GRANITE FALLS — It’s time to write our own rural narrative, according to Neil Linscheid, a University of Minnesota Extension educator and 2017 Bush Fellow.
While people in the media and academics love to write about rural decline and sleepy towns, the facts don’t support that narrative, according to Linscheid. He told members of the Yellowstone Trail Alliance that rural Minnesota needs to tell its own story to counter the negative stories that “continue to percolate and be out there in the ether. We have to push back against this deficit approach,” or what he called “poverty porn.”
“If you don’t own your story, somebody else will,” he said.
Linscheid spoke Nov. 22 to members of the Yellowstone Trail Alliance of Western Minnesota at the annual meeting in Granite Falls. The Alliance is a grassroots organization of residents in communities along U.S. Highway 212 from Buffalo Lake to Ortonville. They work to promote the communities as places to visit and live.
They are part of the original “Yellowstone Trail Association,” an alliance of communities that spanned the country from Plymouth Rock on the East Coast to Puget Sound on the West Coast and promoted tourism in the early days of automobile travel along the route to Yellowstone National Park.
“The story I want to tell of rural places has been one of adaptation and success over time,” Linscheid told his audience.
The speaker said that he and fellow extension educator Ben Winchester have been researching demographic and economic trends in rural Minnesota. They have found that the data tell a much different story than what is so often told in popular media.
The most often repeated theme has been the “brain drain” of young people leaving rural communities. In fact, said Linscheid, the out-migration is primarily occurring among young people just out of high school and in their 20s. Rural areas in the state are seeing an in-migration of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
“(You’re) trading 18-year-olds without much education, not much earning potential, for 30-year-olds. (They) mostly have education, have skills, and they are bringing kids. This isn’t a terrible thing,” he said.
Rural areas have seen their share of the country’s overall population decline, but that doesn’t mean the population is shrinking. The country’s population has grown overall.
There are actually more households in rural areas today than there were in 1970, but modern households include fewer members, he pointed out.
Also, the rules of the game in counting populations are stacked against rural areas. Communities that succeed and grow in population are removed from the rural classification by the U.S. Census Bureau. Communities such as Mankato are no longer considered rural by the U.S. Census, and that population is removed from the count of rural places, he explained.
Linscheid pointed out that rural Main Streets are in a state of change, but it’s part of a nationwide evolution.
“Main Streets have been restructuring themselves since at least the 1950s,” said Linscheid. The reality is that many rural Main Street buildings are being repurposed, he said.
Rural economies are changing with the times. He pointed to Yellow Medicine County, where he spoke. It has seen the number of jobs in agriculture decline by more than 1,000 since the 1970s. But as farms have become more mechanized and larger, new jobs are being created in rural communities in manufacturing, service industries and government, he said.
“This is a story of transition from a farming-based economy to an economy that has successfully managed enormous technological transition and remade itself all across communities along this trail,” Linscheid said.
Nationwide, polls have found that a majority of people actually prefer living in lower density areas. People identify a simpler pace of life, safety and security, and low-cost housing as reasons they prefer and would move to rural areas.
Linscheid has also been part of project that surveyed newcomers to rural areas and identified what led them to make the move. Many are people who grew up in rural areas and returned. Some newcomers are people who first visited as tourists.
He encouraged the Yellowstone Trail Alliance to continue to promote the trail as a place to visit. “People who visit your communities think it is a good place to live,” he said.
He also credited the alliance for bringing people from so many different communities along Highway 212 together. Being connected to one another and working to take action together are key tools to promote rural growth, he told the audience.
Most of all, he said, they must work to get their stories out there and “own” their story. He emphasized that they must believe the story enough to speak the truth to their neighbors. “It’s easy to succumb to the negative stories that surround us and to miss all of the wonderful things happening right in front of us,” he said.