Water availability and the cost and availability of farm labor are rural bankers' top economic concerns for 2021, according to a monthly barometer of rural economic conditions.

Other top concerns noted by bankers in this month's Rural Mainstreet Index included third-party financing, land rents and values, and uncertainty around tariffs and trade. Farm financial conditions, such as working capital and commodity prices, were of least concern.

Even with higher rates of unemployment, finding and hiring qualified workers is a top challenge, and this is especially true for rural areas," said Ernie Goss, a professor at Creighton University's Heider College of Business, which produces the Rural Mainstreet Index.

The survey's overall index— a real-time analysis of the rural economy—rose to 51.6 in December from November's 46.8. It's the second-highest reading in the past 10 months and the second time since September that the index climbed above growth-neutral.

Any score below 50 suggests a shrinking economy, while a score above 50 suggests a growing economy.

Recent improvements in agriculture commodity prices, federal farm support payments, and the Federal Reserve's record low interest rates have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet economy," said Goss.

The confidence index, which reflects bank CEO expectations for the economy six months out, jumped to 62.9 from November's 50.0.

“Federal farm support payments, improving grain prices and advancing exports have supported confidence, offsetting pessimism from the impact of the pandemic," said Goss.

Other bright spots in this month's index were higher farmland prices and sales of farm equipment, both recording their highest levels since 2013. For a third straight month, the farmland price index was above growth-neutral at 55.0.

The farm equipment sales index rose to 50.2, its highest level since June 2013 and up from 42.9 in November. “After 86 straight months of readings below growth-neutral, farm equipment bounced into growth territory for the month," the survey said.​