For years, ambitious young people moved away from the small towns and rural areas in which they had grown up, seeking a better future in the big city.
Several factors fueled this migration: the increasing mechanization of farm work, meaning fewer workers were needed, small-town businesses ended or needed less labor, and simply fewer people who wanted to stay in a rural area to farm or operate. a small town business. . As more and more young people moved to the big cities, many small towns faded into a few businesses and perhaps a church.
But in recent decades, according to Gallup and Pew polls, roughly half of all Americans say their ideal place to live is a small town or rural area. Those between the ages of 30 and 49 (millennials and some Gen Xers) with children have increased the populations of rural communities, as described in an article titled “Rural Rebound” by Rachel Hutton in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune of the June 19, 2022.
Promoting relocation to small towns and rural communities has long been a project of the state of Minnesota, even before the pandemic made it more appealing and the rise of remote work made it more possible.
Otter Tail County in Northwest Minnesota has taken this mission to a new level, hiring a Rural Rebound Coordinator with the goal of making this part of the state as well-known and attractive as the North Shore or Southeast Minnesota. Minnesota.
Using social media and modern communication as a series of videos, coordinator Erik Osberg first tells people they can have whatever lifestyle they prefer, and then invites them to visit the area to see it firsthand. He cites the data: Woodsy Otter Tail County, between Alexandria and Detroit Lakes, has 1,048 lakes, more than any other county in this country. Its largest city is Fergus Falls with 14,000 inhabitants, with some other cities of a few thousand. It is, in short, the laid-back small-town setting that stressed-out city dwellers dream of.
Osberg’s approach is based on research by Ben Winchester, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota Extension. Winchester preaches the gospel of not trying to stop recent high school graduates from leaving, but seeking out those who have been there a while and have the education and job skills to move to a rural community for a better way of life. . He’s not worried about the brain drain of leaving high school graduates, but instead looks for what he calls a “brain gain” in small communities.
Those who move to a community often do not return to their hometown. Some want to be closer to family and old friends and some are moving for work, but according to a 2019 survey of 600 people moving to rural communities, the most common reason for moving to a small rural community is for a better way of living. life. . They had a desire for a simpler, slower-paced life in a safe, affordable community with good access to outdoor recreation.
This was especially true after the last few years of the pandemic and the rise in crime and violence in big cities. The pandemic also allowed many people to work remotely, making their work something they could do from home, which could be somewhere other than the big city.
Areas seeking a brain gain could deal with their declining populations as Rural Rebound does, spreading the word that a healthier, more enjoyable life is possible by relocating to a less populated area. They might even want to try what Osberg did last fall, a video series called “Rural by Choice” hosted by a Twin Cities broadcaster. In it, Osberg explored why people like to live in small-town communities and shows them through images what it’s like to live where they can enjoy nearby fishing or friendly exchanges on the local community pancake. He believes that selling the lifestyle will attract more residents than the old model of promising jobs in an area that is attractive.
In the Otter Tail County area, at least, it seems to be working.
— This is the view of Times Writers Group member Lois Thielen, a dairy farmer who lives near Gray Eagle. Her column is published monthly.