Redefining the Rural Narrative

We’re living in exciting times in Rural America, have you heard?

  • We’ve just completed the third out of the last four decades of overall population gain in Rural America, growing from 53.5 million in 1970 to 59.5 million in 2010.
  • Midwest farmland is bringing record prices. Land in Rock County, Minnesota, has recently sold for over $12,000 an acre.  Up near the Twin Cities, they’re even converting failed subdivisions back to farmland.
  • Rural areas continue to attract enough people that they are “graduating” to urban status—like Mankato, Minnesota, where population growth recently pulled Blue Earth & Nicollet counties into the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) category.

Ben Winchester, Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, highlighted similar trends last week for the annual meeting of the Southwest Regional Development Commission, at the UMn Southwest Research & Outreach Center, Lamberton.

While not everything is rosy in Rural America, Ben delves deep into the data and comes up with roses to go with the well-worn thorns.  First off for non-metro counties, losing young people age 20-24 is the Rule, unless you’re a college town… or your local economy is hopelessly stagnant.  We’re not ‘Hollowing Out the Middle‘; we’re sending our kids out into the world to learn what they need to know in an increasingly global, connected New Economy.

We can do better at letting them know it’s OK to come back home.  We’ve talked before about the Rural Brain Gain, and how young Americans age 30-49 are moving to rural areas.  Winchester’s follow-up research, and complimentary research in Nebraska, has found about 1/3 of these newcomers are coming home.  About 1/2 are bringing kids with them, mostly age 10-17, and they’re looking for good schools, safety/security, and the overall elusive rural “Quality of Life”.

It was interesting to hear Ben emphasize that he did not find these new migrants congregating in high-amenity areas.  The maps show counties on the High Plains attracting young families at the same time as counties in Lakes country.  And its not just the larger cities in rural areas growing—many of the ‘Micropolitan’ places tend to resemble their urban cousins’ demographics than their rural neighbors.  This is a heterogeneous trend, with people choosing their move for many different reasons, but specific employment and attraction to ‘pretty places’ aren’t necessarily as important to this demographic.

Lessons Learned

So what do we do about it? The first step, Winchester believes, is start talking about it.  We need to ‘Redefine the Rural Narrative’ — if we’re constantly talking down our own communities, why would anybody else talk them up?  This is not to say we shouldn’t be honest about the challenges of Rural America, but that we should be more balanced.  People come.  People go.  Know what your community is good at, and where you need to improve.  It’s all part of the economic restructuring occurring in rural and urban places across the world.

Second, we need to be confident in telling our rural story.  Ben’s research shows that many people express a preference for ‘rural lifestyles’, whatever that is.  They don’t want to sit stuck in commuter traffic.  They want their kids to be names instead of numbers at school. They want to afford a home of their own.  There’s also a ‘new urbanity’ in many smaller cities, as the internet and non-traditional retailers bring more country to the city and more city to the country.

Not everybody is cut out for small town life, but many are just looking for an excuse to leave the suburbs behind.

Communities that want to reach out to newcomers have been kicking around some ideas, based on the Brain Gain work.  Ben told us about some strategies for local leaders to get “On the Map”:

  • Get online, and fix Google Maps addresses (especially for mobile-oriented businesses like motels and restaurants).  He didn’t toot Extension’s horn, but the MIRC workshops are a great resource for this.
  • Be a personal information resource, make it easy for people to find out about your community.
  • Talk to your real estate agents.  They may not be comfortable at first sharing info, but find out what you can do to make selling your location easier.

Communities are also converting typical economic development strategies to leverage the Brain Gain.  Some newcomers are bringing their jobs with them, as independent ‘Lone Eagles’ or telecommuting by broadband.  Local leaders can reach out to build relationships with their Metro employers.  Again, make it easy for people to do the ‘right thing’ by your rural community and by their creative talent looking for a lifestyle change.

Many Brain Gain newcomers are downshifting, but not always by choice.  Underemployed new residents may have auxiliary skills from their city career that can be leveraged for new economic opportunities. You don’t know unless you ask.


Redefining Social Capital

Winchester has also done quite a bit of research on changes in social capital in small towns and rural areas.  We didn’t have quite enough time to get into it too much, but Ben linked these demographic changes with long-term changes in how volunteer organizations work.

It’s not that we’re less involved.  There are a record number of non-profit organizations in urban and rural areas.  Yet, as we have more non-profit groups being formed, small towns have relatively fewer volunteer leaders to go around.  When we look at the new young families moving to small towns, many are looking for opportunities to contribute but are not likely to make open-ended commitments to organizations they’re not familiar with.  Small town leaders have to look for new ways for groups to work together, and demonstrate their value beyond the basic ‘doing good deeds’.

  1. Play nice with your neighbors
  2. Demonstrate value
  3. Ask for their business

Sounds like a rural narrative we can all get behind.


(Edit) Local News Coverage:
Marshall Independent
Redwood Gazette

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