Lost jobs, empty storefronts and shrinking populations. It’s an image of rural America ingrained in many people’s minds, and one that was often reinforced in the election.
The reality is far more complex and can be seen – and smelled, in the still-fresh paint – inside a Clif Bar factory that opened here last summer in Twin Falls. The largest yogurt plant in the world is there, too, opened in 2013 by Chobani, the Greek yogurt giant, in a vast space of whirring robots, steel tanks and 1,000 full-time employees.
New manufacturing jobs and population growth have bolstered southern Idaho, bucking the pattern, and the perception, of rural struggle. But the surge only underscores the deeply uneven world of what economists call non-metro America, where the recession never ended in some places and is barely remembered in others.
Of nearly 2,000 rural counties in the United States, about 60 percent added jobs last year, while 40 percent contracted, according to federal figures. In such a brutal calculus, economists and local politicians said, little things add up fast: like being close enough to a big city, but not so close as to be crushed by the competition; having good access by air and highway for passengers and freight; and then having enough trained workers if and when new companies knock on the door.
When those gears all mesh, the sweet spot can be sweet indeed.
In the nine-county south-central region of Idaho anchored by Twin Falls, unemployment is 3.2 percent – lower than booming Seattle or Idaho’s biggest city, Boise. A kind of ripple effect from prominent companies like Clif and Chobani has forced other companies to raise wages and benefits. Help-wanted fliers are printed daily and handed out to people visiting private social services groups.
“Costco is busier, you can’t go into a restaurant on a Friday night without a 45-minute wait, and developers are trying to keep up,” said Shane Pickup, 28, a home-building project manager who grew up in the area and now lives with his family just east of town.
“Just yesterday at work, my boss and I were talking about developing a new neighborhood,” he added. “This is not what Americans think rural America looks like.”
Geography helps explain what has happened. Twin Falls, population 47,000, is a place where rows of hay and feed corn brush right up against the edge of town, but it’s also the biggest community for 100 miles in any direction, which makes it a shopping hub. Five new hotels have opened since the end of the recession, and more than 80,000 people a day drive in to work or shop.
It’s a firmly Republican area in a state where President Donald Trump won 42 of 44 counties, and it’s growing. From 2000 to 2015, Twin Falls County’s population increased by almost 25 percent – twice as fast as the nation’s.
But above all else, city leaders, business owners and residents say, it’s a practical place, where the old small-town values of hardball competition shape political life. If an idea gets in the way of economic growth, it should be discarded.
“Economic development is a blood sport, and I mean that in every single way you can think of it,” said Travis P. Rothweiler, the city manager.
Across the country, spots off the beaten path have always found a way to thrive. Bend, Oregon, pulled itself up from a collapse of the timber industry by reinventing itself as a place where technology and wilderness could rub shoulders. REI, the outdoor outfitter, moved into a former lumber mill.
In other places, like North Idaho and upstate New York, health care became a niche thanks to Canadians heading south for medical procedures. Moab, Utah, thrived by turning itself into a profitable tourism destination for red-rock-inspired mountain bikers.
What went right in southern Idaho started and ended with the rich volcanic soil. With irrigation, the black dirt was splendid for growing crops, from potatoes to alfalfa, that in turn fed the dairy cows that grew up in what became known as the Magic Valley. Idaho is the fourth-largest milk-producing state, after California, Wisconsin and New York, and three-quarters of that industry is clustered within 75 miles of downtown Twin Falls.
That’s why Chobani came. The company now buys up to 60 tanker trucks of milk a day from local farmers – 8,000 gallons of milk per truck – to keep its operation going. Clif Bar, which uses mostly organic ingredients, just reached an agreement to buy its first supply of locally grown organic oats.
Chobani pays its workers an average of about $15, while Clif starts at $15, more than twice the minimum wage in Idaho, $7.25.
But the success of Twin Falls poses risks for other rural towns. In its heady growth spurt, Twin Falls is sucking the oxygen from some smaller, struggling communities farther out in the country as retailers and restaurants cluster in the center.
Rows of closed downtown stores in nearby places like Buhl stand in sharp contrast to Main Avenue in Twin Falls, where businesses like Twin Falls Sandwich Co. are packed with hungry customers. Idaho’s rural population as a whole fell by more than 5 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics.
“Seems like everything is moving to Boise or Twin Falls,” said Janice Jacobson, 56, manager of the King’s discount store in Gooding. King’s, a chain of department stores that has been in business around the West since 1915, announced in February that it would close, unable to compete.
Housing construction also never fully recovered from its boom years before the recession, leaving a shortage and prices that were out of reach for Cody and Becky Murphy.
“It’s really booming. It’s a good town to be in,” said Cody Murphy, who works for Idaho Power. But for what they could afford – and given the space requirements for them and their two small children – the housing options were few.
“Absolute trash,” Becky Murphy said, describing the rundown homes they looked at.
So after living for seven years in a tiny house owned by Cody Murphy’s parents, the family moved this year into a three-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot home built by a local social services group, and by the Murphys themselves, who shingled the roof and helped frame doors as part of the deal.
Labor issues also show the tenuousness of the situation.
Much of southern Idaho’s growth since the recession has been linked to dairy products. And most of the workers in the dairies that supply that raw material are foreign-born, mostly from Mexico.
“You can’t talk about success in Idaho without talking about foreign-born labor,” said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association.
Chobani’s founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, said his company had worked with Idaho colleges to provide technical training for workers to solve its own labor shortage as its factory was going up. He said he saw a huge opportunity for Idaho to build on food technology and safety as a larger industry cluster if partnerships and training could continue.
“Our biggest challenge is that we have to find a way to keep the young in Idaho,” Ulukaya said.
Shawn Barigar, mayor of Twin Falls, said his community could not afford to lose any workers. The battle for survival, he said, whether rural or urban, will allow for only the strong and determined to survive and prevail.
“Whatever might be in the future, I think there are ways to adapt and not go away,” he said.