In Our Opinion: Population concerns are a real issue

Farm Forum

There are some big numbers we need to be aware of.

Minus 22. Minus 17. Minus 28.

These are not recent temperatures; if only.

They are the percentages of population decreases in Faulkton, Mobridge and Gettysburg as shown in U.S. Census data over the last 30 years.

Those three cities are not alone. In a story last Sunday, reporter Jeff Natalie-Lees showed that Britton, Ipswich, Redfield and Webster each lost similar amounts of population.

The county numbers are even worse. Thirty percent of the Day County population has moved on in 30 years. Faulk County lost 29 percent. The worst are Potter and McPherson: each down about 39 percent over 30 years.

What is causing the exodus?

The shrinking number of family farms in favor of large-land commercial agriculture has pushed generations out of their towns and counties.

And younger residents, who 30 years ago might have stayed on the family farm, are instead moving to larger population centers such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City, both of which see growing numbers. Small towns around Sioux Falls, such as Tea, for instance, once might have lost population like some towns up here. Now, Tea is considered a suburb of Sioux Falls.

Aberdeen might be assumed to be benefitting from the migration from rural to more urban areas.

But again, take a look at the census numbers.

While Redfield lost about 700 residents between the 1980 and 2010 Census, for instance, Aberdeen proper only grew by about 240 people in that same time, for a .9 percent increase. Brown County actually lost population in that time, minus 1.2 percent.

Those are scary numbers.

Consider how many transplanted residents are in this city now compared to 30 years ago. Remember, there was no Sanford hospital, no beef plant or Molded Fiber Glass hiring, and Northern State was not the international draw that it is becoming today.

That negligible change in population here is due not to folks staying in Aberdeen, but folks moving to Aberdeen and replacing those who have left.

Those leaving the rural towns are moving somewhere, but not Aberdeen.

Our city is doing a lot of things right. Diversifying our economy is a key ingredient to attracting and retaining residents, many of whom are not directly involved in the business of ag. Amenities, as we’ve said many times, are critical to quality of life issues that keep families here for generations.

But it’s clear by the data that Aberdeen is not on as solid footing as the two bigger cities to the southeast and southwest.

And this isn’t the era of a countryside dotted with small towns, each with a post office, a grocer and a hardware store. Today, if a city isn’t growing, it might be dying.

Natalie-Lees’ story was sparked by the recent changes of Webster and Britton-Hecla school districts to nine-man football because of dwindling enrollment numbers.

On today’s front page, reporter Kay Nguyen talks about the challenges facing Waubay, devastated by flooding, and the difficulties to maintain roots, even for those who don’t want to leave.

In Monday’s paper, we plan a story by reporter Calvin Men talking about the challenges of finding pastors for two Britton churches. Challenges including — you guessed it — decreasing congregation numbers.

It seems this loss of rural and small-town population will be a thread that runs through many of the stories and conversations we have in the coming months and years.