You could tell in driving through Harlan, IA (population 5,282) that this was a town that took a lot of pride in itself. Houses were all freshly painted, yards were well maintained, people waved on the streets.
Dave Yamada, head of economic development, moved here from Denver two years ago to be closer to a son and his young family. He told me, “This is an incredibly friendly town that knows how to get things done. Some of the pride you see comes from our high school, where they’ve won 49 straight football games, winning three straight state championships.” Local testing scores put the school into the top 10 to 20% of national rankings academically also.
Many of the jobs in Harlan are agriculturally related. A spec building, done by Yamada’s organization, sat empty for 4 ½ years but now has over 100 employees in a microwave bacon operation with local ties. Jim’s Wholesale Meats, with 25 employees, is expanding into the rapidly growing organic beef market. They also sell buffalo steak burgers.
Gary Wiehs who grew up on a family farm, worked for Proctor and Gamble, Pepsi and Monsanto before moving home to set up Natural Pork Production in 1998. From an initial site with 2,800 sows he has grown it to over 50,000 sows, producing over 1 million pigs each year at sites in IA, MN, IN, OH AND TX. From that base he has expanded into local production from a 6,000 head dairy and 10,000 ewe sheep operation. His most recent ventures are farming operations in Romania and Brazil. All of this is run from Harlan.
The Therkildsen Activity Center, the facility I spoke at was built through donations from the community, including a major one from Turk Therkildsen, a local boy who made his fortune in Chicago but still had a great love for his hometown.
My one reservation about the town is their median age of 41.3 years compared to the national average of 35.3. Towns like Harlan have to be careful that they don’t just age in place. They’ve got to leverage their resources and find ways to help create opportunities for their kids and grandkids.