A PROMINENT American academic believes retired professionals making tree change moves to places like the Southern Downs could be prove vital to rural communities struggling to survive.
Professor Lisa Pruitt is a specialist researcher in rural livelihoods and has studied the economic, geographic and social challenges facing modern agricultural communities.
On the Darling Downs this month as the guest of the University of Southern Queensland, she spoke with the Bush Telegraph about the issues confronting rural people in developed countries.
She said enticing young, educated people back to rural communities, promoting the benefits of agriculture to a largely urban society and significant income disparities between city and country people were significant challenges.
"The hey days for agriculture are gone and will never be back," Prof Pruitt said.
"But rural communities with strong leadership, which value and can attract new blood, new ideas, new people, can save themselves."
In the United States she said the term "grey gold" had been coined for the many retired tree changers who had been lured to the tranquillity of rural areas, and then played a vital role in reinvigorating communities.
However, while she said some regions in Australia and the US were well placed for survival, others were not.
"Rural communities tend not to have a great level of diversification so, in an economic sense, that makes them more vulnerable," Prof Pruitt.
And for those communities without the geographic good fortune to be able to diversify, the outlook was often bleak.
"In the United States just 6% of the population is involved in agriculture," she said.
"So, as the numbers decline in those communities, so do things like access to health services and education and then opportunity."
In many cases Prof Pruitt said rural students were viewed less favourably when it came to entry at some of the USA's most elite universities.
She said this elitism by virtue of location was compounded by the fact that socially, many urban Americans regarded their rural counterparts as "uncouth, uneducated and idiotic".
"In the States we haven't had a majority rural population since the 1920s," she said.
"So there is this significant distance between suburban and rural populations."
However, she said the upside was the "anti-rural" sentiment had not had negative implications on American agriculture.
"In the States, agri-business is largely corporate and so well protected," she said.
"Some relatively small farmers do still exist - but while they might own thousands of acres, it's relative in terms of major agri-business operations like Cargill.
"What is odd is there is so much power in agri-business, but that does not trickle down to the people doing the actual farming."
In her opinion, the downside to corporatising American agriculture was a decline in the "good land stewardship".
But rural people who echoed her concerns about such issues as land management or lack of services were dismissed as negative.
"City people ask why don't they just pack up and move if they don't like the fact they don't have a hospital or good roads," Prof Pruitt said.
"What urban people don't understand is the sense of place, the attachment to place, that is felt so powerfully by rural people."
So this American academic asks how rural people "establish their worth" in the face of this new way of thinking.
Firstly she said through information about food production.
"You can't feed the world by growing two or three acres of food in a community garden in the city," she said.
"And then you remind them about recreation, which is huge in the States, and a large portion of it is outdoors.
"Some of our great national parks are in rural areas and we want to visit them so we need people living out there."
Asked for her professional prognosis on the future of rural communities, she admitted to being "guardedly optimistic".
"Rural communities which embrace social and human capital and have new ideas and energy can re-invent themselves."
Prof Pruitt is a regular commentator on rural issues. To read more check out legalruralism.blogspot.com.