America’s rural communities face a challenge of declining populations and with this a drop in capital resources that make it difficult to improve services and enhance the quality of life for rural residents.

The American Farm Bureau Federation has targeted rural development as a top priority, one that is vital to the future health of U.S. agriculture. During a seminar at AFBF’s annual meeting in San Antonio, representatives from three state Farm Bureaus explained successful programs they used to enrich farm communities.

Heather Hartlerode, a medical student and resident of Harrison, Ark., explained how the “MASH” program encouraged her as a high school student to attend medical school. MASH stands for “Medical Applications of Science for Health” and is a two-week summer program for Arkansas high school students that allows them to “shadow” doctors, nurses and other health care professionals and learn more about a career in medicine.

The Arkansas Farm Bureau is a co-sponsor of the MASH program that is designed to improve access to affordable, quality health care in rural settings. “MASH encourages people who love living in rural communities to go into medicine,” Hartlerode said. “This is a lot easier than encouraging people from the cities who want to go into medicine to move to rural communities.”

Priority one for rural development is to develop a stream of funding, stressed Carolyn Dunn, a Farm Bureau leader from St. John, Kan. She said community foundations are “one of the best kept secrets around” and are “remarkable development tools.”

Community foundations provide a charitable tax advantage and offer a constant stream of funding every year. “The funds are generally kept local and can support almost anything. Community foundations are vital for providing resources for rising community needs with rural communities facing declining resources due to declining populations.”

Dunn said she encourages people in her community to will 5 percent of their estate to community foundations. “Most of the money is going to their children who often leave their hometowns. If community foundations could capture just 5 percent of that money, the impact would be huge,” she said.

Steve Gauck, an Indiana Farm Bureau leader, said agriculture must be part of the development of rural communities. He encouraged farmers to work closely with people in town such as elected leaders, local merchants and local newspapers and radio stations. “Farmers must play an active role in the debate,” he said.