Community Connection

It’s a conversation I think every town girl dating a farm boy has at some point in their relationship.

Nearly 10 years have passed since this conversation with Farmer Dan first occurred, and it was a conversation that happened many more times over the course of our young courtship. I still can perfectly remember the intense anxiety I felt when my now-husband told me he definitely wanted to stay in Yankton and take over the family farm.

As a young college student with ambition and dreams, I immediately felt panicked. What did this mean for our budding relationship? How could I be a writer and live only 30 minutes from my hometown on a farm? Didn’t I need to live in a city for that? And how in the world would I manage living the next 80 years in Yankton, S.D., of all places?

But if you know my farmer, you know he’s a pretty special guy, and I wasn’t about to let him slip out of my fingers. Over the next few years, Dan continued to paint a picture of what it would be like raising our family in this little South Dakota town that he loved so much. Once we married and finally moved here in 2011, I started to see what he meant, and soon became a transplant that is wildly passionate about her new home.

I’ll admit, it’s still a bit of a strange feeling, knowing that (God willing) I am forever connected to this piece of land and way of life that has been in my husband’s family for generations. My life experience is already so different than many of my friends who are bouncing from city to city with each new job, or even my parents, who raised four kids in seven towns before finally settling down in Vermillion when I was born.

As a farmer’s wife, I feel such a connection to this community, knowing that if all goes according to plan, I will someday raise my kids here, and hopefully my kids will raise their kids on the same farm they grew up on. Farm families have roots in their communities that are deep and true. Knowing that you hope to spend the rest of your life in one spot makes you want to get out, get your hands dirty and work to improve the quality of life not just for yourself, but for your kids and their kids. Suddenly, each decision you help make in your community has long-term consequences. When you’re a farm family, there’s no jumping ship if your community goes south.

That’s why when Bernie Hunhoff, a state senator in the South Dakota legislature and a once long-time farm neighbor, spoke to me about joining this group he called “Onward Yankton,” I eagerly accepted. There was a lot of mystery surrounding the group – in fact, I didn’t know what the group really planned to do until I showed up at my first meeting – but I knew it had something to do with growing Yankton and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

I’ll admit, it’s still a bit of a strange feeling, knowing that (God willing) I am forever connected to this piece of land and way of life that has been in my husband’s family for generations.

Onward Yankton, for those who have not heard about it, launched this month with 1,200 high school students, community members and the local 1 Million Cups chapter in attendance.  Business and community leaders announced that it was time for Yankton to again become a city of big dreamers. Yankton once was full of visionaries who built bridges, dammed rivers and founded colleges, they said. Now, it’s our generation’s turn to dream up something special.

To that end, Onward Yankton (www.onwardyankton.com) is conducting a 100-day worldwide search for Yankton’s “Next Big Idea,” with the person whose idea is chosen taking home a $10,000 prize. In less than a month, over 300 ideas have been submitted, and there is still plenty of time before the July 9 deadline. While the $10,000 serves an incentive to come up with the idea, the really exciting part comes in the second phase of the project, where funding will be raised to actually complete the project. The group is committed to seeing the winning project through to completion, which they hope has the potential to improve the lives of Yanktonians for generations to come. And already, chatter has started in the community about how it can work to implement the other ideas that did not win, but still offer value to growing our river city.

I’m thrilled that so many people – not just in Yankton, but throughout the state and beyond – are thinking long and hard about what could keep small South Dakota towns alive and thriving. We struggle to grow and retain young families, a problem most rural cities are facing. Yet those of us who call Yankton home are anxious to change the perception that our state – and our city – doesn’t have enough to offer young people. We do, and if the enthusiasm around Onward Yankton is any indication, it will only get better from here. And I couldn’t be happier about sticking around to watch it happen.

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