Despite a minor hiccup, there's continued reason to be optimistic about the health of rural America's economy.

Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index for April remained above the growth-neutral mark of 50.0 for the third consecutive month. That hasn't happened since mid-2015.

"Surveys over the past several months indicate that the Rural Mainstreet economy is trending upward with improving, and positive economic growth," said Ernie Goss, a business professor at the school in Omaha, Nebraska.

April's overall number came in at 53.5, off slightly from March's 54.7, but far healthier than the April 2017 reading of 44.6.

Goss cautioned that there's still ample reason for concern.

"Weak farm income continues to weigh on the rural economy," said Goss. Indeed, April marked the 53rd month in a row that the farmland and ranchland price index fell below growth neutral. It stands at 42.9, up from 42.7 in March.

And as April's report noted, "Recent trade tariffs, both implemented and proposed, have reverberated throughout agricultural areas of the region."

The confidence index, reflecting expectations for the economy six months out, sank to 50.0 from March's 58.0, indicating waning economic optimism among the community bankers surveyed in 10 states.

"An unresolved North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and rising trade tensions with China are significant concerns," said Goss.

When asked this month how important export markets are to their local economy, more than 76 percent of bank CEOs said export markets were very important to their local economies.

Forty percent of those bankers support continuing with the current NAFTA while 31 percent want to abolish it and begin negotiations on a fresh agreement.

Perhaps the brightest spot in the April index is the employment gauge. It soared to 64.0 from March's healthy 58.1.

"The Rural Mainstreet economy is now experiencing positive year-over-year job growth," the report said. "The Rural Mainstreet economy has added jobs at a 0.4 percent pace over the past 12 months. Job growth in rural areas is now exceeding that of the urban areas of the 10-state region."

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