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Putting Minnesota Back in “The Right Place”

February 10, 2011 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

We’re trying something a little different. Today and the following two Thursdays, Minnesota 2020 will feature excerpts from "The Right Place," a new book by Minnesota author and former Marshall Independent editor Dana Yost.

"The Right Place" is a collection of stories, essays and poems set in Minnesota’s rural communities. We’ve highlighted sections featuring small towns’ challenges and triumphs that fuel and inform the public policy debate around education and rural development.

This section explores the changes Minnesota’s countryside has undergone since 1980.

From The Right Place, by Dana Yost

The estimated average value of an acre of farmland in southwest Minnesota was $1,760—a third of what it is now, at least, but still far and away more than any other sector of the state, according to a study at the University of Minnesota.

The marketing year average price in 1980 for corn in Minnesota was $3.05, and for soybeans $7.10. Not vastly different than today's prices, although I think if you ask a farmer they'll tell you there is a little difference in today's costs of machinery, fertilizer, fuel.

Grain prices have increased in different years—soybeans reaching fourteen dollars a bushel a couple of years ago. But they don't stay there.

And that's the challenge.

One thing I suppose that offsets that is that production yields have leaped because of biotechnology innovations—in 1978-82, the average corn yield was about 101 bushels, and beans were about 33. Now, my father-in-law, who is eighty and owns 480 acres of northwest Iowa farmland, expects at least 175 bushels of corn, if not two-hundred.

Still, the costs of production—input, machinery—keep rising. According to readers of the Web site and magazine Yesterday's Tractor, in 1980, the price of a new John Deere 4440 tractor with 112 hp was between $23,000 and $25,000. A new International Harvester 1086, "nicely equipped," cost $28,000. That year, two brothers bought a new John Deere 8630, which had 275 HP and all the options, that year for $45,100. They bought a 6620 combine with a 6x30 corn head and 215 grain head for $96,000.

Today, a new John Deere 9430 tractor's base price, according to the John Deere Web site, is $261,196. The four-wheel drive 9430 has 425 HP. A 2010 John Deere 9570 STS corn combine's base machine cost is about $256,000.

One way to look at it, someone told me, was this: Around 1980, you could buy a new three-quarter-ton pickup for about 1,000 to 1,200 bushels of soybeans. A 2010 Ford F250's base price is about $28,000. At today's soybean price, you'd need about 2,950 bushels to buy the truck—almost three times as much as in 1980.

That battle to stay competitive on the farm is one of those issues that has made the changes of the last thirty years not always easy for rural Minnesota. But we're also losing population, services, and even the number of farms.

There were between 94,000 and 98,000 farms in 1980. In the latest Minnesota farm census, in 2007, there were 81,000. And that's actually a slight uptick from the 2002 farm census, with the increases coming in very small farms (such as the sustenance farms of Hmong immigrants) and very large farms.

In Minnesota, the 1980 Census said, the rural population was 1.3 million people while there were 2.7 million urban people. In the latest census estimate, from 2008, there are now 1.4 million rural people— but 3.8 million urban people. In other words, while rural Minnesota has actually seen a slight population increase its share of the overall population base has dropped sharply. In 1980, the urban population was 2.08 times as large as the rural. Now, it's nearly three times.

Even though, statistically, rural Minnesota has held steady, population-wise, the sheer shift in growth toward the urban tells you the demographic politics are not what they were in 1980. And if you look specifically at southwest Minnesota, you'll see that most counties have not even held their own since 1980, they have lost population numbers.

In 1980, Yellow Medicine County had a population of 13,653. In the 2008 Census estimate, the county's population was 11,080—a drop of 18.8 percent. Chippewa County's population has fallen 12.4 percent since 1980, Redwood County's 13.1 percent and Renville County's 15.9 percent.

Here's one way to illustrate the impact of that population loss: In 1980, these towns all still had their own high schools: Cottonwood, Wood Lake, Milroy, Lynd, Balaton, Raymond, Granite Falls, Clarkfield, Russell, Tyler, Ruthton, Hendricks, Ivanhoe, Lake Benton, Madison, Appleton, Belview, Danube, Morton, Walnut Grove, Olivia.

Today, none of them do.

It's affected our work force—until the recession, Lyon County had an unemployment rate of about 2.2 to 2.4 for several years, or statistically negative unemployment. There were more job openings than there were people to fill them.

It's affected our Main Streets, it's affected our political voice. In 1980 southwest Minnesota had nine legislative districts, with five state senators and nine state representatives, a total of fourteen. Today the same area has six districts, or three senators and six representatives for a total of nine.

And, in some cases, the changes have affected our hope: Many have given up on the region, seen their children take better jobs in large cities, stopped investing in the area, closed their stores, and moved away.

But now we come to the heart of things, and why this thirtieth anniversary of the museum is, I think, so important.

Not everyone has given up, not everyone has let outside factors determine their demise. Those who remain committed to this region, and have shown the smarts and courage to adapt, continue to make a difference in southwest Minnesota—and continue to make this a place worth living in.

If you’re interested in a copy of the book, go to Ellis Press.

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