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US Population Shift Part 1: North Dakota - 2002-03-24

The Northern Plains state of North Dakota is one of the nation's most sparsely populated, and government figures indicate that situation is likely to continue. North Dakota is losing a higher percent of its residents than any other state. Last year, the population dropped by nearly 8,000 people. In the first of two stories examining the nation's shifting population, Roxana Saberi reports North Dakota is fighting those declining numbers, which are due to an aging population, a changing farm economy, and an exodus of young people. These 17- and 18-year old students are reaching out to the world from their school in Ashley, North Dakota. Graduation is not far off. The ceremony won't take long: there are only 14 seniors in the graduating class. The town surrounded by farmland as far as the eye can see, is home to around 800 people.

"I like living here, but as a kid. I don't know if I'd want to live here as an adult," says 17-year-old Andy Meyer, who plans to leave Ashley for college in the state's capital, 200 kilometers away. After he gets a degree, he doesn't plan to come back. He's not alone. Over the past decade, the town's population declined by 16 percent. The enrollment in the school's kindergarten through 12th grades is now down to fewer than 190 students.

The drop in population is jolting many businesses on Ashley's Main Street.

Link Golz opened his hardware shop four-and-a-half years ago. He says doing business has become more challenging each year. "I've noticed the daily customer count in the last 4 and a half years has really gone down, probably 20 percent, and that is due to people moving from this rural area to bigger cities," he says.

Other towns across North Dakota are facing the same situation. The overall result for the state: the population has dropped by 1.2 percent since the 2000 Census figures were released, a larger decline than in any other state in the nation.

State data analyst Richard Rathge says the downward trend actually began in 1996, when a harsh winter followed by devastating floods convinced some people it was time to move to a gentler climate. He says another major factor is that the foundation of the state's economy, agriculture, is changing. "As farmers become more capital intensive, in other words, they need larger and larger operations, we need fewer and fewer farmers. Therefore, we displace farmers. When we displace farmers, we displace farm families. It's a snowballing effect," he says. "When you displace farm families, you also displace those businesses that used to serve those farmers."

"You know how it is, the small farms can't make it," says Terry Ulrich. He and his brother are fourth generation farmers just outside Ashley. Over the years, he's watched his neighbors retire, move, or sell their land. He's learned to survive by diversifying his crops and focusing on (beef) cattle. "The big farmers farm more and more, for more and more government payments, so they drive up land prices and land rents," he says. "So it drives out the little guy, the young farmers. The young person can't compete with that here."

Mr. Ulrich says he doesn't know who will take over when he retires. He has no children, and his brother's kids aren't interested in farming. It's a trend he's seen in many rural areas of North Dakota. "When they move, some of them will move to the bigger towns, like Fargo or Bismarck, so North Dakota has not been growing, but Fargo and Bismarck have been, but that's at the expense of the rural areas," he says.

Most of the state's big cities have been growing. The largest city, Fargo, grew by more than 22 percent in the 1990'S; the capital, Bismarck, by almost 13 percent. But while some folks are moving to the bigger cities, many more move out of state, especially young people with families. The result is a declining birth rate and a shrinking labor pool: not an attractive situation for businesses that might otherwise move in.

Analyst Richard Rathge says the economic costs of outmigration are substantial. "Just in the last year, with the net loss of those moving out versus those coming in, and the income they generated, that was over $100 million," he says.

The key to reversing that population trend according to North Dakota Governor John Hoeven is improving the quality of life in the state, from education and agriculture, to technology and economic development. He admits it's a tall order. "We need to work on this together: not one person or one business or one part of the government, or education or higher education. It's all of us working together," he says.

Back in Ashley, town leaders have taken that message to heart. They worked with a private business to start a data processing center and web media company. And the town is focusing on marketing itself to people who want to live in North Dakota… people like Wade Nedved. The 23-year-old moved from Iowa to work at Ashley's new web media company. "North Dakota is a well kept secret because of the quality of life that's out here," he says.

He says he doesn't plan on leaving North Dakota anytime soon.