Rural South Dakota quietly shrinking

Farm Forum

When the Webster and Britton-Hecla school districts decided to switch to nine-man football because enrollment had dropped too low to field 11-man teams, it was a sobering reminder of population decline in rural areas.

While Brown County has managed to hold onto population because of Aberdeen’s industrial, medical and retail base, every surrounding county has lost residents, and projections suggest they will continue to do so, said Michael McCurry, state demographer and assistant professor of sociology and rural studies at South Dakota State University.

“This is a trend that has really been going on for a long time,” he said.

For example, Day County has lost about 30 percent of its population in the past 30 years. The population dropped from 8,133 to 5,710 from 1980 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

Webster, the county seat, has dropped in population from 2,417 to 1,886 in that same 30-year span, according to the census. Primarily, the Rapid City and Sioux Falls areas are the ones that have not lost population, McCurry said.

“Rural counties, many in the James River Valley, have diminishing populations, and the average age of the residents is getting older all the time,” he said.

The cause of the decline can be traced to changes in agriculture, he said.

“There are fewer and fewer farms out there, and there are fewer people needed to work them,” McCurry said.

South Dakota has always been an agricultural state since the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of free land. There was a time a family could live off 160 acres, but now, except for niche farming, agriculture has become a commodities business where volume matters.

Today, the average farm size in South Dakota is 1,374 acres, according to information released by the South Dakota Department of Agriculture in January.

The change to larger farms

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