 7.9 percent from 2000 to 2010. While this population boost bodes well for larger South Dakota towns and cities, it masks the 4.4 percent drop in the rural countryside and small towns seen over the past decade.

Schlechter notes that rural communities need to change how they develop opportunities for young people. Instead of providing scholarships for youth to move away and pursue an education, communities need to build more incentives that will draw back former residents, especially those who already desire to return but require economic or entrepreneurial encouragement. Schlechter has seen interest in young people wanting to move back to their home areas. The issue becomes creating a viable habitat for young people to work and raise families in.

"We need to change the conversation," Schlechter said. "The attitude of people needing to leave to be successful, that's really got to change."

Schlechter believes that rural areas offer prime potential for people to play a significant role in communities. Rural communities require involvement from everyone in order for roles to be fulfilled. According to Schlechter, these communities need to become more intentional in promoting themselves as well as ensuring that everyone in the community has the chance to play a part.

"In rural areas you really have an opportunity as a leader to make an impact on people's lives and make a difference dramatically," Schlechter said.

Both Kopriva and Schlechter agree that proactive steps need to be taken for rural communities to thrive.

"How many people die with money in their account that they never used, but it crowded young people off the land?" Kopriva asked. "It's worth more to rent locally and keep people in the country than it is to seek the top dollar. To me, that's habitat."