In the far northeastern corner of Colorado sits the small town of Julesburg. Surrounded by fields of corn and wheat, farming is the predominant occupation here, and has been for much of the town’s history.
In 1930, Sedgwick County hit its peak population of over 5,580. This was a time when farming required extra hands. But in the decades since, residents, mainly young people, have left for jobs and opportunity elsewhere.
In his study of rural counties across the country, Kenneth Johnson with University of New Hampshire found that today around 80 percent of agricultural towns are “depopulating.” Without enough young people to produce a new generation, rural counties can become stuck in a downward population trend that’s difficult to reverse.
“It’s not uncommon in rural high schools for half the graduating class to leave the area within a few years after graduation,” Johnson said.
In many instances, that didn’t happen once or twice, but decade after decade.
After living in Denver for a few years, Tasha Harris and her husband Joe decided to move back to Julesburg. They wanted to raise their young son in the tight-knit community and they now run the town diner, D&J Cafe. It’s the sort of place that caters to a steady stream of regulars and serves breakfast all day. Harris can tell who’s sat down in her restaurant just by looking at the meal ticket.
“I don’t even have to look out into the restaurant and I know whose food it is that I’m cooking,” she said.
Harris has seen other young families return to Julesburg for the same reasons she did. But not everyone who leaves will come back.
A few blocks down from the cafe is the Hippodrome movie theater. Built in 1919, it screens many of the latest titles and doubles as an event space. There are good schools and a public pool where kids spend their summer, but depending on what industry they want to work in, Harris said people might have to move elsewhere for employment.
“We do have quite a few things for such a small town, but I guess it’s not enough to keep some of the younger crowd here,” she said.
A rural county on the rise
In nearby Morgan County, Columbine Elementary School has had to hire more teachers as their student body, along with the rest of the schools in this rural district, continues to grow. Many of these students are the children of immigrants and refugees from all over the world.
Principal Nicholas Ng says every morning he greets students in four different languages.
“We have Somali refugees, we have people from Puerto Rico and all the other South American countries,” he said.
Other new arrivals include students from Rwanda and Vietnam. Districtwide, the cafeterias no longer serve pork out of respect for students whose religious custom prohibits it.
Principal Ng is himself an immigrant to the U.S. and moved to Fort Morgan in 2001 from New York City. He said over the years, the town has become more welcoming to outsiders.
“We’re more understanding and inadvertently then we’re kinder to each other,” he said.
These new arrivals, many of whom have come here to work at the Cargill meatpacking plant, are responsible for the growth Fort Morgan has seen over the last two decades. The population currently stands at over 11,200 people.
These newcomers tend to be younger, contribute to the local economy and have a higher birth rate compared to native-born Americans. Johnson suspects that many have started to settle down and have children of their own, which may also be contributing to the county’s growth.
County revenue dependent on growth
Meanwhile, in Sedgwick County, achieving such gains is no small task. The current population sits at around 2,300. County Commissioner Donald Schneider hopes to bring in a new truck stop, maybe even a motel, to boost jobs and revenue.
A new dairy farm has decided to open in the area, bringing with it around 25 new jobs.
“We have two interstates right close by. There should be no reason why we couldn’t attract some new business,” Schneider said.
By studying census data that reaches back to the early 1900s, Johnson found that population declines are especially acute in agricultural towns like Julesburg. Modern farming is heavily mechanized and requires fewer workers. It’s also more costly to break into. A new combine, for instance, will set a farmer back about $400,000.
As a full-time farmer, that’s something Schneider is acutely aware of — jobs and opportunity are the building blocks of any town or city. He remembers the first big exodus occurred when the sugar refinery closed in 1984, but says the town is still an ideal place to raise a family.
“It’s quiet and peaceful. We have great schools, great hospital ... We’re only 35 miles from any really major shopping if you want to go to a big Walmart,” he said.
Schneider ran for office in 2016 to see if he could help out his community. He noticed the population was a bit smaller than it used to be — what he didn’t realize is how big of a budget crisis the county was facing. While tax revenues have stayed relatively the same, the costs of running the county have gone up.
“We’re trying not to cut any jobs. We have a hiring freeze and a wage freeze right now trying to get our budget balanced,” he said.
Last year, a ballot measure requesting a 2% sales tax increase failed to get enough votes to pass. Since then, the county has had to cut back on local services. The DMV, for example, no longer offers driving tests. Schneider said he and the other commissions pitched in their own money to ensure they could hold the annual Easter egg hunt.
“There really is nothing else that we can do, you know we have to start looking at everything that is costing money, or just isn’t bringing in money,” he said.
Schneider and other elected officials will continue exploring their options, including reintroducing a sales tax increase in the fall elections.
Balancing budgets is an issue faced by many depopulating towns, especially as infrastructure ages while few taxpayers remain to shoulder the burden. Ken Johnson says there’s no easy solution, but in his study he does make a recommendation: “As a community, promote receptiveness to immigration.”
This story is part of an occasional series looking at the growing pains facing communities along the northern Front Range.