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Rural Studies: 30 Years Later

By Jon Reidel Article published October 8, 2008

Schmidt
Fred Schmidt (far left), co-director of UVM's Center for Rural Studies for the past 30 years, speaks with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a longtime supporter of the center, at the Vermont Statehouse in the late 1970s. (Photo courtesy of CDAE)

The number of heartfelt comments and expressions of gratitude toward Fred Schmidt, associate professor in Community Development and Applied Economics, at the 30th Anniversary Symposium for the Center for Rural Studies were as plentiful as the issues facing rural Vermonters discussed during the event. One of those issues, a lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas, highlighted the changes facing small-town America and the evolving issues the center has dealt with since Schmidt founded it in September 1978.

Ironically, the idea of high-speed internet access as an economic equalizer for rural businesses and as an effective tool for connecting people to local government received a healthy dose of skepticism from audience members who thought computers were also keeping people from interacting at the corner store or town hall. The debate seemed a fitting metaphor for Schmidt, who plans to semi-retire in 2009, and was captured in the words of a symposium attendee who shared her feelings with the audience.

“I feel sorry for people who have to communicate with Fred by e-mail,” said the woman. “You just can’t feel the passion and the heart of Fred in an e-mail. It’s just not the same.”

Schmidt, who came to UVM in 1970 as an assistant professor in sociology after running a Peace Corp cooperative in Malaysia, has been the face of CRS since founding it with faculty members Frank Bryan and Garrison Nelson, both professors in political science. Schmidt, who describes the threesome as “young empirically-oriented number crunchers” has carried the CRS flag ever since.

“Fred's work over the past 30 years has helped countless communities, provided access to relevant data for thousands, and inspired me to carry the torch for the next 30,” says Jane Kolodinsky, co-director of CRS and professor and chair of Community Development and Applied Economics. “His spirit, energy and 'can do' attitude have helped many a rural community find its way in an increasingly urban world.”

Generating data to empower local communities
The initial idea for CRS, a nonprofit, fee-for-service research organization created to address social, economic, and resource-based issues of rural people and communities, was an outgrowth of two courses taught by Nelson, Schmidt and Bryan in 1977-78 titled “The Rural Option in Urban America.”

“Fritz (Schmidt) is a Cornell-trained rural sociologist, and I am an Iowa-trained political scientist, and we were both well aware of rural issues,” says Nelson, who arrived at UVM in 1968. “We are good friends and when Frank Bryan, author of Yankee politics in Rural Vermont, joined the political science department we had a solid core group who could implement this (course) concept. With the course completed, Fritz was able to institutionalize the concept as the Center for Rural Studies with valuable input from Professors Hugo John, Larry Forcier and Mark Lapping of Natural Resources.”

CRS would move ahead with dozens of projects over the next 30 years with a common goal of empowering rural communities through local initiatives. The center's work touched on all facets of rural life, ranging from the support of the state's 64 farmer’s markets to helping town governments set up websites to curbing domestic violence.

“I’d really like to see us work more off campus and do more outreach so we can apply relevant data to local issues and initiatives,” says Schmidt who plans to keep working on two major projects after he "retires." “I’m really excited about our food systems work and the overall direction the center is moving. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we have an incredibly dedicated staff who do a lot of work on their own time because they care so much about helping people in these rural areas of the state.”

The center also evolved into a comprehensive data center. It now provides consulting, research, and program evaluation services to Vermont and other states and countries while also serving as the state’s U.S. Census Bureau’s Vermont State Data Center. CRS is well known for its annual Vermonter Poll, which includes polling data about the state used by policymakers, paying clients and community leaders. The data and CRS resources include more than 40 social and economic indicators for every town in Vermont and the Vermont Community Data Bank.

“All of this meta data has been produced with a public orientation,” says Schmidt, a former board president of the Community Transportation Association of America and 18-year member of the Shelburne Planning Commission. “I envisioned the data to be easily found and downloaded by a citizen so they could display it graphically and use it for their own analysis or to argue with the town curmudgeon.”

Past initiatives paved way for next 30 years
CRS has been as nomadic as Schmidt and his staff, who regularly travel to various corners of the state. It started without a physical location before an ‘office’ was set up in the basement of the sociology department. It spent the next 25 years moving from an open space on Redstone Campus to separate locations on Colchester Avenue to Hills Agricultural Sciences to the math department. “I had a yellow truck we used to load up with furniture from other departments that were getting rid of stuff,” recalls Schmidt.

CRS' current location in Morrill Hall seems appropriate considering its focus on economic development and further evolution into the area of food systems research. The center may undergo a name change reflecting a focus on the advantages of locally grown food while maintaining the old name and the values on which it was founded. “By definition centers are supposed to be dynamic and have a life, and when they outlive their purpose they either end or become something else,” said Kolodinsky. “The 30-year life of CRS has evolved into something extremely relevant with food systems being the new frontier. Fred brought us to this point and will help us continue to move ahead.”

To read some of the testimonials sent from around the country in celebration Fred Schmidt’s commitment to CRS over the past 30 years, click on the following link: Tribute Page.