Is there hope for small communities in rural Nebraska in the face of their challenges?

Indeed, there is. Positive opportunities are there if communities take the right steps to seize them.

The University of Nebraska’s Rural Futures Conference last week brought together hundreds of participants to discuss positive ways forward for rural communities. A sampling:

» The audience learned how Atwood, a small Kansas community an hour’s drive from McCook, has achieved a series of successes through getting its 20-somethings engaged in the community; building broad community buy-in for projects; and welcoming newcomers and new ideas.

» Anne Burkholder, a feedlot manager in Cozad, and Sarah Pinet, co-owner of a goat dairy farm and cheese-making operation in Scottsbluff, among others, described key ingredients for entrepreneurship and outreach to young people.

There’s a portion of city dwellers unhappy with the urban lifestyle who would find rural culture more appealing, Burkholder said, citing her own life story as an example. It’s worth exploring how to reach those folks, she said.

» Speakers explained the importance of local leaders who offer a positive vision and bring people together. Incremental change is often best. So is not resting on one’s laurels when community goals are reached, speakers noted.

» Shane Farritor, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering professor who grew up in Ravenna, Nebraska, said states should explore creating “maker spaces” — innovative small-scale manufacturing spaces — in the state’s rural communities. “Nebraskans make things,” Farritor told the conference. Rural maker spaces “can be hubs for entrepreneurship.”

» Young filmmakers Andrew Dickinson and Jacob Zlomke spoke movingly and eloquently about their video projects in Valentine, Nebraska, and elsewhere to help people develop fuller, more meaningful understanding of rural life.

» In describing ag-sector innovation, scientist Vishal Singh explained how QuantifiedAG, a startup at NU’s Innovation Campus, has created ear tags that record cattle health data. The devices are now being used in the cattle industry.

» Dan Hoesing, superintendent of the Schuyler Community Schools, said he liked how the conference showed the role of the educational system in connecting with Nebraska workforce needs. The event was positive, too, he told The World-Herald, in bringing together a wide array of Nebraskans and promoting cooperation “for a stronger, more unified state.”

» Shane Lopez, a research director with Gallup, talked about how the data show that adopting a positive, future-oriented mindset is a central factor in a community’s success.

The key idea, he said, is hope. As the conference made clear, hope is out there for rural America, with the right spirit and teamwork.

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