Diversity in a Post-Agricultural Rural Economy

By Margaret Doom      

On November 14 the University of Minnesota Morris and the Center for Small Towns hosted a discussion entitled “Diversity in the Post-Agricultural Rural Economy”. The discussion was facilitated between Ben Winchester, Brigid Tuck, and Jane Leonard and revolved around the continued development of rural areas and small towns around the state of Minnesota. The idea of a post-agricultural economy in Minnesota may be a foreign idea to those who still see the state in terms of the vast fields of corn and soybeans that they must pass in route from destination to destination, but through their discussion the passionate defenders and developers of rural Minnesota were able to introduce a rural narrative that contradicts the idea that rural is synonymous with the phrase, “middle of nowhere”.

Winchester, an UM Extension researcher presented the idea that instead of the popular notion of rural brain drain, the state is in fact undergoing a rural brain gain! His position highlighted that as of 1970 rural populations have grown by 11%  and that the most popular ages for choosing to live rural are between 30 and 49.  His position enthusiastically contradicts the rural narrative of previous generations which has focused strongly upon the negatively viewed idea that things are changing for the worse, or that jobs and small towns are slowly drying up with the fall of the agricultural economy. He contends that outside of agriculture, small towns feature opportunity for small business ownership, the ability to work from home, and available jobs in a variety of fields.

Brigid Tuck, an economist for UM Extension in Mankato, tackled her own set of rural misconceptions by renouncing the idea that there are no economic opportunities for rural Minnesota. According to Tuck greater Minnesota has experienced a steady rise in jobs from 2010 to 2016. She renounces the idea that since the decline of the logging and mining industries Minnesota’s rural economies have suffered greatly and states that rural areas are actually desperate for workers. Small towns are not sinking places without diversity according to Tuck, but actually incredibly diverse places that feature a job opportunity as diverse as the Metropolitan area. The graphs included in her presentation paint an incredibly hopeful picture for young people coming into the workforce as small towns offer a variety of jobs and living rural is no longer an example of defying scarcity, but rather of enjoying abundance and diversity.

This diversity, which has become a key part of our changing and increasingly technological world is supported in a large part by the work of Jane Leonard, a broadband grants administrator. Her job and goal is to create a more connected Minnesota through the availability of broadband internet. Through her work she sees the need for establishing more efficient connections throughout rural Minnesota to help businesses grow, job opportunities increase, and supplements the modern day need to be connected to learn and grow as a person. She has endeavored to make Minnesota more connected and reports that through connection she has seen the growth of many towns, businesses, and schools. The rural narrative no longer has to mean that people need to give up on being connected to enjoy small town living, instead people have available to them all they need to live in safe, vibrant communities and influence and connect with people around the state and world.

Through these individuals work, and those that seek to live rural or have a passion for these communities, Minnesota is changing the way that people around the state see the life of small towns. Truly the story of rural Minnesota has changed from being a notion of scarcity to a new story characterized by the incredible opportunity that lies in these vibrant places that are only increasing in their own agency to redefine themselves and their futures. With all of the possibility that lies ahead of us in this new narrative it can be seen how the vitality of rural places offers an incredible source of possibility for the future of Minnesota.

This research brought about many questions within the continuing understanding of rural living such as whether or not we can truly say that we do indeed live in a post-agricultural economy in Minnesota and how we can strive to bring together the seemingly paradoxical elements of tight knit small communities and the technological communication and work encouraged by the lecturers.  Their talks have brought about a new conversation of growth, as well as challenges to listeners worldview that will hopefully be a continuing source of innovation over the years to come.

You can now see the full talk online at https://z.umn.edu/PostAgDiversity


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