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A tractor drives down the street in Gibbon on May 14. Ackerman + Gruber for MPR

‘Fighting for an American countryside’: Where the rural jobs are

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This is the final excerpt from "Fighting for an American countryside" by MPR News’ Ground Level project. You can download the free eBook, with video, photos and graphics, to your tablet or other reader from iBooks, Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can also view it online at mprnews.org.

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Jennifer Vogel

MPR News 91.3 FM

Long Prairie — Scratch very deeply and it becomes clear that generating economic development — jobs — lies beneath almost all the conversations about rural America. And five fields in particular tend to excite people: local food, health care, arts, renewable energy and technology.

In 2009, the city of Long Prairie, in central Minnesota, built a state-of-the-art business incubator on its two-year-old industrial park at the edge of town. It was, at the time, what a lot of cities were doing. And as in a lot of cities, the park has been mostly empty ever since. "There is the old saying, ‘Build it and they will come,’ " said Lyle Danielson, director of the Long Prairie Economic Development Authority. "That’s not necessarily true. But if nothing is built there is no reason to come."

Four years later, Danielson is working with Jaime Villalaz, a Latino business specialist and tax preparer based in St. Cloud, on a new use for part of the industrial park. While the plots were designed with industry in mind, this summer, several acres of land are being used to grow tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers instead.

Diving into local, sustainable foods is an idea that comes up frequently when people talk about reviving rural economies. It has cachet, is connected to at least an urban view of the future and plays off some of the particular strengths of rural areas, namely open space, abundant water and lots of people who know how to farm.

A solution like that, which "comes from inside… might not be as big or as grand or as splashy," said Brainerd-area engineer, planner and writer Charles Marohn. "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."

In Long Prairie, the farming is done by a small, new agricultural cooperative called Agua Gorda, named for the city in Mexico from which its members hail. The co-op, which sold produce to a Twin Cities restaurant last summer, began with the help of Danielson and Villalaz in Long Prairie’s community garden. The garden was designed as a low-stakes setting where the city’s whites and Latinos could interact. Agua Gorda may become an economic success as well.

The notion that Long Prairie, a meatpacking city, could be a player in local foods is appealing. Danielson doesn’t expect the farming effort to flood the city with tax dollars, at least not yet. But it’s a start. "It’s good for the community," he said, noting that the cooperative will pay rent.

Health care is another obvious building block for rural economies. Given aging populations and a lack of rural doctors, providers are devising new ways to deliver services, through technology and the use of so-called "mid-level" practitioners like dental therapists, who have more training than hygienists but less than full-fledged dentists.

Lakewood Health System in Staples, for example, has adopted a forward-looking approach known as the "medical home," which involves treating patient needs as a team. The goal is to improve care while lowering costs. In a rural health care landscape dominated by increasing hospital consolidation, Lakewood has remained independent and has grown.

Renewable energy is a favorite target when rural areas are feeling around for something new. Cities like Luverne and Benson have bet on biofuels, and Chandler, in southwestern Minnesota, is home to a large wind farm.

Patrick Carr, a Rutgers University sociologist who researches rural economic issues, expects renewable energy to remain a small market, at least in the near term. He thinks the "explosion of the fossil fuel and fracking industry" has changed the energy landscape, lowering natural gas prices and putting green energy at a disadvantage. It’s hasty, he said, to "chase the new, good looking thing on the block."

The University of Minnesota Morris campus has invested in wind and biofuels. But Arne Kildegaard, director of the Center for Small Towns at the campus, points out that excess energy can be hard to sell, making new energy an iffy bet for the small operator. Cheap natural gas doesn’t help. "We have a biomass gasifier on campus," he said. "It’s the reason my office has heat this morning. It would be cheaper to use natural gas now. Five years from now that might flip."

But Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is bullish. "There is a lot going on with green energy," he said. "It’s about 10 or 15 percent of total energy. That is not miniscule. And it’s growing." The industry will accelerate even more, he thinks, once we figure out how better to transmit power from rural areas, where it’s produced, to urban areas, where it’s most needed. Of all the bright, new economic ideas out there, a focus on technology has captured the most attention and drawn significant effort. In Cook County, in the Arrowhead, Joe Buttweiler is busy running fiber optic cable along the bottoms of lakes and up small mountains to bring high-speed Internet access to local residents, no matter how remote.

Buttweiler, director of member services and broadband projects for Lutsen-based Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, is in charge of spending $16 million in federal loan and grant dollars, part of the government’s commitment to bring high speed Internet to remote areas. Cook County, with its difficult terrain and far flung homes, has had some of the worst connectivity in the state.

The goal in spreading broadband across Cook County is to give residents access to more educational opportunities and better health care. If the optimists are right, it will also bring a wider array of jobs. Cook County relies heavily on tourism, which means lots of work in the summer, but not so much in the winter. Once the new system is running, people could work remotely via broadband for companies located elsewhere. Or companies making intellectual products—rather than, say, clothing or furniture—could be headquartered on Lake Superior and do business with the rest of the world via the Internet.

Some cities aim to become "rural knowledge clusters," which in plain language means an area that specializes in something, like the way Roseau and Thief River Falls have become the center of the universe for snowmobiles and ATVs with Polaris and Arctic Cat.

In the end, it seems clear that some rural cities and regions will thrive, whether because of an ability to keep and train young people, a wholesale reinvention, grassroots job creation, public investment, collaboration or the efforts of a dedicated group with a big idea. And others will not.

"You can pick out little places here and there and elsewhere," said Longworth. "They are all trying different stuff. They are working with immigrants or trying to get agri-business or looking into bio. Or they are getting into broadband. In this transition right now between the old and new economy, we don’t know who will survive. There is a lot of experimentation."

"Some of these little towns may not have a future at all," he said. "They lose their bank and school, and then it’s turn out the lights."

Still others, Longworth said, will exist in a twilight state, not quite thriving but not dying either. They may be places where people buy cheap houses and drive an hour each way to work. "They will survive on that basis, but there won’t be much going on there. And it’s not the kind of Midwestern rural civilization that we were used to. There really was a civilization there."

Kildegaard takes a more sanguine view. "The motto of our food co-op is that it’s been going out of business since 1970," he said. "That is small town Minnesota in a nutshell. They are still here. They are not going anywhere. Very few towns are dying. And the ones that are, there is little going on in those towns anyway. It’s evolving. There is new immigrant energy in the region. If there are not a lot of employment options, you make something up."

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