ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I have always been of the opinion that the best thing Albuquerque has going for it is that it’s surrounded by New Mexico.
While about seven of 10 New Mexicans live in one of a handful of cities, the other 30 percent live in the great, open rest of New Mexico. And while people from the country tend to come to the city – for basketball tournaments and major surgeries and Black Friday sales – people in the city tend to forget about the country.
Terry Brunner has served as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director of rural development for New Mexico for four years now, and so it is his business to know what’s going on in the great land mass that is rural New Mexico.
He told me the other morning that his job has always brought him into contact with small-town politicians and heads of business groups.
“I spend a lot of time in small towns cutting ribbons and talking to the mayor,” Brunner said. “But it’s very hard to hear from regular folks about the struggles they have.”
In 2013, he decided to try to broaden his view. He made an effort to get out to very small towns and to sit down with regular folks and give them the floor.
This year, Brunner has hit 37 little communities, alphabetically from Abiquiu to Wagon Mound and geographically from Clayton to Vado, and sat down over a cup of coffee or a burger to listen to people’s concerns.
I sat down with Brunner so he could help me remind the urban majority what’s on the minds of the rural minority.
In a word: Need.
A need for jobs, grocery stores, health services, gas stations, water systems, Internet, people. And a sense that, if things don’t start turning around, they might not have a future.
“There’s this stereotype of rural communities hanging on by their fingernails,” Brunner said. “‘If we lose x – this business, our doctor – we’re done for.’ And that’s unfortunately true.”
Brunner heard about a number of Holy Grails, the industries small towns see as the magic bullet to turn their economies around – a racetrack in Raton and uranium mining in Grants.
In Clayton, Brunner met with about 20 people at the Rabbit Ear Café. In Lordsburg, he chatted with six people at El Charro restaurant. In Pie Town, it was about 10 people at the Good Pie Cafe. In Roy, about 20 people at Annette’s Café.
He heard about driving 30 miles to fill up a gas tank, driving two hours to see a dentist or buy groceries, being 60 miles from the nearest emergency medical services.
Gathered around the coffeepots were mostly older people, a confirmation of the anecdotes about young people fleeing small towns for education and employment. In Colfax, Harding and Mora counties, four out of 10 houses are vacant; in the United States overall, it’s more like one out of 10.
“These communities are, in a sense, aging out,” Brunner said. “You have a group of people very concerned about the future, but they’re not the future.”
Those older people living in those emptying-out towns dearly love them and want them to survive. Brunner helps them get grants or low-interest loans for small businesses, home repairs, senior citizen centers and community centers or to expand broadband Internet services or other utilities.
Brunner said people in rural New Mexico have a generally conservative outlook when it comes to government funding; they don’t like it in general but like it when it helps them in particular.
Brunner is 42, and he grew up near where I did, in the suburbs north of Chicago. But he’s a New Mexican now, and when I asked him why we should worry about the trend toward stagnation and population decline and brain drain in small rural communities, he answered first from his head and then from his heart.
From the head: “We may think our social and economic challenges are isolated, but they’re statewide. And if we don’t all get together and figure them out, we’re all doomed.”
From the heart: “I care because I think it’s part of what makes New Mexico New Mexico. I believe in the concept that New Mexico has something really different to offer and part of that is this incredible culture and history that comes out of these rural areas. My feeling is I have an obligation to help and others have an obligation to help.”