Driving along County Road 11 on Sunday, I came across a fellow walking the ditches collecting cans in a plastic mesh bag that used to hold California oranges. Asking to be identified only as “Rapid Ron,” the man, wearing bright yellow sunglasses, said he used to work at RR Donnelley printing in Long Prairie, but was laid off last year.
Employment woes are not uncommon in Todd County, where the January unemployment rate was 9.9 percent, compared to the state’s 8.2 percent. Layoffs, closings, and cutbacks helped push the county’s rate all the way up to 11.7 percent in February 2009. Even those with jobs sometimes don’t earn enough: While the average weekly wage in Minnesota is $881, it’s only $554 in Todd County.
Ron, who had the tanned hands and face of a man who’s spent a lot of days recently combing the ditches for treasure, explained that, in fact, the cans weren’t for him. They were for a friend who drives a school bus. “I just do it to keep out of trouble,” he said.
Then he pulled a rusty horseshoe out of his pocket, probably from a horse belonging to a nearby Amish family. “I found three of these last week,” he said. “I have about a dozen nailed to my garage.”
Ron moved to Todd County 11 years ago from Bloomington after his uncle died and left behind a farm. “I’ve never been happier,” he said. “But I’m not a farmer.” He worked at RR Donnelley for three and a half years before being let go. “I’m fortunate that I don’t have kids or a spouse. I know people who moved away because there are no jobs.”
He’s not sure what he’ll do in the long run to make ends meet. He’s considering applying for a position at one of the nearby meat processing plants. But in the meantime, he’ll just keep costs down – he doesn’t own a car or computer – and keep collecting cans.
What’s been your experience working in Todd County? Do you earn enough to make ends meet? What type of employer would you like to see move into the county?