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News Series entry for Missouri Broadcasters Awards: Shortage in Rich Land

This audio file contains shortened portions of two parts of a five-part series produced by the KBIA newsroom (parts 1 and 4). The two stories are separated by a beep in the audio above.

You can find each of the individual stories at this link: http://kbia.org/topic/shortage-rich-land

And you can find a special web build out for the project here: http://digital.kbia.org/shortage-in-rich-land

Now, here is some more information about the project:

The southeast region of Missouri, known as the “Bootheel” because of its shape, holds some of the largest socioeconomic disparities in rural America.  This six-county area boasts some of the most expensive farmland in the region and depends on agriculture for its livelihood. Deep-pocketed farmers have held onto their fertile land for generations – they grow one-third of the state’s agriculture.

Yet with the mechanization of farming and smaller farms getting swallowed up, the Bootheel now houses some of the poorest families with the biggest health problems in the state. Many people who live in these farm towns are struggling with a depressed rural economy, limited housing and a lack of health care access for the numerous conditions low-income families tend to have.

This dichotomy of the Bootheel and the lack of reporting on the region led our team of KBIA reporters to the area to explore what it means to live in such a struggling rural community with limited resources. What are the issues? Who is trying to help? What needs to be done to revitalize the area?

Months before setting up of our pop-up bureau, we researched databases and contacted sources in the region. We spent time digging up reports from the US Department of Agriculture, rural health networks and U.S. Census data to learn about the region. We also connected with local reports, legislators and medical professionals to learn what issues are most at stake.

Then for two weeks in January 2015, our team of reporters set up a makeshift bureau smack dab in the center of the Bootheel. We drove all over the area and interviewed everyone and anyone who could color in the most compelling issues we were reporting on: medical professional shortages; critically high infant mortality rates; land disputes between predominantly impoverished, black towns and big farmers; the American rice farmers trying to expand their markets to compete internationally; and rural homelessness.

We found many of the Bootheel residents kind, extremely candid and upfront about the issues they’re dealing with in their backyard, but with a dash of optimism that somehow things will turn around. Through our reporting and off-the-cuff conversations with people at the market, feed store, BBQ joint, etc., we recognized that although this region is unique, many of the issues epitomized in the Bootheel translate to the disappearance of many rural American communities and their economies.

After the series aired, we received a wave of positive response from many of our sources in the Bootheel as well as people we hadn’t directly interacted with. The general response was we painted an honest, fresh and compelling look at the region, while drawing attention to core problems in the disparate population.

The series caught the eyes of several organizations and agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reached out to us after hearing our series, complimenting us on the depth and scope of our reports. It recently named the Bootheel one of its nationally targeted regions with delegated funding to improve economic development.

The Family and Community Trust organization also contacted us about the “exemplary” reporting. Both groups have asked to use the series as an educational tool to train their staff and leaders about the region.

One of the messages that came through clearly during our reporting was that there are a number of groups in the Bootheel trying to improve the region. The problem is they aren’t communicating with each other and often end up working parallel to each other or even in competition.

After receiving interest from several politicians, community leaders and residents in the Bootheel, we organized a community event in May where we invited a panel to discuss one of the biggest issues in rural communities: access to health care. We called the event “Health Barriers: Symptoms of a Rural Economy.”

At First Presbyterian Church in Kennett, Mo., we hosted a BBQ dinner and invited anyone in the community to come out and join the conversation. On the panel were Kim Hughes, director of nursing at the Dunklin County Health Department; Judith Haggard, nurse practitioner at SEMO Health Network; and Victor Wilburn, rural sociologist from Southeast Missouri State University. The show was recorded and aired two weeks later across the state.

Out of all the community engagement events KBIA has hosted, this was the most attended and interactive. The panel and the audience brainstormed back and forth about solutions to bringing more jobs back to the area, how to provide better health care to the rural poor, and who should be working together to achieve the goal of a revived, successful economy. For once, community member were sitting at the same table with their local and state legislators, health network directors and economic development coordinators.

As local radio reporters, we hope our stories have legs beyond when they air and where they live online. This series “Shortage in Rich Land” did just that for KBIA. We were able to take a deep dive into the Bootheel region and examine why it became the way it did and what can be done to save rural communities like it so they can thrive again. By capturing the narratives of those on the ground, we were able to share the struggles of a rural agriculture community as it tries to reestablish its identity, and ultimately try to answer the question: How do we save rural America?

The five-part series “Shortage in Rich Land” aired one episode per day the week of March 23-27, 2015. The community engagement event “Health Barriers: Symptoms of a Rural Economy” was held on May 20, 2015 and aired on June 1, 2015.