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Rural Towns Look For Young Leadership As Populations Age

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It’s hard not to use the phrase “quintessential small town” when you describe Pittsfield, Ill. 

The western Illinois community of 4,500 people has a picturesque downtown square with an historic courthouse sitting in the center.  The small city is the county seat of Pike County and for many years has called itself the Pork Capital of the World in homage to an important sector of farming in this region.   Every year the town holds a two day festival known as “Pig Days,” which, true to its name, features pig tail and hog calling contests.

And there’s plenty of community involvement in town, though much of it is graying around the edges.

Phil Bradshaw, 74, is a familiar face on the civic scene. The soybean and hog farmer has served on numerous local committees, along with state and national agriculture boards. 

“I have several friends that are the same age I am,” Bradshaw says. “We don’t maybe do the major lifting anymore so to speak. But we’re very active. And I think that’s a benefit to the communities, in the fact that we can take a day off. We can do some of the things that need to be done in the community.”

Because there are fewer people in rural areas, it expands the importance of each individual when it comes to the civic life of a town. Many farmers are continuing to farm later and later into their careers. Pittsfield, which sits square in the middle of farm country, may be coping with some of that fallout. Towns like Pittsfield are dealing with an aging population and what it means for the social fabric of the community. 

The Census Bureau says more than 20 percent of Pittsfield’s population is over the age of 65, considerably higher than the national average. That means community leadership comes from older folks. The mayor is a retiree. So is the city’s economic development director. It is the same on numerous boards and committees.

Credit Bill Wheelhouse / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
At 74-years-old, farmer Phil Bradshaw is still a familiar face on the civic scene in Pittsfield, Ill.

Brenda Middendorf oversees the nonprofit group Access Illinois Outdoors, which links local landowners to the hunters who flock to the area. Her board members are mostly 70 or older.

“There is a concern about younger people stepping up and filling those roles as they become vacant,” Middendorf says. “We do need to see some more leadership for the under 70 crowd.”

Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University, has studied rural communities and says better established farmers are often very active civically, but as the farmers continue to grow older that leadership diminishes. 

Still, Wuthnow said, towns the size of Pittsfield and larger attract the retiring farmers from the even smaller towns nearby.

“That has actually been good for the population of some small towns,” Wuthnow says. “The somewhat larger towns are benefiting in terms of population because farmers as they get old retire, need to be closer to the hospital, move into a town, often the county seat.”

Small towns of a few hundred people have declined, Wuthnow says. But, if a town is the county seat, it likely still has a population near 5,000 or above, has a hospital and a nursing home and still has a solid school district – it is likely to hold steady or grow.

Pittsfield can check all those items on the list. The community is within a 45-minute drive of three larger communities, which also helps.

Pittsfield’s population grew by 8 percent in the first decade of the new millennium.  While farmers account for only a small part of that growth directly, they may be supporting a growing sector in Pittsfield – health care. The town’s hospital is one of the largest employers and other medical services have expanded in recent years.

And while Pittsfield grew, the rest of Pike County’s population has been shrinking like other areas of rural America where farming or manufacturing dominated.

Looking to the future, farmer Phil Bradshaw hopes to see younger farmers getting more involved.

“Farms have gotten bigger and more complex. And the younger farmer just isn’t involved getting into the leadership positions while they’re actively farming,” he says. “I think that will change. I think a lot of people as they get up into their 40s and 50s, they’ll start to do more of these things.”

Towns like Pittsfield will depend on it.

This is the fourth installment in a 5-part series on aging farmers from Harvest Public Media. You can read more about the series and companion television documentary at the Harvest Public Media website.

Bill Wheelhouse is a former Harvest Public Media’s reporter in Springfield, Ill. He came to Harvest with a background of covering state government and rural issues.
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