Rachel Prevost was in the tail end of her senior year at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., when the coronavirus pandemic began. Prevost returned home to her family’s ranch outside Lambert, Mont., a tiny community not far from the North Dakota state line. Suddenly, things as simple as adding an attachment to an email or watching a video became major ordeals because of poor internet connections.
Months later, Prevost, now the digital coordinator for the Montana Democratic Party, had the opportunity to tell her story on a big stage. Standing in front of some grazing cattle, Prevost delivered Montana’s roll call vote at the Democratic National Convention and used her time to expound on the importance of expanding broadband access throughout rural America, telling her story about finishing school from the ranch.
“Without reliable internet, there’s no remote learning, no virtual doctors appointments — and just try starting a small business,” she said in the video, calling expansion of rural broadband a “game changer” for communities like the one where she grew up.
“This is an issue that, like, impacts thousands of people in rural areas, and, you know, maybe it's not an issue that everybody always thinks about,” Prevost said.
The 2010 U.S. Census reported that 80.7% of the U.S. population lived in urban areas, an increase of 1.7% compared to the 2000 Census. But while fewer than one in five people live in rural areas, rural areas themselves make up about 97% of the land in the U.S., according to Census reports.
That means the vast majority of the country’s infrastructure is used by a small portion of the population. Things like roads, bridges, water systems, health care systems, broadband and more are necessary to live in those rural areas but haven’t gotten the attention they need. Without investment, U.S. agriculture’s ability to compete in a global market will be lost.
“In competing in global markets, you know, we can grow it here and get it there faster, more efficiently, more safely than anybody else in the world,” said Todd Van Hoose, president and CEO of Farm Credit Council, the national trade association representing Farm Credit institutions. “But the infrastructure that supported that for the last 70 years has largely been ignored and is really starting to deteriorate and is starting to impact our competitive ability in those overseas markets.”
An ever-evolving need
When President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, it seemed that one area of common ground was infrastructure.
“It seemed like Republicans and Democrats both agreed on that,” Van Hoose said. “And what we know from our past experience was when those infrastructure packages moved through Congress, rural was not paid much attention to because the projects are smaller, the needs are quite different. And so Congress tended to focus on the big infrastructure needs of the country, not necessarily on rural infrastructure needs.”
In February 2017, more than 200 organizations with ag and rural interests signed onto a letter to plead with the president not to forget about rural.
“Transportation infrastructure improvement is the most obvious need in rural communities, but not the only one. Highways, bridges, railways, locks and dams, harbors and port facilities all need major investment if we are to continue efficiently getting our agricultural products to market,” the letter said. “In addition, though, critical needs exist in providing clean water for rural families, expanding broadband to connect rural communities to the outside world, and enhancing the ability to supply affordable, reliable and secure power for the rural economy.”
From that effort, the Rebuild Rural Coalition was born. Van Hoose said it now includes more than 260 organizations. The groups started out advocating for things like roads, bridges, railroads and waterways; but with each new group that signed on, another component of infrastructure was added. Rebuild Rural now focuses on ag research, health care, broadband, housing, energy, transportation, financing and water.
Each of those areas, Van Hoose said, is a “basic fundamental function of government,” so investments also need to come from the government.
“If our country values rural communities, if we think not everybody should live in an urban or suburban area, then we're going to have to find a way to put the support under these communities,” he said. “Otherwise, we're just chasing everybody to urban centers, and we're going to hollow out this country, and I don't think anybody thinks that's in the best interests of the country.”
Terry Wanzek agrees. Wanzek, a central North Dakota farmer as well as a longtime state senator who serves on the North Dakota Senate Appropriations Committee, has spent his political career advocating for investment in rural infrastructure, especially roads.
In October 2019, a blizzard blanketed much of central North Dakota with heavy, wet snow. The storm led to road flooding and destruction. One of the wet, near impassable roads was one leading from Interstate 94 to the farm headquarters where Wanzek works with his brother, son and nephew. The Wanzeks fixed the road themselves rather than wait for assistance.
While that was an option that worked for them, Wanzek warns that farmers having to do such things may make the cost of production too high to compete in the global market. U.S. infrastructure historically has given farmers a competitive advantage, he said.
Getting that message across to his urban colleagues hasn’t always been easy, but the North Dakota Legislature has over the years put some money into rural roads. The most recent attempt, Operation Prairie Dog, would make some money available to township governments for infrastructure projects, but Wanzek said the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the state’s economy may limit the amount of money available.
In the upcoming legislative session, Wanzek is hearing support for things like raising township taxation limits and creating some sort of fund for townships that face emergency infrastructure needs.
But to move the needle on issues, it means the voices from rural areas need to speak up so the people in urban areas understand how those roads matter in the grand scheme of things.
“The biggest problem I’ve seen as a state legislator … is convincing my colleagues that that road in Moon Lake Township matters. It’s important, it should be important, to everybody,” he said.
Make enough noise
In North Dakota, rural legislators need to explain to their urban counterparts how important township roads are. But in other states and other communities, other needs have to be highlighted. Van Hoose and Wanzek said it’s important for people to share their stories.
“My experience after 30 years in Washington is that if you make enough noise, Congress hears you, but you’ve got to make a lot of noise, and especially if it's a rural area,” Van Hoose said.
Rural communities need to focus on uniting on what they need to survive, whether its roads or broadband or some other vital interest, he said.
Getting those voices to the decision makers is important, Wanzek said.
“When we’re in session and you see legislation that’s addressing these issues, you know, come in and provide your two cents worth. I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, they don’t care what I have to say.’ But I would correct them. And I’ve seen it in the eyes of my colleagues when average, everyday citizens come to the Legislature and speak up. I can see it in their facial expressions; they’re listening,” he said. “When somebody from home comes and speaks from the heart, it is effective.”
That’s what Prevost wanted to project to the nation when she stood up for Montana at the Democratic National Convention — the needs of people living in communities like Lambert, Mont., all over the country. She wanted to tell her story so people could connect with it and get behind it.
“And that was an opportunity that I had, and it was pretty cool. And to be able to, like, talk about, you know, something that really does affect my life — that's how we get people to care about it,” she said, “It's a real issue that real people can attest to.”
Getting those messages to the right people is Rebuild Rural’s goal, too.
“What Rebuild Rural has tried to do is focus that message in on, here's the big priority. Here's the fundamental thing that our country needs to address out in rural America. It’s infrastructure. We can't exist without it. We can't have healthy people. We can't have kids with futures. We can't have economic activity unless we have this infrastructure to support it, and it's going to be different. And it might cost you some money, federal government, but it's worth the investment because if you think about our agricultural food and food system, it's the backbone of this country,” he said.