We can save rural, but we can’t stop change

Producer Heidi Holtan (standing), conservative commentator Chuck Marohn and liberal commentator Aaron Brown create “Dig Deep,” a Northern Minnesota political podcast focused on finding consensus and slaying stereotypes.

This week began with an eye-opening news analysis from the New York Times: “The Hard Truth of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy” by economics writer Eduardo Porter.

Porter’s thesis: The economic situation in rural America is so bad that money would be better spent getting rural people out than trying to bring a new economy in.

As you can imagine, rural writers and political leaders have responded like Statler and Waldorf on the Muppets. The Daily Yonder published a couple of good responses. James Branscome argues that environmental sustainability will make rural life more desirable as time goes on. Roberto Gallardo posits that the digital divide is the main reason rural areas haven’t become the e-commuting and innovation centers we all hope they become.

It’s ironic that the only writers who seem to make a living churning out rural think pieces are those who live in big cities. That’s not to dismiss all the economic arguments that Porter makes. Some of them are indisputable.

For instance, rural areas are older. Their original industries have been automated and consolidated. Investment capital and technology has indeed concentrated in cities.

But there’s something that’s easy to miss if you don’t live in a rural area.  People live here because they want to live here, and that’s often enough.

Another series of our political podcast Dig Deep airs this week. The first two episodes already aired. In the first, fellow commentator Chuck Marohn and I talk about the culture of the so-called rural vs. urban divide, and how it widens due to perception. The perceptions then become reality due to human behavior.

We didn’t cook this up in response to Porter’s piece in the Times. In fact, Heidi recorded Chuck and me a full month before that story even ran. Nevertheless, we’re talking about the exact same issues from the other side of the “divide.”

At the core of all this are some truths that don’t fit a neat definition of a rural future.

A) Rural America’s economy has changed permanently and cannot be restored to any past state.

B) Certain rural institutions and even some towns are no longer viable.

C) Rural America holds great promise, but the future will not resemble the past.

D) People will always want to live in rural places and will sacrifice to do so. Living here is the only real way to find out why.

E) The above truths are hard for both rural and urban folks to swallow. Which is why we write dueling think pieces and distrust each other.


  1. The two pieces from the Daily Yonder are, unfortunately, pipe dreams that miss the point of the NYTimes article. The point is that from a pure economic point of view, development of larger tech facilities in more rural areas does not make sense due to the lack of the “ecology” of tech that allows larger areas with more existing facilities to offer a culture that helps the facilities to thrive. And that from an attraction point of view, life in a metro area with entertainment and large numbers of young people is more attractive to the young engineers and scientists the companies want to recruit than the peace and quiet of Lake Woebegone.

    It is also not true that rural areas offer a more “sustainable” environmental solution. In fact, rural areas are much more profligate in their use of energy per capita due to distance travelled in daily life, distance that supplies must travel to get there, and the lesser efficiency of individual houses compared with apartments. Add the existing culture of pick-up trucks and SUV’s as opposed to mass transit and walking, and Northeast Minnesota uses many times the energy per capita that Manhattan does.

    As I noted in another thread, it is possible to attract some types of very small footprint labs and businesses to locations like the Range. But as Aaron has pointed out, that depends a lot on the existence of good, reasonably priced and reasonably fast broadband, something many or our politicians are unwilling to finance; as well as on high quality schools, something we do not have right now and are also unwilling to invest in in many cases. And finally, it depends on preserving and enhancing our greatest marketing asset, the pristine and beautiful Northland environment, something that makes it even more important to not have our streams and lakes stinking of rotten eggs and turning into mud holes from dumping of sulfate at higher than our currently maximum allowed levels.

    • Gerald S. you were actually making some sense until that ignorant last sentence based in lies, exaggerations, and blatant ignorance. Sulfite mining does not produce any rotten egg smell, that is sulfate paper production. Second, we have been mining sulfite ores in Northern Minnesota far longer than you have been on this earth with absolutely no proven harmful effects. Get your facts straight.

      • Sulfate is sulfate. As I am sure you know, the rotten egg smell is not dependent on the source, but on the concentrations. At the existing 10 ppm limit, that is not an issue. Although many aquatic plants suffer almost 100% die off at levels of 50 ppm, resulting in blighted appearance of lakes, the smell is not an issue until levels get considerably higher, levels not attained until above the output of current mining operations.

        However, there are some people who are trying to do away with any restrictions on sulfate emissions at all, perhaps not surprising since at current or foreseeable copper and nickel prices mines in Northern MN will not be profitable, so corner cutting would be attractive. Polymet has promised they can and will reach the required emission levels of 10 ppm, but at the same time, the record of Glencore operations in other areas of the world and the recent efforts to modify the requirements, including an editorial in the Duluth News Tribune by a Polymet supporter suggesting instead that there be an allowed “kill zone” not subject to the requirements, with compensation by creating other wild rice lakes elsewhere, is worrisome as to what is actually being planned, and strongly suggests that monitoring and enforcement will be important issues. I will be watching this year’s legislative session closely to monitor for indications of just how honest the promises of the industry are.

        The issue of the role of sulfate emissions in mercury methylation and the associated neurological injury to children is more problematic, if less clear. Having an environment in which it is possible that many kids will suffer measurably decreased mental acuity is also not a good selling point for recruiting outsiders to live here.

        As far as Boundary Waters admission trends, that is not an issue at all. The issue is attracting people who want to live in the area, and for those people, an attractive environment is a key feature in drawing people to what is otherwise a cold and remote area. I have experienced that personally in recruiting highly trained people to the area in my work. Mining is nice, but numbers of mining jobs are shrinking everywhere due to increased efficiency due to equipment an technology — Polymet has recently quietly modified their estimate of the number of permanent jobs down to 175. In addition, cyclic high levels of boom and bust will continue to be a future for mining since it is so dependent on demand and prices and in turn on world wide economic expansion, so seeing mining as the once and future source of Range prosperity is a path to ever shrinking populations and economies.

        I happen to personally believe that non-ferrous mining will happen on the Range. I would hope it will be done in a way that does not harm the environment, and that the state and other government units will be commissioned with the task of seeing that that happens. But the things I discussed above worry me. I remain mystified as to why so many mining supporters seem unconcerned or about or opposed to insuring environmental safety, but I suspect that they are so used to arguments that mining should not be done that they are unwilling to discuss it.

        Although I would like to think otherwise, perhaps the NYTimes is right. If we pin all our hopes on the old extraction economy, they will undoubtedly be.

    • independant says

      If our greatest marketing asset is the pristine and beautiful northland environment then please explain why the number using the BWCA has been on a steady downward spiral for the past 30 years. I have utilized the BWCA multiple time a year, every year for the past 33 years and it is very easy to see the reduced number of visitors. Don’t get me wrong everyone who lives here loves the beautiful environment… that’s why we all want to live here. However to not leverage the biggest asset we have that is real and tangible and not a wish list from a study group consensus or opinion writer is insane. The natural resources that are uniquely found in our region should be researched, processed and developed to support not only our local economy but hopefully a growing green energy economy.

  2. Here is an interesting counter article to the New York Times article that was just published today.

    • The article pinpoints exactly the issues we have been talking about here — it could have been written by abstracting the highlights of Aaron’s posts on the subject. Protecting the environment to assure that the attractiveness of the community, based largely on the recreational value of public lands, is maintained. Committing to spending enough on pre-K through 12 education to both produce workers with the skills needed for the 21st century and to make the schools more attractive to potential migrants to the region. Offering 2 year tech education suited to 21st century jobs. Making high speed internet available to facilitate telecommuting and working from remote sites.

      The example of Houghton is a bit idiosyncratic, since Houghton has Michigan Tech University, but some of that slack could be picked up by expansion of existing two year programs and by UMD. The other thing Houghton has, alluded to elsewhere, is a community welcoming to immigrants who hold many of the high tech positions and are willing to locate there for the opportunity.

      If mining can and will operate in ways that do not damage the environment, it can be compatible with this type of vision. But that requires that mining not be performed in or around exceptionally valuable and fragile natural resources, and that mining conforms to existing standards and embraces compliance and enforcement of those standards. If we allow mining to substitute itself for our environmental resources, polluting water and air and creating severe sound pollution, we are stuck with mining as the only base for our economy. And an economy dependent primarily on mining, with its ongoing decreases in numbers of needed employees due to technical advances, its extreme cyclic nature with ongoing booms and busts leading to gradual hollowing out of communities and to departure of young people seeking more stable careers, and with its ultimate end due to inevitable exhaustion of ores, is, as I said above, a recipe for a shrinking, declining economy and community.

      Diversification is not just attractive. It is necessary.

  3. Andrew Chermak says

    Having spent most of my life in a rural, small town (Willmar, MN), I think Eduardo Porter’s analysis of the rural economy outlook is (unfortunately) spot on. Almost everyone I know in rural areas either works directly or indirectly in agriculture or manufacturing. As this article points out, the long-term trends are bleak for both of those industries.

    Willmar has only 20,000 people and its economy is dominated by agriculture and manufacturing, but I firmly believe it has a brighter future than most small towns. Willmar used to have a state hospital that employed 300+ healthcare professionals. It closed in 2002 and instead of demolishing the beautiful campus grounds, it was bought by a coalition of local businessmen who transformed it into our country’s largest privately owned “technology campus”. 650+ professionals work there now, many in the engineering and bio-science fields. For reference, Willmar is about the size of Hibbing and the MinnWest Campus employees roughly the same number of workers as HibTac. Let Willmar be an example of how a small town can successfully reinvent itself.
    (check out http://www.mnwesttechnology.com for reference)

    I currently work remotely (in digital marketing) and my wife is a nurse. We live in Bozeman, MT right now, but are planning to move back to MN. The reason? It’s simple. You can’t beat the cost of living in rural MN. I firmly believe the emerging remote workforce will wise up to the benefits of rural Minnesota.

    Long Live Greater MN!

  4. Perhaps we are presented with a simple indicator of the health of a community: Percentage of votes for trump. Why would anyone with a choice about it want to live or raise a family in a place so sick as to support a monster?

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