The University of Nebraska, as part of its busy week commemorating the 1862 Morrill Act, formally launched the Rural Futures Institute Sept. 27 in Columbus. The Morrill Act created land-grant universities like the University of Nebraska.
The idea of a rural institute began more than two years with an objective of finding ways to revive rural communities and provide opportunities for residents of those communities, said Ronnie Green, vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Larger farms, continuing innovations in agriculture and dwindling populations are among several factors changing the landscape of rural Nebraska and the Great Plains.
J.B. Milliken, University of Nebraska president, told the audience in Columbus, "We want to be the preeminent location in the United States and world with the RFI and its focus on rural communities and rural economies. There is enthusiasm across Nebraska, the nation and even overseas about our effort. I've heard from people in England and India who want to know about it."
The NU Board of Regents is expected to officially approve the creation of RFI in October, after which a search will begin for its first executive director.
How the RFI will be structured and what programs it develops aren't clear as yet. Green said the first phase of the institute will focus on the Great Plains region.
In August, the university sent out a request for proposals for research and teaching engagement grants as part of the initial phase of the program.
Panel speakers during the day at the Pinnacle Bank in Columbus talked often of opportunities available today to rural residents, including the world's growing demand for food, popularity of local foods and the creation of business opportunities through the Internet.
"This can be the premier rural program America, if we do it right," said Chuck Hassebrook, NU regent and executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.
Training for business startups, in small towns and in homes, is a big part of the Center for Rural Affairs mission, according to Hassebrook. "We have already worked with 2,000 micro-businesses through the Nebraska EDGE program, but people don't want to or can't take time away from home for the training. More of this training needs to put online."
Additionally, Hassebrook said many business owners are within 10 years of retiring, and finding people to replace them should be a critical focus. He also said leadership training is critical. "A key difference between upbeat communities and those that are struggling is local leadership."
Other panel members spoke of the need to research what makes some small towns successful. Nurturing entrepreneurs is vital, too, and efforts should start at the elementary and high school levels.
When job opportunities are available in small towns, the lack of skilled workers often is a problem, speakers added.
Making the RFI successful in meeting its goals will require the involvement of all NU campuses; community colleges; local, state and federal agencies; private organizations; foundations; citizen groups; and other land-grant universities, Milliken said.
The inaugural Rural Futures Conference was held last spring in Lincoln and a second conference is planned for spring 2013. The first conference drew 450 people to Lincoln from Nebraska, the United States and around the world.