The salvation of the plains states may be to return to the lessons of John Deere, Jane Leonard told an audience at the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel and Conference Center on Wednesday.
"I'm suggesting we get back to our roots and push the tools that are available to us," Leonard said.
Leonard, president of Minnesota Rural Partners Inc., was speaking during Economic Summit 2004. Her company has developed an Internet database where rural entrepreneurs can connect with providers of goods and services they need to grow their businesses. It's a "dating service" for businesses, she said.
In some ways, Leonard said, the Internet and other examples of information technology are the modern equivalent of the improved plow that Deere developed in 1837. Until he invented his farm implement with a ploughshare fashioned of saw blade steel, farmers struggled to cut through the heavy sod of the Great Plains. The improved plow opened up a vast region to development.
Today, population is dropping in much of the Great Plains region, and personal income from farming is shrinking drastically, Leonard said. Entrepreneurs need to seize upon new tools to make their businesses more efficient and profitable, she added.
In rural economies, it takes an entire community improving its connectivity and communication skills to nurture entrepreneurship, Leonard said.
"Entrepreneurship is what the start of this century is about. We need to be entrepreneurs to make our way in this world."
Technological empowerment, the democratization of capital and the flowering of diversity all lend support to small companies springing up in the American heartland, Leonard said.
She said Colorado and the Yampa Valley have many advantages over other rural states. Colorado already has a high level of entrepreneurship, and Routt County has an unusually high level of residents with college degrees.
"What I'd like to ask you to consider is not only the business component, but the community and business in balance," Leonard said. "Are there places where people can have social and economic interactions?" She asked. "Plan for it."
People in the Western interior of the United States must reshape their future in much the same way farmers wielding John Deere's plow did 167 years ago, Leonard concluded.
"Time is critical she said. "People on the coasts don't care about the middle of the country. ... The land is precious to us, and we're not going to leave it. But we have to assemble our own vision of its future."