For almost 50 years, Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations offered a winsome glimpse into a wonderfully glorified version of small-town America. Rockwell’s depictions of endearing scenes reflected simpler times when a strong sense of community and work ethic was tangible, neighbors helped each other, and few felt the need to lock the front door to their homes. Back then, these images resonated with millions of Americans. After all, when Rockwell created his first cover for the Post in 1916, more than half of the US population lived in rural areas, according to the Census Bureau.
My, how things have changed.
Today, less than 14 percent of Americans reside in rural communities. Small towns themselves are enduring “a plethora of problems related to poverty, crime, health, and education,” wrote Jayme Walters in a 2019 study published in the Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance Journal.
The survival of rural America has been a hot topic over the past decade, one that was infamously debated in 2019 by two influential New York Times opinion columnists, Paul Krugman and David Brooks. It has subsequently been covered in some shape or form by just about every US news outlet, and many from overseas.
“The abandoned main streets show the wear and tear of an economy that has shifted away from rural people and of public policy that has forgotten to pay attention,” wrote Katherine Cramer in a 2017 story for The Guardian titled “The Great American Fallout.”
This abandonment has haunted Greg Fay for decades. More than 30 years ago, he launched Fay Ranches, in Bozeman, Montana. While it’s widely recognized that small towns are suffering, he points out that there are surprisingly few nonprofits and resources specifically focused to assist them.
“A few years after I founded Fay Ranches, I added ‘Fay Small Community Fund’ to the website’s navigation,” he says. “But I soon realized that nothing would happen until Fay Ranches reached a high level of success,” he says.
Today, with a solid team and decades of experience under his belt, Fay is finally in the position to bring this idea to fruition. At the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas late last year, he announced the launch of the Fay Ranches Community Foundation. The organization’s mission? To support America’s rural communities by developing opportunities that focus on youth, education, and health initiatives.
“People understand that quality education, healthcare, and opportunities for kids to grow and return to their hometowns are vital to the success and sustainability of rural communities. These three areas are where we feel we can be most effective,” Fay says. He has always been passionate about conservation and outdoor recreation, and since his brokerage’s inception in 1992, he has recognized the importance of rural communities as the backbone of his business model.
Fay admits that Fay Ranches was built upon a “light-bulb moment to help keep ranches working instead of subdividing them,” he says. “To me, the key to the conservation of private land is keeping it in agriculture, keeping it working sustainably.” The hamlets nearby are often rich in small-town charm, which is a critical part of the allure that motivates his clients. But over the years, Fay has witnessed the undoing of many once thriving communities.
What many may not realize is that these small towns are more than just picturesque landscapes sprinkled with barns and hayfields. They are essential to our economy, food system, and sense of community.
According to a report from the Center for American Progress, rural landscapes make up 97 percent of the landmass in the US. They generate more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and are “crucial sources of water, food, energy, and recreation for all Americans … accounting for a large portion of the country’s vital natural resources.”
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have transitioned to working remotely. This has not only heightened the demand for small-town living, but it has increased the cost of living. For those migrating from urban centers, the desire to simplify and raise families in supportive rural communities trumps the convenience and larger paychecks that big cities typically offer.
“We’re trying to provide an opportunity for folks to give back to the communities that they are part of,” Fay says. “Whether you just bought a farm or ranch and are looking to get involved in your new community or just sold your property and are looking to leave a legacy, the foundation provides a conduit to make a positive impact. Those who have spent time hunting, fishing, and recreating outdoors understand how vital these communities are to the fabric of America and why it’s essential that they’re healthy and sustainable. Our philanthropic clients now have an opportunity to support rural America.”
With an experienced development director and board in place — along with Fay Ranches’ offices throughout the Lower 48 — the next step is to evaluate and commit to projects in the rural towns that need it most.
“When you invest in land in rural America, the investment can be impacted by the health and vitality of the community and vice versa,” Fay says. “There are no limits to what we can do with the foundation. The bigger it gets, the more people it benefits and the more generational impact it will have. We could do so much good.”