In our hometown of Lyons, Nebraska (pop. 950), a relatively strange sight has appeared - young people between the ages of 20 and 30. If you live in a rural community in the Upper Midwest, you know what I'm talking about. In a town of 1,000, it can feel like 900 are either over 60 or under 18.
But this summer, several young adults have strolled the streets of Lyons as a result of an internship project sponsored by Nebraska Renewable Energy Systems (www.nerenew.com). They came to learn about and actually build renewable energy systems - primarily wind and biodiesel.
If you don't live in a small town, the importance of this can be hard to understand. For those of us who do live in a small town, we know that far too often our best and brightest leave town for college, never to return. But small towns need to keep the young people we have and find a way to encourage the return of those who have left if we are to have any hope of a thriving, successful future.
This is the reason many of us are so enthusiastic about renewable energy. Rural America has an abundant asset urban America lacks - land. And Lord knows we've got plenty of wind. If we build the renewable energy industry the right way - and that's a big if - there is real potential to bring a new generation of young people to our small towns.
But we can only bring that new generation if we have good-paying, knowledge-based jobs to offer them. That's why it is so important that we encourage local ownership of production. We don't need ethanol plants that are increasingly automated and owned by an investment firm out of Boston (or Omaha, for that matter).
We need locally-owned biofuels facilities that employ accountants, engineers, marketing specialists, etc. in our small towns. We need wind companies that employ locals not only for construction needs, but for manufacturing, distribution, and other jobs.
We must not let the renewable energy industry become yet another method of extracting wealth from rural America. The value-added components of this industry need to stay in our communities, and the best way of doing that is ensuring local, diverse ownership.
Small towns need to build on their unique assets, not rely on tired economic development formulas that often promote the low wages rural people are willing to accept. And for rural communities to thrive, we must attract and retain top-notch young adults, relying on economic activity that is built on our inherent advantages.
Nebraska Renewable Energy Systems brought these young adults to our small town for only a few months, to be sure. But more will follow, and all are building a future for all of rural America.
Thanks to: Dan Owens, rural organizer and regular contributor to this newsletter and the Blog for Rural America. Adios, Dan!