Rising commodity prices and lower energy costs are boosting rural business in Midwestern states and the northern Plains, according to the newest monthly survey of small-town bankers.
The Rural Mainstreet Index released Thursday climbed in December, the fourth straight month of growth.
"This is the healthiest reading that we have recorded since well before the national economic recession began," said Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University in Omaha who oversees the survey.
The index ranges from 0 to 100, with 50 representing "growth neutral." It's based on a survey of rural bankers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
In December, the index climbed to 60.6 from last month's reading of 57.5.
The survey showed increases in bank borrowing to purchase farmland and equipment and rising confidence in how the economy will perform over the next six months.
December hiring also increased, although Goss said the region's employment is still 3 percent below its pre-recession levels. The survey's farmland price index continued to show brisk growth, even though the December reading dipped.
Home sales remained strong in December while retail sales soared to 59.0 from last month's 51.5.
Nearly one-fourth of the bankers surveyed said they expect temporary shutdowns of ethanol plants in their area because of lower ethanol prices. Less than 4 percent said they expected an increase in 2013 ethanol plant revenues when compared to this year, according to the survey.