Looking for the voice of rural Minnesota

Who speaks for rural Minnesota?

That’s the question the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter asks in a 12-page report written by former gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner of Horner Strategies. The report echoes the controversy set off by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a few weeks ago when he told rural leaders they risked becoming irrelevant.

The answer in the report, provided through interviews and surveys of scores of rural Minnesotans, is that, any more, not much of anybody. The report runs through the familiar trends — declining population, big legislative guns missing at the Capitol, smaller school enrollments, bigger and fewer farms — that are leading to rural areas having less influence.

The suggestion that the widely varied communities of rural Minnesota could speak with one voice raises questions of its own.

But a couple notes in the report stuck out for me.

One was a quotation from an interviewee to the effect that state government can’t be relied on to express and deal with the needs of rural areas.

“People need to accept the fact that they need to solve their problems locally,” the respondent told Horner.

The other point that hit me was the report’s effort to determine who really was in the best position to articulate rural challenges. Likely candidates, it suggests, are organizations like the Minnesota Initiative Foundations (MIFs), the University of Minnesota Extension service, the Blandin Foundation, regional development commissions and local chambers of commerce.

Those organizations tend to operate on the principle articulated by the interviewee who saw the need for local problem solving. By and large, they view themselves less as voices for a general cause and more as specific problem solvers. They work on the ground, in communities, not necessarily advocating broad statewide policy to “solve the rural problem.” But collectively they hold a huge amount of knowledge that could be harnessed.

Rural communities have fallen into a pattern of rivalry, as opposed to collaboration, said Brad Finstad, executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development. “You kind of had that Town A vs Town B in rural Minnesota,” he said. “We need to look at what we can do collaboratively.”

The report quotes a non-profit executive who asked, “What if some of the key players like (University of Minnesota) Extension, CRPD (the center that commissioned the report), the MIFs, Blandin and others sat down a couple times a year to kick around strategy and message?”

Finstad said he hoped the center could play a role at the Legislature, informing lawmakers how issues like gasoline taxes and business regulations affect rural areas differently than urban areas. But an additional accomplishment might also be simply to bring together existing but diffuse networks of information and expertise to organize a more focused rural agenda.