Updated May 14, 2022 at 8:01 a.m. EDT|Published May 14, 2022 at 8:00 a.m. EDT
JEFFERSON, Iowa — For the past several years, officials here have tried desperately to attract new residents to Greene County, a sea of corn and bean fields about 60 miles from Des Moines. They brought in a Hy-Vee supermarket, a career academy, a high-tech workspace, and a second bank. A glitzy casino anchors one side of the highway, a brand-new high school is on the other.
Nothing worked. The population kept dropping.
Greene County — like much of rural America — is sinking into a demographic hole, down from more than 15,500 residents after World War II to an estimated 8,717 last year,with the population now falling by about 100 every year. Factories have dozens of job openings, schools have closed, and villages are crumbling. Deaths have outpaced births for so long that the hospital stopped delivering babies.
In a series of public meetings that started last month,the community has been weighing how to stop the decline, and this mostly White, mostly Republican stronghold has concluded that the only way to grow is to recruit Latino residents.
“It’s the only game in town,” consultant Carlos Argüello said at one presentation. “I’m sorry to tell it to you that way. But it’s true.”
Latinos are the largest minority group in Iowa, and one of the fastest growing, projected to more than double to 407,000 residents over the next 30 years. The White population, in contrast, has declined in almost every rural county, according to an analysis of census estimates by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution.
Republicans and Democrats agree that the situation is dire. But the question is whether a county that voted for President Donald Trump and former congressman Steve King, both Republicans who denigrated Latin American immigrants, can welcome Latinos and their families, and whether those families will be willing to come to Greene County.
In Iowa, Latinos account for 6 percent of all residents, less than half the national average, and nearly 30 percent are immigrants. In Greene County, only 3 percent are Latino.
“In rural Iowa, people are moving to the city. If you do nothing, you’re going to die,” said soon-to-retire schools Superintendent Tim Christensen, who has had to close several schools during his 15-year tenure. “There’s no guarantee that this is going to work. But the writing’s on the wall if you don’t try.”
The story of Greene County is the story of much of rural America, where falling birthrates, an aging population and an exodus of young people to the cities have depleted the population, said demographer Ken Johnson, a professor at the University of New Hampshire.
“There’s no guarantee that this is going to work. But the writing’s on the wall if you don’t try.”
— Schools Superintendent Tim Christensen
But demographers caution that the decline is not universal or inevitable, and that many rural areas also have found new ways to grow. Greene County is a quiet, safe, and tightknit collection of seven cities and towns along the vast, wind-whipped prairie. Grain elevators dot the skyline, drivers wave at one another on the road, and the vibrant county seat of Jefferson has a pair of theaters,a bowling alley, and real root-beer floats at the A&W. Greene County hasn’t had a homicide in nearly 20 years.
“It’s peaceful,” said county Sheriff Jack Williams. “It’s a good place to raise your kids.”
It became clear two years ago, however, that the county’s future was in jeopardy when New Way Trucks, a garbage-truck manufacturer and one of a half-dozen major employers,located 150 new jobs to Booneville, Miss., because it could not find workers in Greene County.
Stunned, Ken Paxton, executive director of the Greene County Development Corporation, a nonprofit that promotes growth, huddled with board president Sid Jones, a longtime banker, and board member Douglas Burns, co-owner of the local newspaper, the Jefferson Herald. Burns connected them to Argüello, an immigrant from Nicaragua whose mother, Lorena Lopez, is founder and editor of the area’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa de Iowa.
Together, they assembled the “diversity project,” named “Nueva Vida en Greene County,” or New Life in Greene County.
The corporation hired Argüello, 37, who moved from California to rural Iowa in middle school, and it decided to applyfor a $500,000 federal grant that would be used to recruit new Latino workers and residents.
Organizers said they plan to advertise Greene County to Latinos on social media, radio, television and billboards, and employers will arrange for vans to bring in workers as soon as this summer. Civic leaders are planning educational activities to integrate the community, with classes about soccer, language, and arts and culture, and they also are exploring ways to fix the area’s acute housing shortage.
The goal is to advertise to residents within a 60-mile radius, such as the city of Perry, where nearly 1 in 3 of the city’s 7,500 residents are Latinos and many work in meatpacking plants and construction. Organizers say Greene County is offering cleaner, safer jobs. The county is home to factories that make farming machinery, gymnastics equipment and the backboards for the National Basketball Association.
Employers, the city of Jefferson and Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) have endorsed the plan. The county Board of Supervisors voted 3-to-2 in favor;one member expressed concern about the project’s cost, another said private businesses should create more housing to attract workers.
“We’ve got to do something different,” said Gary Vance, chief operations officer at Bauer Built Manufacturing, which makes agricultural machinery. He said at the town hall meeting in the village of Paton that he has as many as 60 job openings paying $19 to $24 an hour, “like now.”
While the town-hall meetings aimed to sell the idea to Greene County residents, they also served as a way to gauge their reactions. In 2020 voters here overwhelmingly supported Trump, who had called Mexicans “rapists” and criminals, and backed King in the primaries, which he ended up losing after his own Republican Party shunned him for racist remarks. People of Mexican descent are the largest Latino group in Iowa.
At the meetings, Argüello said he could not have imagined this happening in west-central Iowa years ago when he was one of few Latinos here, but he believed that things had changed. He emphasized that White and Latino Iowans both prioritize family, faith, work and education.
During one meeting in Jefferson, a man who lives just outside the county questioned whether Latinos would be here legally. “Are they going to bus them in from Texas?” he asked, referring to the influx on the southwest border.
Other residents are enthusiastic, aware that Latino residents and businesses have revitalized other Iowa cities such as Storm Lake and Denison.
“I’m glad that it’s getting done,” said Marilyn Schwartzkopf, 73, a Democrat who has been practicing her Spanish to help newcomers, as she volunteered at the county’s historical museum in Jefferson. “We need some diversity here. We’re all too old and White.”
“I don’t have any problem with Latinos coming in,” said Shirley Herrick, 76, who is married to Grand Junction Mayor Gerold Herrick. Both proudly voted for Trump, but said they disagreed with some of his rhetoric. “I couldn’t stand him as a person,” Gerold Herrick said.
At age 80, Herrick said he was “about ready to let somebody younger take over” as mayor. He said he once tried to take himself off the ballot but said voters wrote him back in.
“I like the town,” he said. “But I get tired.”
And the decay is expanding. In Grand Junction, where the railroad still rumbles by, abandoned houses scar neighborhoods and rubble from a burned-out supermarket sits downtown.
Chuck Offenburger, the chair of the diversity project’s steering committee, said the state considered attracting more immigrant families two decades ago, but the plan was shelved. Now Greene County has its own chance, he said.
“We all know each other here,” he told the audience at a town hall meeting in Grand Junction. “The advantage is that we can be more nimble and make things happen much easier, quicker than larger places can.”
For Latinos, adjusting to rural Iowa can be painful, and Trump’s policies and rhetoric made families fear being deported or harmed. Heads swivel when they speak Spanish, and some children are picked on in school.
Jesus Valles, 51, an immigrant from Mexico, said he and his wife moved to Iowa in 2019 after years in Colorado to be closer to her family. He bought a three-bedroom fixer-upper for under $25,000 in Churdan, a fading hamlet in Greene County.
But on his first week on the job at a Walmart in another county, he said a customer angrily took issue with his name tag, thinking he had taken the Lord’s name in vain. The name is common in Latin America.
“Who gave you that name?” he said the man asked him.
“My mother?” Valles responded.
He soon found a job at the Greene County Medical Center, which has hired seven Latinos so far, said human resources director Mary Nieto, also a Latina — proof, she says, that change is possible. One new employee fled hours-long traffic jams in Los Angeles. Another traded a night-shift cleaning job in Perry for days at the hospital.
Valles said he earns less than he did as a pipe layer in Colorado, but said his new job is safer.
“I’m getting old,” Valles said. “I don’t want to get caught in a job where I’m tired every night, working in a ditch 20 feet deep.”
He said he thought more Latinos would come to Greene County if employers raised wages. “The wages are what’s going to bring more people or lose more people,” he said.
In Perry, others expressed fear of moving to an area where they would stand out. Some are U.S.-born citizens or legal residents; others are undocumented.
Perry, in contrast to Greene County, hosts an annual Latino festival and it is easy to shop or order lunch in English or Spanish. The popular El Rey’s Market and Guns sells Minnie Mouse piñatas, and cheeses and sauces from each country in northern Central America.
“I wouldn’t leave, really,” said Rosa Sanchez, 29, an immigrant from El Salvador, folding her arms inside Oasis Restaurant as she waited to take orders from the lunch crowd. “I am good here.”
Greene County, she added, “looks very lonely.”
But Gildardo “Gil” Lepe, an immigrant from Mexico who followed his family to Iowa, said he believed more Latinos could thrive here. He recalled his own foray into Greene County years ago, when a big bank refused to loan him the money to open a restaurant in Jefferson, thinking it would not survive.
A small local banker thought differently, he said, and gave him a loan to open “Casa de Oro” — “House of Gold” in 2008.
On the first day the line stretched out the door, he said.