In the central Minnesota village in which I lived as a teenager, residents today talk about the new people who have moved in people with no relatives in the village, people from Minneapolis, even a family from outside of the U.S. The population is not what it once was. Three miles from this village my nephew is preparing for an auction on his moderate-sized dairy farm. He has concluded that the current agricultural economy, especially the milk prices, do not allow a medium-sized family farmer to prosper. Experts tell him he needs either to expand his herd to 300 cows or settle for 30 cows and take a job off the farm. Neither option strikes him as a sane plan. Two miles away his brothers have just sold several acres of wetlands to a person from outside the area. Nobody in the neighborhood knows this land buyer nor what he plans to do with this land.
Rural areas of the upper Midwest are undergoing many changes today. Some of these changes are similar to those experienced by residents of the larger cities as the differences between rural and urban are shrinking. Other changes are unique to rural. Among the more important challenges facing this region, three stand out as particularly important for rural areas. One is the changing structure of agriculture; a second is the changing rural population; and a third is the change taking place in the small towns themselves.
In this region, as throughout the U.S., agriculture is changing in many ways, most notably in the fact that the numbers of farms are decreasing while the size of farms is increasing. In Minnesota the number of farms is 79,000, down from 88,000 10 years ago. The majority of these farms are small operations that contribute relatively little to the production of food and fiber. At the other end of the spectrum are a relatively small number of very large farms that are responsible for a large portion of the states agricultural output. In between are the moderate-sized farmers who are trying to make their living from farming without having to hold down a job in the nearby town. These are the farmers who are struggling the most, who are under incessant pressure from low prices as well as from larger farmers, lenders, suppliers and marketing agents.
It is worth noting that the majority of rural people in this region are not engaged in agriculture. In Minnesota only 12 percent of rural employment is agriculture-related 7 percent employed directly on farms and another 5 percent employed in supplying, processing and marketing of farm goods. Two out of every three jobs in rural communities are found in service and manufacturing.
Nonetheless, the farm economy is vitally important to the region and to individual rural communities. New issues related to farming practices and policies concerning the structure of agriculture are certain to ignite public discussion among area residents who are not among the 12 percent employed in the agricultural system. A recent example of this is the proposed legislation to allow financially backed foreign citizens to buy Minnesota farms being vacated by financially pressed local farmers. Another is the proposal to establish livestock-friendly counties, fueling fears of large livestock facilities and a loss of local control regarding environmental and other regulations.
As moderate-sized farms shut down and as families move off the land the retail base of nearby towns is affected. Fewer people means fewer purchasers for local businesses and services, and some of the retail and service entities must close. This results in a loss of people from the community, both farmers and small business persons in the nearby towns. If there is a nearby source of alternative employment the people moving from farms or small businesses may find jobs that allow them to continue living in the area. Those rural communities, however, that are heavily dependent upon agriculture and are more distant from larger urban areas are likely to suffer from the changes in the structure of agriculture.
These changes in agriculture can also create new demands for churches and persons engaged in ministry. As farmers or business persons struggle to change their livelihood, many people are found hurting and in need of both social services and pastoral care. This comes at a time when many local churches are experiencing cutbacks in staff and financial resources. In recent years a particularly difficult challenge for churches has formed around the development of large-scale livestock facilities. When one or more families seek to establish a huge hog confinement they often meet resistance from neighbors. This tension can be felt within parishes and congregations whose membership includes persons on both sides of the issue.
The changes also raise questions of a more systemic nature. Four primary concerns regarding the agriculture and food production system are before us. The first concern is about food itself and whether these developments we are witnessing here in the upper Midwest will assure us of an ongoing supply of food that is both safe and accessible to all. A second concern relates to caring for the environment and whether farming practices give adequate attention to protecting soil and water. A third question is how the changing agricultural system impacts rural communities. The larger the farming operation becomes, the more likely it is to bypass small town businesses in purchasing, processing and marketing farm goods. Finally, there is a range of justice questions such as the below-cost-of-production prices that moderate-sized farmers receive for their products and the situation of farm laborers, especially new immigrants working on larger farms.
In a July 2000 report, the Minnesota Planning state agency cites a number of important developments within rural Minnesotas changing population. First, it is an aging population. While 30 percent of the states population lives in rural areas, 41 percent of those 65 and over live in these locations. The second development related to the rural population is the exodus of young adults from rural communities. Lack of employment opportunities and social amenities as well as a lack of higher education in rural areas contributes to the movement of young adults to the urban areas such as the Twin Cities and its suburbs.
This growth of the population in and around the larger cities contributes to the rising concern about urban sprawl. Suburbs expanding into rural areas means more acres of agricultural land permanently removed from food production. It means the rural character of some communities is changed. Urban sprawl also challenges metropolitan governing agencies to provide services and infrastructure to suburban communities stretching farther into rural areas.
Other towns in this region experience a rise in their populations for various reasons. Some people choose to move to "the country" for quality of life reasons better atmosphere for raising a family, lower cost of living, less crime. Retirement to recreational areas, such as lake country, is another reason for the increase in rural populations. In some rural areas there is enough economic growth to attract workers from outside the area. With cable television and the Internet along with improved roads, there is less isolation associated with living in rural areas today than was the case a generation or two ago.
Another group of persons who contribute to the rise in population of some rural communities are those who are "returning home." This may include well-educated, stable young adults who are returning to their home rural communities to take good positions in schools, government offices or businesses. They are eagerly welcomed back to the small towns as a counter-sign to the more prevalent flight of young adults. There is another group of returnees young adults who left home some years ago to seek their fortunes in the bigger cities but without success. Now they are returning to their home town or county to try to start over, sometimes in need of family support. Some may be on public assistance; many are in search of a cheaper cost-of-living location.
Perhaps the most dramatic impact on rural communities from rising populations is that resulting from immigrants. The upper Midwest is experiencing a rapid rise in the immigrant population with newcomers arriving from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota are among 12 states that experienced more than 144 percent increase in the Hispanic population from 1990 to 2000. While the largest numbers of the immigrants are in cities, the highest growth as a percentage of the local population is found in the small towns and rural communities. Immigrants are drawn to rural communities by the hope of employment in various areas of the food industry. This includes meat-packing plants and, more recently, larger dairy farms. These are not migrants who follow the crops according to the seasons and are gone after a few weeks. They are immigrants, individuals and families who are settling into our rural communities. They come to improve life for their families and to offer their children better education.
All of these changes in agriculture, in the rural economy, in the shifting rural population leave their mark on the character and quality of life in smaller rural communities. Rural communities traditionally have enjoyed a sense of place and a shared sense of identity. As their members leave and newcomers move in the shared sense of identity may be threatened.
Many churches and congregations in rural areas are working hard on the local level to be part of the effort to deal in a wholesome way with the changes. The Joint Religious Legislative Coalition [see sidebar, p. 20] works on social justice issues at the Minnesota State Legislature, which include various topics of concern to rural residents and communities. There is also a statewide Ecumenical Rural Concerns Group that initiates efforts to engage faith communities in analyzing and responding to the issues they are facing. Churches can have a major influence on how well communities respond to the challenges confronting rural Minnesota.