The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 26, 2013

Amid a rural decline, people aim to save their communities

By Jennifer Vogel
Minnesota Public Radio

---- — HEWITT, Minn. — In Hewitt, a prairie town of 266 people almost exactly in the middle of Minnesota, moving forward looks a lot like stepping backward. Every fall for the past three years, the city has hosted Barter Fest, an outdoor swap festival. Locals and tourists come together to trade artwork for massages and musical instruments for vegetables while listening to out-of-town bands like Alien Brain and the Jugular Vein.

It's unlikely anybody would have thought to pair the words "tourists" and "Hewitt" before Michael Dagen and his wife, Amber Fletschock, moved to town five years ago to establish an artistic outpost.

Launching Barter Fest is one example of how the two thirty-somethings have pumped Hewitt full of the kind of entrepreneurial energy that could spell a new future for the little town.

Dagen, an audio engineer, and Fletschock, a visual artist, are among a small cadre of people in rural Minnesota working against long odds to save their communities. Driven by a variety of personal and professional desires — love of a river, perhaps, attachment to a piece of farm land or the goal of connecting new immigrants with longtime residents — they aim to change the courses of the places where they live. All are trying to find the way forward for rural Minnesota, where jobs have disappeared thanks to globalized manufacturing and large-scale industrial agriculture and where populations have been under pressure for decades.

"Most]of the Midwest has been sliding downhill for 30 or 40 years," said Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who studies the Midwest's economies and published a book on the topic called Caught in the Middle. "We've always been kidding ourselves that it's temporary, that we will come back, and we always have. We always do. But each time we go down a little bit lower than before and the next dip is a little further down. People are waking up and saying, 'This time is different.'"

These circumstances have become a call to action. But it's an uphill fight.

First, never has such a small portion of the American public lived in rural areas. Maps based on the most recent census show that, especially in the middle of the country, many small towns are emptying, while urban areas are growing. Only one in six Americans lives in a rural community. The ratio in Minnesota is slightly higher, around one in four. But even that represents a dramatic decline. In 1950, 56 percent of Minnesotans were considered rural.

For decades, outstate Minnesota has been bleeding young people who move to urban areas for better jobs and cultural opportunities and leave behind a population that's older, poorer, less college educated and more politically conservative than the state as a whole.

In December, just after an election where rural people largely voted against President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack declared that rural America "is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country." He added that it's time for an "adult conversation with folks in rural America." The comments rankled many, but others saw truth in what the former Iowa governor said.

Rural is no longer synonymous with agriculture. Farming is increasingly dominated by multinational corporations, and this has left a void on Main Street. "Sometimes you get the feeling there is no there there, no common interest that pulls people together," said Arne Kildegaard, director of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris.

"Agriculture feels like it's spun off in its own orbit now. They do their banking and agriculture financing things in town," he said. "But their economic interest is no longer closely tied to the town except that they want to keep tax rates low. That is their degree of civic engagement."

Earlier this year, a report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minn., suggested that rural Minnesota has lost its collective voice. Traditional industries like farming, timber, mining and manufacturing don't employ as many people as they once did, and 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.

To some who live in cities, people to whom "rural" may be an abstraction or a dusty representation of a bygone era, the withering of rural communities has taken on an air of inevitability or even, progress. Let the small towns die, some argue, in favor of bigger cities, where density makes living more efficient, both environmentally and financially.

From afar, rural Minnesota may look like a quilt of farm fields interrupted by the occasional grain silo or abandoned movie theater. But there are vibrant battles being waged by people like Dagen and Fletschock who understand that vast open spaces and even a lack of resources and infrastructure afford the freedom and the necessity to invent.

These people, the farmer trying to improve water quality or the artist finding a new use for an old creamery, may be employing different strategies. But they are pulling at threads of the same fabric.

They are all trying to save their piece of rural America.

Next: The costs of keeping it rural.