Are the Midwest's rural areas finally seeing population growth after a decade of decline?
Brad Gabel, a native of California, came up with the perfect catchphrase for his bakery.
"Bringing big city tastes to a small town, Iowa," Gable said.
Gabel now lives in Orange City, a community of about 6,000 people in the northwest corner of the state and runs Brad's Bakery Bistro.
"I was able to adapt easily to Orange City, even though I was born and raised in Los Angeles, because I got involved in the community, whether it was with the church, community organizations or local businesses," he said.
A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Rural America at a Glance shows the population in rural areas is rising after a decade of decline. The average growth across the country was a quarter of a percent for rural counties – defined as those with cities of up to 50,000 people – from 2020 to 2022.
However, not all areas experienced the same increase.
John Cromartie, a geographer in the USDA's Resource and Rural Economy Division and one of the study's authors, said the trend is more visible in the South, the Northeast and West and less in the Corn Belt or Great Plains.
"Because the population is, on average, much older, you don't have as many younger people having kids, and it's harder to attract those kinds of families," Cromartie said. "They have higher rates of natural decrease compared to other states due to an older population."
Cromartie's research shows only part of the rural Midwest saw gains, mainly fueled by people leaving major cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others retired and moved to resort areas, including the Upper Great Lakes and Ozarks.
Jeff Pinkerton, the director of economic research for the Missouri Department of Economic Development, said some counties around the Lake of the Ozarks saw sharp increases between the time period of 2020 to 2022. He added the state is seeing more of a balance between urban and rural growth, with some decline in the state's largest counties, which include the St. Louis and Kansas City metro areas.
"This is just two years' worth of data, so it's difficult to call it a trend, but it's very interesting and worth watching in the future," Pinkerton said in an email.
Bigger towns in better position to grow
Brad Gabel's adoptive home of Orange City experienced exceptional growth, several times the study's average, and officials with the local Chamber of Commerce credit entrepreneurship.
"Folks work together in good ways to craft that vision and goal," said Mike Hofman, executive director of the Orange City Chamber of Commerce. "We have a 2035 vision plan that we work on every day. Sioux County is one of the only rural counties in Iowa not attached to a major metro that continues to have population growth."
Gabel moved to Orange City 17 years ago after meeting and marrying his wife Kathy in California. She grew up in the community and says hometown pride, cultural events and recreational attractions, like trails, help the city and others thrive.
"I think another thing about Orange City — and it's true of some other small towns around here — we really care about our town. We care how it looks,” she said.
Rural cities with populations of 10,000 people or more tend to do better, according to Cromartie, especially if they’re able to offer amenities found in bigger cities. He said Minnesota has done a good job helping towns cater to the “creative class,” while other states are working at it.
“We do see a number of counties in Nebraska, a few in Iowa, and South Dakota, the rural communities, typically your larger towns in those areas, that have seen that they are attracting more people than are leaving,” he said.
The Progressive Urban Management Associates in Denver is a consulting firm that specializes in downtown management planning. President Brad Segal said the group has helped put together almost 90 improvement districts in cities nationwide, including in the Midwest.
Segal points to the success of Norfolk, Nebraska, a city of about 25,000, more than 80 miles from the nearest metropolitan area.
"They're actually thriving. They're investing heavily in quality-of-life amenities," Segal said in an email. “These amenities focus on keeping and attracting families.”
Those amenities include offering recreation like kayaking and river rafting on a portion of the Elkhorn River, which runs through Norfolk.
Segal said another advantage of living in rural areas is the lower cost of living.
"You can still buy a home at an affordable rate and have access to a good school system, particularly for millennials who have moved to cities,” he said. “They face increasing costs and are now having kids, and the smaller rural communities are very attractive to them."
Whether because of amenities or the lower cost of living, parts of rural Nebraska and Kansas saw growth of about 2% from 2020 to 2022, according to the study, about eight times the national average.
Trisha Purdon, director of the Office of Rural Prosperity at the Kansas Department of Commerce, said state incentives such as the Rural Opportunity Zone and Make My Move program are helping pair families in urban areas with communities and jobs in more rural parts of the state. She added there are all sizes of businesses opening in small towns.
"Cherryvale, for example, just secured a $400 million new soybean crushing plant that will need to hire 50 new people. They are now working to build new housing to support the new families looking to move to the area for new job opportunities," Purdon said in an email.
The increase in rural population comes after nearly a decade of losses. Researchers will be watching closely to see what happens next, Cromartie said.
"To have such a sudden turnaround has been quite interesting," he said. "Is it going to revert back?"
Sheila Brummer is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.