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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Building on, not trapped by, tradition

May 17, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Grain elevators and small towns go together like grain elevators and small towns. They’re inseparable. The one doesn’t exist without the other. What happens to the town when the grain elevator disappears?

The old Walnut Grove-Revere Farmers Elevator is coming down. It will shortly be a pile of wood shavings destined for poultry bedding. It’s an ignominious end to a structure that sustained my hometown. But, this isn’t a romantic reflection on an idyllic past. Even in death the elevator serves the agricultural cycle while highlighting the opportunity for rural economic development that builds on tradition but isn’t trapped by it.

Midwestern prairies hold some of the world’s best, most productive farm land. In the 19th century, this raw potential compelled development. Unlike fur trapping or mining, the agricultural cycle is more deliberate. It requires a growing season, capital and skilled labor to produce a marketable crop. Federal policy guided Midwestern development, creating a framework for railroad-based trade while simultaneously attracting the growers necessary to turn prairie grassland into corn and wheat fields.

Because the federal government controlled huge public lands east of the Mississippi, dating to the Louisiana Purchase, it was able to drive rapid growth and expansion. The 1862 Homestead Act incentivized family farm development. In return for farming and improving a 160-acre claim over five successive years, families received the land title. The policy worked brilliantly. As railroad tracks were laid, farms immediately followed.

Rural Minnesota towns weren’t developed willy-nilly. They were platted according to a land survey-developed formula calculating the distance from farm to town. Towns were service centers but, critically, they were railheads, an intermodal transfer hub for moving commodities from horse-drawn wagon to rail car and delivering supplies from rail to wagon to farm. The grain elevator was the physical manifestation of this exchange. It allowed for the short-term storage of grain, the first link in a market chain reaching around the world.

Grain elevators were built to last, the cutting edge technology of their day. Yet, what worked in the late 19th century is woefully inadequate a century later. Structural obsolescence prompted the Walnut Grove elevator tear-down decision but functional obsolescence arrived 25 years earlier. Recognizing the elevator’s practical deficiencies—too small, insufficient storage, antique equipment, trucks couldn’t enter a facility built for horse-drawn wagons—the local farmers coop built a new, much larger grain elevator between Walnut Grove and Revere. They sold the old elevator to an area farmer. He used it for off-farm grain storage until its limitations prompted tear-down.

Old elevators look cool. Along with the water tower, the elevator is a town’s tallest structure, towering over the prairie’s expanse. There’s a temptation to see an old grain elevator as a historic asset much as a dairy cooperative’s old stone creamery is renovated as a community facility or retail business space. It’s not that simple. As the old Walnut Grove elevator reveals, the structure is exhausted, literally and figuratively. There’s nothing worth saving at a reasonable cost. Building new, as the farmers coop did, is smarter, better and actually creates jobs.

Starting over today, no one would site a small town every seven miles because agriculture production’s scale has changed. While rural communities’ founding logic is immutable, their future is cloudy. The old elevator’s destruction reveals the economic development limitations of growing commodities and shipping them elsewhere for processing. Technological innovation constantly reduces the labor needed to grow and ship a bushel of corn. Take away enough people and small towns lose critical commercial mass. A gas station and convenience store on the highway doesn’t support a community like a grocery store, a bakery, a bank and a pharmacy supports it. Population decline drives away service businesses.

Rural communities still have, however, the assets that drove their creation. They have potential. They have productive land. And, they have people. But, this combination can’t serve a 19th century economic development vision. It must leverage assets, reward capital investment’s risk, and create value.

Rural Minnesota needs a new Homestead Act. No, it doesn’t need a land-giveaway to populate the countryside; that’s already happened. Rural Minnesota needs forward-looking, engaged public policy that sees rural communities as an asset for economic growth, not begrudgingly born cost.

Public dollars didn’t build the Farmers Coop grain elevator, private capital built it. Cooperatives didn’t exist when that elevator went up. They came later as farmers found cooperative means for improving individual productivity and profitability. The same is true, today. Growing rural Minnesota’s economy grows Minnesota’s economy. Grain elevators aren’t iconic images of Minnesota’s past. They’re examples of smart public policy investments. That’s a vision that moves Minnesota forward.

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