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For the first time since 2015, a key measure of rural America's economic health is above growth neutral for two consecutive months.
Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index stood at 54.7 in March, down just a tick from February's 54.8 but above the 50.0 growth-neutral mark. It's also a vast improvement from March 2017, when the overall index stood at 45.6.
"Surveys over the past several months indicate that the Rural Mainstreet economy is trending upward with improving, but slow economic growth. However, weak agriculture commodity prices continue to weigh on the rural economy," said Ernie Goss, a professor at the school's Heider College of Business. The index surveys community bank CEOs in 10 states.
The confidence index, reflecting economic expectations six months out, soared in March. It stands at 58.0, up from 52.4 in February. However, Goss cautioned that "an unresolved North America Free Trade Agreement and relatively weak agriculture commodity prices continue to be a concern."
Another bright spot was the hiring index. The March figure came in at 58.1, and while lower than February's 58.8, the report noted that "the Rural Mainstreet economy is now experiencing positive year-over-year job growth."
But there are still reasons to be concerned.
The March farmland and ranchland-price index fell to 42.7 from 46.3 in February. It's the 52nd month in a row the index has fallen below growth neutral.
And while the March farm equipment sales index jumped to 37.2 from February's 33.8, it is now the 55th consecutive month the reading has moved below growth neutral.