Sunday, August 10, 2008

Farm-Shoring Diaspora

An emerging Flat World trend of farm-shoring is generating economic development buzz in places such as rural Wisconsin:

Promote rural Wisconsin as a "farm-shoring" location for tech-based companies. Farm-shoring, or the outsourcing of work to domestic rural locations, is gaining visibility among companies that would prefer not to ship U.S. jobs overseas. The cost of living, wages and work ethic in rural areas can compete with the cheap labor touted by offshore providers, especially when other advantages are considered. Those factors include avoidance of cross-cultural confusion, transnational legal issues, some security problems and time-zone differences.

What, or where, qualifies as a "rural location" is an interesting question. The image of telecommuting from palaces in the sticks is a brand that does more harm than good to these struggling regions. These areas support villages, towns, and even cities that could serve as a surrogate Spiky World where creative types can enjoy the benefits of the all important face-time. Jon Udell's Keene, NH location is testament to the potential of this counter-migration.

Rural regions aren't passively hoping for a renaissance. Instead, many towns are courting tech businesses and professionals with the lure of a quality life that big city can't match. The urban-to-rural pioneers appear to be people familiar with the locational advantages:

An Associated Press piece published on CNN relates the story of software engineers Keith and Julia Brown, who chose to relocate to southwest Virginia, where Keith grew up, instead of taking a job assignment in upstate New York.

They learned about available tech opportunities through Return to Roots, a recruitment program funded by the Virginia Tobacco Commission and private grants. The group’s Web site lists job openings in IT, engineering, education and health care. In addition to its own site, the group also has a presence on Facebook and MySpace.

South Dakota, Vermont and Iowa are among states that host similar Web sites. Kansas plans to expand a program that targets bioscience professionals to include other white-collar jobs.

Boomerang migrants can meet the rural areas halfway when considering the value proposition of relocation. I envision startups located in the center of towns or small cities, a short walk for workers living in relatively high-density neighborhoods. These creative hubs can benefit from the same proximity geographies driving the economies of bigger cities. I've seen glimpses of this opportunity landscape while living in Vermont, but either too many people wanted to live in the countryside or there wasn't enough housing in town. However, I think the primary barrier is the lack of knowledge about how someone who would appreciate this lifestyle could find the work necessary to support the venture.

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