Giving New Life to Rural Indiana

This series provides insight about the economic and social issues affecting rural Indiana and highlights the public-private partnerships that are helping turn the tide. Check in each Tuesday for a new segment.

Land of Opportunity

New Pioneers Needed for Rural Prosperity

By Beth Forbes

Jason Henderson (left) chats with Jim Lankford at the Fish Fry. The annual Purdue Agricultural Alumni Association Fish Fry is a big attraction—and an opportunity to mix with alumni, friends and stakeholders. Director of Purdue Extension Jason Henderson (left) chats with Jim Lankford, of Martinsville, Ind., at the Feb. 1 event. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

It was the turbulent 1980s, a difficult time to live off the land. Despite rough economic conditions, a dairy farmer managed to keep his 50-head operation afloat. But sitting at the kitchen table in his northeast Iowa farmhouse one night, he looked at his two sons. "In order to keep this farm," he said, "we are going to have to go from 50 cows to 500. Which one of you wants to come back to the farm?"

Jason Henderson was one of those two young brothers—at that kitchen table he was literally sitting at a crossroads in his life. "Neither one of us wanted to return to the farm," he remembers. "My dad ended up selling the farm, and my brother and I became part of the 'lost generation.'"

That is how Henderson, now years later and director of Purdue Extension, describes the exodus of talented young people from the nation's rural areas. A version of this tale has played out many times throughout the Midwest. Many of the best and brightest rural teens head off to college after high school graduation, never to return.

While he didn't see it 30 years ago, Henderson says now there are opportunities for young people to make their futures in rural communities and for these small patches of Americana to prosper. "The rural areas have resources and value to offer; they may just need to be packaged differently today," he says.

Outside the Box

Traditionally, rural communities were tied to agriculture and the many businesses and services that supported it. He says the future now for folks in these small towns and surrounding areas likely will be found outside the box. "The mindset has to change. They must think like entrepreneurs and take risks," says Henderson, a nationally recognized expert on rural economy issues. "They must become the pioneers of the 21st century."

Just like their ancestors 200 years ago, those out in rural areas must blaze a trail, build something new and find ways to make a living off the land.

For Henderson, the path from his family dairy farm led first to a small Iowa college and an economics degree and later to advanced degrees at Purdue. Then came a stint working for the Federal Reserve. There, he took part in what was called a "grand experiment" as he tried to create an extension-like service for bankers predominately located in rural areas. That experience cemented an appreciation for the land-grant system and university-based research. "I knew the value of research-based information and how sharing it with the public helped people better raise their families and improve their lives and businesses," he says. Coming to Purdue Extension, he says, "I'm part of something that moves the world."

Facilitating Change

In his new role, Henderson says Purdue Extension can facilitate some of the necessary change in rural America. "There are many opportunities for those in non-urban areas, and we in Purdue Extension can help local leaders and businesses be creative and find ways to add value to the resources they have," he points out.

Main Street sign 

To be successful, rural communities need educated and skilled entrepreneurial talent. "Healthy rural communities are those that provide economic opportunities both at the farm gate and on Main Street," Henderson says. The shining stars in economic development outside the bigger towns and cities are communities with technical workers and good schools, and access to quality healthcare, shopping and recreational opportunities, he adds. Those not so lucky are isolated by lack of roads, broadband access or education.

Fortunately, Henderson says Indiana's landscape is advantageous and may help many Hoosier communities fare better than those in surrounding states.

"Most Indiana communities are within decent driving distance of the resources that people need," he says. "And with the necessities in place, the secret to economic prosperity lies in finding the right mix of people and prospects. The challenge is to help folks find the unique opportunities that can benefit their region while evolving to adapt to new technology and demographic changes."

Henderson hasn't lived on a farm since his youth, but he says the message he received as a teenager—there is nothing here for you—is not the same memo that should go out to kids today. "I would encourage my own children to move into rural areas if that were their dream," he says.

According to Henderson, for Purdue Extension to help make dreams a reality means encouraging rural residents to build something new "that hasn't been seen before," and invest in the most valuable resource found in the countryside—the people.

Beaulieu's leadership strengthens efforts
in community and regional development

By Olivia Maddox

Lionel Beaulieu, director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development Lionel “Bo” Beaulieu, director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development, was named to also lead Purdue Extension’s Economic and Community Development program area. Having both programs under one leadership will help coordinate economic and community development programming throughout the state. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Lionel "Bo" Beaulieu spent 36 years working in Florida and the Deep South, yet his voice still has a trace of accent from his native Maine, where he lived in Biddeford, until leaving for college in 1969.

While he hasn't lived in Biddeford for many years, like his accent, his experience growing up in the struggling manufacturing town stayed with him. "Textile manufacturing was moving to the South," he says. "Biddeford was a one-industry town, and it never rebounded. It's still struggling today."

Beaulieu remained in New England for college, majoring in sociology at Saint Anselm College, a small, private school in Manchester, NH. "When I began researching graduate schools, Purdue percolated to the top," he says, even though he admits he wasn't exactly sure what a "land grant" university was.

But he was intrigued by the opportunity to join faculty in the agricultural economics department as their first ever graduate research assistant recruited from Purdue's sociology department. The assistantship introduced him to what ultimately became his passion—community and rural development research and engagement. After earning a master's degree, he stayed on to complete a Ph.D. Beaulieu became committed to interdisciplinary work and the pursuit of research, Extension and teaching—the hallmarks of a land-grant university mission.

"I was never satisfied with a singular focus on research," he says. "I wanted to follow through and apply the research in hopes of tackling the important issues impacting communities. I wanted to make a difference in people's lives."

Beaulieu returned to his alma mater in April 2013 as director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development. PCRD seeks to pioneer new ideas and strategies that contribute to regional collaboration, innovation and prosperity. "The Indiana economy is growing but pockets are still struggling," Beaulieu says. "Not all communities can do the same thing economically. PCRD helps align economic development strategies to existing assets of communities and regions. There's economic strength in numbers," he says. "It's easier for communities to create, attract, retain and expand jobs by partnering together rather than going it alone."

On Feb. 1, Beaulieu took another step toward his Purdue roots when he was tapped to also lead Purdue Extension's Economic and Community Development program area. The appointment is intended to strengthen the working ties between PCRD and Extension ECD activities.

"Bo's national expertise in economic and community development and his ability to build strong relationships across a variety of institutions will help integrate Extension with economic and community development programming across the university," says Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension.

Beaulieu says Extension's presence in every county will help provide "boots on the ground" to deliver both Extension and PCRD programs. "The synergy makes sense since it enhances our ability to connect our research and educational programs with the outreach efforts of a talented corps of county-based Extension educators. There's so much capability at Purdue, talented people in administration, faculty and staff, to carry this out."

Beaulieu was at the University of Florida from 1977-97 where he was involved in community development research, Extension and teaching. He left Florida to become director and professor at the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University, one of four regional development centers in the country funded by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. He was there from 1997-2013.

Last year wasn't the first time Purdue has attempted to entice Beaulieu back to campus, but this time, he says, he couldn't say no.

"It was time for me to give back to the university that has done so much for me," he says. "Being a Purdue graduate opened doors for me. With the Purdue name, you gain respect immediately in the land-grant system. The training I received here prepared me to have a successful and rewarding career."

It was an ideal time for him and his wife, Barbara—whom he met while both were students at Purdue—to return to Indiana, he says. "I wanted to dedicate the rest of my career to being a member of the Purdue family."

Next Tuesday: Purdue Extension resources and expertise help agricultural entrepreneurs thrive in the rural economy.