Take five steps for a stronger Minnesota
Ask any rural resident why they choose to live where they do, and you may as well sit down for a bit. They’ll cite a more reasonable pace of life, safety and security, a close-knit community, being near nature, and more. There can also be challenges, especially when the economy is tight.
“Minnesota’s economic diversity definitely gives us a leg up compared to other states,” says Laura Kalambokidis, University of Minnesota Extension economist who has served as Minnesota’s state economist since 2013. “Strengthening that diversity and supporting a productive workforce is critical to holding that edge.”
Everybody can take steps to make their community an attractive place to live, where people can find work and quality of life.
1. Welcome newcomers
Extension “brain gain” research has demonstrated that adults 30-49 years old are moving into rural areas. Newcomers often bring with them degrees, work experience, business ideas and children.
Extension researchers, including colleagues at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, are examining the experience of newcomers and their integration into rural communities. The researchers will hear from newcomers across the state, including minority and immigrant newcomers who play a role in keeping small towns vibrant.
The study will inform new Extension programming that teaches communities how they can best attract and retain new residents and workers.
“Communities are genuinely interested in becoming more welcoming, but the research will help them make investments in the right strategies, whether those be in housing, technology and infrastructure, or in education and social initiatives,” says Neil Linscheid, Extension educator in community economics and recipient of a 2017 Bush Fellowship from the Bush Foundation.
What you can do
Participate if Extension contacts you about surveys or focus groups. Share ideas on how individuals and organizations can help newcomers feel welcome and contribute to the community.
2. Put new foods on your plate
Emerging crops in Minnesota such as hazelnuts, elderberries and the perennial grain called Kernza have attributes that protect the landscape. These plants help protect water, sequester carbon and hold soil in place.
“Agriculture can be a tool for improving our environment,” says Connie Carlson of Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP). “Protecting our water and soil is going to benefit everyone in this state.”
Incorporating these innovative new crops can benefit farmers by diversifying their revenue streams, but farmers need to know there’s a market. “That’s a role consumers can play,” says Carlson. When consumers look for these new crops at their local stores or farmers market, it creates demand that can lower the risk for farmers.
Extension RSDP is working with University researchers like agronomy professor Don Wyse, who helped develop Kernza, and with farmers and retailers across the state, to build the supply chains necessary to get these sustainable new crops from research to consumer.
What you can do
Look for emerging locally grown crops at your local retailers. To learn more about RSDP’s supply chain work, contact Connie Carlson.
3. Keep agriculture strong
Many farmers find themselves facing difficult circumstances right now.
“Financial stress is not as widespread as in the 1980s, but some farmers are seeking help,” says Extension agricultural economist Kevin Klair, who leads Extension’s agricultural business management program. “Extension is working with a variety of agriculture interests, including the banking industry, to help farmers explore their options.”
A new initiative, expected to run for two years, provides direct financial counseling to distressed farmers across Minnesota.
“In the family farm businesses, it’s often women who maintain the finances,” says Betty Berning, Extension educator in agricultural business management.
Additionally, a growing segment of farms, 26 percent, are led by women.* Extension’s Women in Ag Network offers workshops on how to balance the books, manage farm labor, work with lenders and handle ownership transitions. The network brings women together to learn and connect, but all are welcome.
What you can do
To set up a confidential appointment with an Extension farm financial analyst, call the Farm Information Line at 1-800-232-9077. Learn more about Women in Ag.
4. Attract tourists to your town
Not every town considers itself a tourist mecca, but every town has visitors. “Offering things to see and do keeps visitors coming back and spending money,” says Cynthia Messer, University of Minnesota Tourism Center director. “Those activities can also keep residents healthy and happy.”
For example, bicycle trails help attract $780 million in annual economic activity, according to Xinyi Qian, Extension tourism specialist who led economic analysis for a study commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Public health researchers say the benefits of biking also reduce health care costs.
Minnesota wine is another growing industry that attracts tourists and showcases local vitality. Minnesota’s wine industry is a largely rural phenomenon that took root with the University’s cold-hardy grape introductions. Economic activity increased from $53.6 million in 2011 to $80.3 million in 2015. “That’s a 50- percent increase,” says Brigid Tuck, Extension economic analyst who led the study. “Tasting rooms, events and festivals were big drivers of the gains.”
What you can do
Customized research informs investment decisions. Learn who your visitors are, meet needs with the right products and services, and provide a unique local experience. Visit Tourism Center for more information.
5. Grow local leaders
Healthy communities require good leaders. Extension’s leadership training engages individuals and organizations in asking challenging questions and developing innovative solutions together.
“There is a growing interest in strengthening local leadership,” says Holli Arp, Extension program leader. “Counties and regions are developing new programs and training cohorts of people who believe that improving personal and professional relationships will enable new partnerships and ideas to sustain the place they call home.”
In 2016, Extension hosted 25 leadership programs, preparing more than 500 emerging leaders to serve in cities, counties, regions, organizations, watersheds and the agricultural industry. Through the years, thousands of participants have learned skills like managing conflict, coping with change, working across generations and leading effective meetings.
“Everyone starts somewhere on their leadership journey,” says Lisa Hinz, Extension leadership educator.
What you can do
Hone in on your interest. Ask yourself: What draws me to leading? Is there an issue I’m passionate about? Visit Extension leadership for more information.