The vines from the elementary school’s sizeable pumpkin patch were sprawling aggressively across the basketball court. In spite of the 98-degree heat, the plants were so vigorous, so verdant, that one could imagine them ascending and eventually encircling the nearby five-story feed mill that dominated Atwood’s downtown center. Was this a symbolic challenge from an upstart school garden project—a David and Goliath confrontation, as it were—to the commodity feed and livestock farming that defines western Kansas? Perhaps. But more than likely it’s a murmur rising inexorably to a scream from the school’s young people that the status quo may not be enough to keep them around. Because if you climbed to the top of that mill, spread before you would be too many vacant store fronts, too little pedestrian or car traffic, and too little future.
What you’d also see from that precarious perch is the rest of Rawlins County, of which Atwood is its largest town. Stretching out against an endless horizon in all directions is a vast expanse of wheat and feed crop-covered prairie. No less impressive by its absence, you will not see a single stoplight or much in the way of human habitation. Rawlins County, set firmly against the Nebraska border to the north and one county over from Colorado to the west, makes abundant room for a population of barely 2,500 people (down from 3,400 in 1990), which is hardly a regional anomaly. The entire nine-county northwest Kansas area has a population of only 30,000 inhabiting a territory larger than my former home state of Connecticut, which contains 3.2 million people within its borders.
Against a backdrop of commodity crop dominance and a dwindling population, it’s not uncommon to hear some version of a “goodbye to rural America” tune rising from various quarters. But down on Atwood’s quiet streets, a different, more uplifting song can be heard from a growing chorus of people working to create a more hopeful future for this beleaguered corner of America. One of those voices is JoEllyn Argabright, who, in one bold act of derring-do early in the summer of 2020 bought out a closing garden store and two adjoining buildings. Her intent is to transform them into a multi-purpose garden center and food hub. When I asked her why, her response was simple: “I’m tired of watching our town die.”
When Jo, 35, first picked me up for a tour, she identified herself in advance as “the only 5-foot, 3-inch woman in the parking lot with a big black pick-up truck.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in the West, don’t expect small women to always drive a Prius. In this part of world, the vehicle is still a projection of your personality. In Jo’s case, she’s a self-identified “farm wife, mother of two children (two and four years old), Extension educator for Kansas State University, and now a store owner.”
Growing up in Boulder as the only child (her one sibling died in childhood) of a single father—a recently retired Denver emergency room physician—she first attended Colorado State University on a clay pigeon shooting scholarship. (This last item—a women’s Olympic competition since 2000—took me a while to process since I’ve seen shotguns longer than Jo is tall.) Transferring after her freshman year to Kansas State, Jo would acquire undergraduate and graduate degrees that led her to a variety of nutrition and community development positions within the University’s Extension system. Just as importantly, she met her future husband, Austin, at K-State, after which they would return to his family’s farm in Rawlins County.
“My passion is around local food as a way to feed our community,” Jo said as she showed me around her newly acquired properties. While that passion partially explains her motivation to open a food hub in a community where new business startups are nearly as rare as dodo birds, she appears to be mining a deeper vein of personal desire. “I want to create something my kids will be proud of and that will give them a reason to stay here.” But she also shares a personal drive that has ignited her inner entrepreneur. “As a [Kansas State] Extension educator I’m always helping others with business and farm problems. But I’m preaching to them from the safe space of a university. I need to actually do it myself because, like farming, not enough young people want to become merchants.” According to the people I interviewed for this article, Jo is now one of the youngest business owners in the nine-county region.
To say Jo “walks it like she talks it” is an understatement. By her own admission, the comfortable salary she earns from a major state institution places her in the higher echelon of the county’s income earners. But rather than seek high rates of return in the stock market, she’s invested her savings, uncompensated time, and Extension knowledge back in the community. Though the purchase price of the store, its inventory, the greenhouse, a vacant lot, and two adjoining buildings—all tightly packed onto about a quarter acre of land—was at bargain basement rates, a significant sum was still required. She dug into her own savings, secured an “investment” from her father (“I had to agree to let him volunteer at the store in return for his gift,” she noted with a laugh), and took out a long-term, low-interest loan from Network Kansas, a state-sponsored entrepreneur development fund
All of that just gave her title to the properties and a chance to make a go of it in a risky marketplace. The “Dream,” the thing that gets Jo up in the morning will take more money, massive amounts of community support, and, to use her favorite phrase, “a lot of love.” The Dream includes a food hub that features locally produced food and other horticultural products. Already, an heirloom garlic grower wants to sell through the hub, and local beef and pork operations have expressed interest in selling finished retail products there.
A seed-starting greenhouse (Jo has set a goal for the store to start 75 percent of the plants it sells) will be added onto the existing 20-x-48 foot greenhouse. This phase of plan got a boost recently from a $45,000 SPARK grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce as part of the coronavirus stimulus package (Kansas received $9 million in federal funds for local food system promotion). This will include the addition of a walk-in produce cooler and freezer.
Rounding out the entire food center will be a commercial kitchen incubator that will house the equipment, safety training, and other support services necessary to producing and marketing processed food products. Through her Extension work, Jo already has several clients for whom such a facility could launch their much hoped for food businesses. To ignite a food-chain effect, gardening education programs will encourage and support home scale food production and processing that have surged since the appearance of COVID-19. The store’s 2021 calendar of events already has courses on the docket titled “Growing Herbs,” “Cooking with Herbs,” and “Seeds to Sauce.” A café is another logical and likely addition that Jo sees emerging down the road.
Besides this immediate infusion of “emergency” government cash and self-financing, Jo’s hybrid non-profit and for-profit corporate model will enable her to tap into other government and private foundation sources. But the biggest and perhaps least visible part of Jo’s financing plan will be “goodwill”—that squishy financial concept that businesses often use to beef up their anemic balance sheets. Customers are already buying “gift cards” for spring purchases to augment the store’s cash flow, and as many as 35 product vendors are extending credit against the coming year’s inventory.
Chatting with Jo in front of her store late one morning was a lesson in the underlying value of small-town life. A steady trickle of walkers, well-wishers, and honking pick-up truck drivers waved and offered Jo encouragement. In response to a recent request, the local public works director stopped by to trim a beautiful shade tree gracing the store’s curbside—a municipal action that normally takes months in places I’ve lived. Volunteers are already showing up to clean her buildings; high school job-readiness programs will provide apprentice workers; and one citizen has offered to front Jo the funds to support this much-needed business (Jo said, “She told me, ‘you can pay me back whenever’”). Call it an old-fashion barn raising event writ large, a form of community-supported capitalism supplanting the failures of conventional capitalism, or a welling up of social capital that small towns draw on to keep their faltering hearts beating; the goodwill I saw in Atwood is something you can take to the bank.
Jo’s store is the train leaving the station that everyone is clamoring to be onboard. As one local resident told me, “we’re all longin’ for belongin’” meaning that in an area where people often feel socially isolated because they may live miles from the nearest person, the need for “connectedness” becomes palpable. “There’s a strange juxtaposition between feeling isolated in a rural community at the same time you feel connected,” reflected Jo over lunch at the Mojo Café where we sat with Travis Rickford and Courtney Schamberger. Travis, who is the Executive Director of the Live Well Northwest Kansas, an agency that advocates for the expansion of mental health services, explained that “connection comes when there’s a crisis like the way people do when someone dies.” But he notes that social isolation is why rural suicide rates are higher than average, and that “togetherness” is not always the answer. “With COVID forcing households to stay closer than normal, we’ve seen a 200 percent increase in the number of calls to our domestic violence hotline.” Travis points out that right now the region has a “perfect storm of things that prevent families from thriving and are contributing to anxiety and depression” including the stressed farm economy (e.g. fluctuating crop prices), COVID, substance abuse (opioid use is high), and the continuing lack of an adequate health care infrastructure.
These are the burdens that rural America has been carrying for far too long, and ring like sirens in the ears of those under 40 years of age. When Jo’s youngest child was only one, he stopped breathing in his crib. She revived him but his care required immediate medical helicopter transport to Denver. When the team of specialized pediatric health providers prepared instructions for Jo to pass onto her pediatrician, she nearly choked, “What good is that? I’d have to drive three hours to get to a pediatrician!”
Events like this don’t deter a generation of 20 and 30 somethings. If anything, they seem to strengthen their resolve to become the next generation of leaders their communities need. Courtney, who’s in her mid-twenties and a vocational agriculture teacher at the local high school, says, “My age group should be stepping up to provide leadership because we are the future of this town. I’ve only been here four years and I’m already on five boards.” She’s a little frustrated that more of her peers aren’t doing the same, but has faith that her community is going to turn around. “There are more people shopping locally, and mutual support for our businesses, artists, and craftspeople is growing.”
Evidence of a trending upward in young people is supported by an enrollment uptick in Rawlins County middle and high school students this year. Overall, a more robust participation by a younger demographic is confirmed by Misty Jimerson, the Coordinator of the nine-county Western Prairie Food Farm and Community Alliance which monitors and supports new food system activity. “We are seeing young folks moving back and starting businesses, including restaurants, that use more locally grown food. This is developing new markets in our region for food that people actually eat.”
Another trend gaining traction—one that could not have been predicted—is an influx of coronavirus “refugees” from places like metro-Denver. Like those who left New York City after 9/11, the fear that densely populated urban/suburban areas are more life-threatening is driving people into the arms of low-density, rural areas that may be as much as three to four-hour drives from “hotspots.” According to local real estate agents, the last 12 homes in Hitchcock County, Nebraska (pop. 2,900)—bordering Rawlins County to the north—went to Colorado buyers, as did most of the recent home sales in Herndon, Kansas (pop. 129) located in Rawlins County. Apparently, these agents have long waiting lists of out-of-staters searching for rural properties.
Shortly after Jo took possession of her new enterprise, she was pawing through the store’s second floor inventory that was not accessible to shoppers. She was startled to find full bottles of DDT and arsenic, substances long banned from agricultural use. The safe removal and disposal of these dangerous vestiges of the region’s agricultural past were now Jo’s responsibility. In other words, she had inherited the sins of her forbearers, but rather than rail against the injustice, she arranged with the county’s hazardous waste disposal facility to take charge of these items. It was a symbolic passing of the torch from an unsustainable form of food production to one that is placing people, community, and the environment at the center of a very local plate. Her discovery reminds us that we don’t always like what we find in our parent’s attic, but we learn to live with what we can, dispose of that which is intolerable, and set a course for a better future.
In Atwood, Kansas, and across rural America, that course does not include a wholesale rejection of the old, but a reinvention and a Millennial-inspired repurposing of what is already there. “I’m going to run a different kind of business,” Jo firmly asserted, “one that is hyper-local with its merchandise, community-oriented in its approach, and based on the proposition that we will thrive, not just survive.” As we toured the still disheveled second floor, now purged of its toxic substances and beginning to be reimagined as a healthy, creative space, Jo said, “We just gotta give it some love!” As she knew, that also meant more young people, local food driving a local economy, public and private financing, and a community that believes in itself.