Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Towns and villages with populations of fewer than 2,500 people are a common feature of the Great Plains region. Such small towns in the Plains are home to a diverse collection of manufacturing industries producing goods such as animal feeds, toys, antibiotics, potato chips, computers, plywood, leather handbags, and plastic pipe. Manufactured goods primarily are sold in wholesale markets, but a number of small-town firms in the Great Plains sell directly to consumers.

Despite the diversity of products manufactured in small towns in the region, there are some industries that dominate the landscape, based on numbers of establishments. Not surprisingly, a number of these dominant industries are connected to the agricultural base of the region. Of the ten manufacturing industries that account for just over 50 percent of all manufacturing in small towns at the threedigit standard industrial classification (SIC) level, four are agriculturally based: farm machinery production, meat processing, grain products, and miscellaneous food products. The most prevalent industry, however, is not driven by agriculture but by the need for information. The printing and publishing of daily and weekly newspapers account for nearly 13 percent of manufacturing in small towns in the Great Plains region. The production of farm equipment and machinery is the second most common industry in small towns, accounting for approximately 7 percent of all firms.

Small-town manufacturing firms often produce more than one product. For example, since the processes and equipment used for newspaper and commercial printing are very similar, and since small towns may not have enough demand for commercial printing for a stand-alone operation to be successful, many small-town newspapers offer commercial printing services. Farm machinery producers also commonly produce vehicle and engine parts, specialized industrial or commercial machinery, and fabricated metal. Many of these companion products also are related to agricultural facilities and processes. Finally, grain-milling firms may also produce foods such as pasta and crackers in addition to marketing certain pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

The mix of industries does not vary considerably across towns of different sizes. The smallest towns, those with populations below 250, however, have a greater proportion of farm machinery and equipment (often small machine shops) and lumber products firms and a lower proportion of printing and publishing firms when compared to larger towns. There generally is little variation in the type of small-town manufacturing activity taking place across the region. The agricultural base of the region drives much of the activity.

Small-town industries range in size from those employing more than 1,000 workers to home-based businesses employing no paid workers. Nearly 70 percent of all small-town manufacturers employ fewer than ten people. The smallest firms account for nearly three-quarters of manufacturers in towns with fewer than 500 residents and for nearly two-thirds of firms in towns with populations between 2,000 and 2,500.

Employment sizes vary among the most common industries. The vast majority of small-town printing and publishing firms (approximately 90 percent) employ fewer than ten workers. Food-processing firms (including meat processors and grain mills) tend to be larger overall, with about 60 percent employing fewer than ten workers and nearly one-quarter employing from ten to twenty-four employees. Just over half of machinery and equipment producers employ fewer than ten workers, but nearly a quarter employ up to 200. A small number of firms, mainly food processors, actually employ workforces greater in number than the population of the town in which the firms are located. These firms are major employers not only in the towns but also in the areas surrounding them as well.

Relatively few manufacturing industries in small towns are subsidiaries of national or international firms. The largest proportion of this type of subsidiary firm is found in towns with populations from 500 to 1,499. The majority of small-town enterprises, however, are stand-alone profit centers, often sole proprietorships, or subsidiaries of firms located within the same state.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Small Towns.

Lisa Darlington Matthew A. England University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Harris Info Source. 1997 Oklahoma Directory of Manufacturers & Processors. Twinsburg OH: Harris Info Source Staff, 1997.

Nebraska Department of Economic Development. Nebraska Directory of Manufacturers and Their Products, 1998-1999. Lincoln NE: The Department, 1998.

U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Standard Industrial Classification Manual, 1987. Springfield VA: National Technical Information Service, 1987.

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