It has been said that capitalism is what makes the United States of America great. I would not argue much with that, with one little exception, the other end of the spectrum--volunteerism. Recently, I made a quick trip to western North Dakota. In a year that will be remembered through history because of significant flooding and much rain, the Northern Plains has been a real drought region. I spoke in Killdeer, N.D., last Friday evening. It happened to be a 4-H Achievement Days BBQ. Some friends had invited me to their home after the BBQ but those plans were soon interrupted by the sound of a siren. Yes, there was a prairie fire 15 miles north of town and, like most of the ranchers in the area, we jumped in our trucks and headed out to help.

I don't know exactly how long it took for us to get there but, by the time we arrived at the fire scene, about 20 acres of pasture and five big round bales of hay had burned. But, thanks to the Dunn County Volunteer Fire Department, the blaze was under control. Dunn County, population of 3,600, had nine fire trucks on location fighting the fire. Keep in mind that this is a Friday night, a time when most people have other things they would prefer to do. They may have been at 4-H Achievement Days or some other family event; yet, at a moment's notice, they dropped everything to go help put out the fire.

Low and behold, just as I am moved and reminded about the importance of the volunteers in the local fire department, a story is printed about a growing problem in America---"the shortage of volunteers in rural areas." Volunteer fire and rescue personnel represent 72 percent of the nation's 1.1 million firefighters. More than 50 percent of volunteers are associated with departments that cover areas with populations of less than 2,500, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Between 1984 and 2006, the number of volunteers nationwide fell by 8 percent, or nearly 74,000, according to information from the National Fire Protection Association. During that same period, the number of emergency calls to paid and volunteer departments doubled.

Have you ever stopped to think about all of the things we enjoy in this country, thanks to a volunteer? The beginning of my evening in North Dakota with the Dunn County 4-H program would not have happened without volunteers. Think about all of the wonderful youth programs that kids gain so much from that would not exist without unpaid volunteers. Someone else has been taking notice, as well. In the past two weeks, a nationwide study about volunteerism has been released.

Nearly 61 million Americans volunteered in their communities in 2007 giving 8.1 billion hours of service worth more than $158 billion to America's communities, according to the Volunteering in America report released today by the Corporation for National and Community Service. On the national level, 60.8 million or 26.2 percent of Americans age 16 and older volunteered through organizations in 2007. After a 6 percent decline in total volunteers between 2005 and 2006, volunteering levels stabilized in 2007. There were 1 million more volunteers in 2007 than 2002.

And, of course, I cannot talk about the impact of volunteering in the United States without mentioning the most important volunteers in our country--the young men and women who are serving in the military, both stateside and around the globe. Today, we have the largest collection of volunteers since the Civil War, who just walked into an Armed Forces recruiting station and said, "Pick me." For the sacrifices of these people and their loved ones, I am greatly appreciative.

So one could make an argument about the fact that it was simply the capitalist society that has built America. Quite possibly, that capitalism created the opportunity for people to donate their time, but I doubt it. I believe history would show that the poorer the economic conditions, the greater the amount of contribution from volunteers. I believe that one of the greatest assets rural America has to offer society is the burning desire to make this a better place to live for both current and future generations and the willingness to put forth the effort to make that happen. That is one fire no fire department can put out.

Editor's note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com, or e-mail Trent at trent@loostales.com.

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