Fighting for an American Countryside in Minnesota

This Ground Level project we started almost four years ago has explored rural Minnesota with one guiding quest: Where are people trying to fix things?

You would think, after talking to and writing about hundreds of people trying to keep the elderly healthy, extend broadband, ensure cleaner farm run-off, run more efficient local governments, encourage entrepreneurs and more, we might be able to draw some conclusions.

So we did. We’ve just published a project called  “Fighting for an American Countryside” by Ground Level reporter Jennifer Vogel.  It is a unique blend of, on one hand, Jennifer’s strong reporting and writing and, on the other, evocative and informative images and video that photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber spent months gathering. You can find an online version on our website, and it’s downloadable as an eBook from Apple’s iBooks store, from Amazon for Kindle readers and from the store at Vook.com, the company that put the book together for us. And, because this project gets most of its support from the Bush Foundation, the download is free.

Jennifer is going to be posting here in the coming days to talk about some of the themes in the book. But, to crib from the book’s introduction, both she and I are products of small midwestern towns,  and we know what has been apparent for decades. Young people leave. Schools merge. Grocery stores close. Residents drive to a bigger town to work, shop, and play. Farms get larger but the implement dealers close. The weekly paper gets thinner. In Minnesota, political sway shifts to the Twin Cities.

You can’t spend a lot of time in rural Minnesota without sensing the feeling of decline in population, power or simply voice. Yet a couple million Minnesotans live outside the Twin Cities, and most of those live outside the big regional centers. They may be drawn by community, family, jobs, a desire for room to roam, or simply inertia. And they are contending with big problems. The river is sometimes choked with sediment, students can’t get on the Internet, high-paying jobs have left town, doctors are scarce, and the elderly have a hard time staying in their homes as they age. Towns don’t have the money to pay for a bus system or keep the streets up or maintain a police force.

But they are contending, and that’s really the gold in our project. In Long Prairie, Verna Toenyan is a dynamo of action on behalf of rural seniors. In Cook County, Joe Buttweiler’s job is to lay fiber to get broadband to people for the first time. In Hewitt, Michael Dagen is playing music, creating festivals and now even serving as town clerk.

In the words of one authority on the midwestern economy and culture that we cite in the book, these people are pushing their towns forward and making an “argument for their survival.” They are fighting for an American countryside, and Minnesotans should pay attention. I hope you’ll take a look.