Fighting for an American Countryside: the search for purpose

Rural Minnesota is in the midst of reinventing itself. Longtime pillars of the rural economy, like agriculture, timber and old-style manufacturing, don’t employ as many people as they once did. So, people in towns and cities across the state are looking for new economic identities to fit with an increasingly wide-open, technological world.

Towns have to “make an argument for their survival,” said Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who studies the Midwest’s economies. “They grew up as mining towns or railway centers. It’s like anything else, if you lose your job, you have to go and get a new one.”

Richard Longworth, author of the book Caught in the Middle, studies the Midwest’s economies.

Longworth casts the struggle in dramatic terms. “This is a whole civilization, this upper Midwest, and it is in utter turmoil and being reinvented, politically, economically, and culturally,” he says in our new Ground Level eBook called Reinventing an American Countryside. “The end is not in sight.”

Rural is no longer synonymous with agriculture, as farms have become larger and increasingly mechanized, and that has led to an identity crisis. Earlier this year, a report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter suggested that rural Minnesota has lost its collective voice. Even statewide organizations that once paid attention to rural issues are “following the flow of money and members to the Twin Cities and regional centers—placing much more emphasis on non-rural agendas,” the report said.

If they are to survive, small towns need to become more economically independent, said Charles Marohn, a Brainerd-area engineer, planner and writer in an eBook video. “There’s one big challenge that small towns face today,” he said. “And that is, why do they exist? For the most part our small towns in this country exist because they once existed. It is inertia that is keeping them around.”

People across the state are working to change that perception. Some of the freshest approaches to job creation and overall vitality seem to be coming from passionate, driven individuals in towns like Montevideo, which is developing an arts economy, and Lutsen, where fiber broadband will improve everything from education to health care.

Fighting for an American Countryside highlights more than a dozen efforts, along with the people championing them. In Hewitt, in central Minnesota, Michael Dagen has helped spawn an annual Barter Fest, which draws bands and people from around the region. Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin in Northfield has built a program that trains Latino immigrants to run their own farming businesses. And in Bemidji, Lisa Weiskopf and Simone Senogles have launched an incubator kitchen to foster entrepreneurism and improve what people eat, as MPR News’ Dan Olson is reporting tonight on All Things Considered.

Whatever a town does to survive, said Marohn, the effort should grow from the inherent strengths of a particular place. A solution that “comes from inside,” as he put it, “might not be as grand or splashy. It might not be as sexy or something you can put in magazines around the world, but it will be theirs. It will be authentic. It will be real.”