Editor’s note: This article is the first of three parts of a special report by South Dakota News Watch. The “Small Towns — Big Challenges” series was supported in part by a grant from the COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program sponsored by Facebook. Parts two and three will appear over the next two weeks and include profiles of small towns on the cusp of change and a look at issues surrounding access to rural health care.
The COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time for many of South Dakota’s small towns.
The deadly virus has further complicated the already herculean task of keeping cherished rural communities vibrant and reversing a historic downturn in population and economic stability.
Though mostly spared from major outbreaks, small towns that once served as the backbone of rural South Dakota have been stung by the indirect economic and emotional outcomes of the pandemic.
Revenues have fallen at main street businesses critical to maintaining a high quality of life. Even before the virus, many such businesses were struggling to stay afloat as their customer bases continued to shrink amid a long-term decline in agriculture incomes, the flight of young people to more urban areas, a shortage of affordable housing and limited health-care options.
Morale has dropped and community spirit has waned during the pandemic as summer festivals and local events have been canceled, school districts have ended in-person classes, sporting events and graduations, and the brief conversations and personal interactions so common in small towns have become scarce.
As of 2019, 38 of South Dakota’s 66 counties saw population declines. Rural populations are getting older, too. In 2016, people over age 65 accounted for 18% of rural populations, a 22% increase from the year 2000. The percentage of people under 18 in rural counties declined by 9% during that period.
Without hardware stores, hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants, small towns have become less attractive, and the treasured way of life people lead in them could be changed forever.
The historic and recent downturns have been most acute in remote small towns that rely heavily on agriculture and its long reach across rural economies.
Over the past 40 years, higher costs for land and equipment combined more recently with low prices for grain and livestock have been a big part of the consolidation of farms and ranches that reduce opportunities for new or young farmers.
Today, young adults such as 20-year-old Logan Wolter, who grew up raising cattle with his family near Wessington Springs and who wants to settle in his hometown, are struggling to forge a life in agriculture.
Wessington Springs is a town of 925 people located about 45 miles northwest of Mitchell; it has lost 14% of its population in the past 30 years. The town doesn’t have enough jobs to allow many young people to stay after high school or to return after graduation. Wolter said he watched the exodus of his peers away from their hometown and sees it worsening with time.
“You definitely see it every year, there are fewer and fewer young people around and more older farmers,” Wolter said.
Wolter wants to own a ranch but can’t afford to buy land or acquire enough cows to compete with increasingly large-production operations. After graduating tech school this year, he took a job at a ranching retail operation and is living in a rental home outside Wessington Springs while he saves money to someday start his own ranch and start a family.
“I want to live in a small town, absolutely, and be a part of a small community,” Wolter said. “I see it all the time, not just in my small town, but all around the area, whether it be before the virus impacted all of us or now, there’s just a lot of simple acts of kindness.”
But he and others seeking a small-town lifestyle face an uphill climb. The average price of agricultural land in South Dakota has increased more than 500% since 1991, even accounting for inflation. The number of large crop farms and concentrated livestock operations have both risen steadily in the past 20 years in South Dakota.
Small towns such as Wessington Springs were built by groups of people who needed places to buy hardware, sell their grain, attend church and gather with neighbors. Those small towns eventually became the bedrock of social, economic and political life upon which the state was built, said South Dakota historian and author Jon Lauck.
“The small town was the heart and soul of South Dakota,” Lauck said.
There is some reason to worry that small towns will decline further and faster due to the pandemic. Temporary or permanent business closures in the spring caused South Dakota’s unemployment rate to more than double to 10.2% in April. Widespread unemployment has historically presaged large migrations out of rural areas and into cities as people look for work.
Business at the Miller Rexall Drug store in Miller plunged 15% almost overnight in March, said co-owner and pharmacist Travis Anderberg. He took out a federally backed Paycheck Protection Program loan to help keep his employees on the payroll and remain tied to their hometown during the pandemic.
“We have businesses that, just like people are month-to-month waiting on paychecks, they’re month-to-month waiting to pay their utility bills and pay their employees,” Anderberg said.