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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Make Small Towns a Minnesota Priority

April 30, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
Agriculture is rural Minnesota's financial backbone but farming isn't what it was a hundred years ago. Small towns, servicing farms and linked by railroads and then highways, have changed, too. Mostly, they've grown smaller.

I don't mean physically smaller as much as demographically smaller.  As birthrates drop and people drift toward regional centers and greater employment opportunities, small towns face a brutal downward spiral of contraction feeding upon contraction. A town's school is the measure of community fiscal health. Closing the school building irrevocably alters the town's identity.

State educational funding cuts will accelerate community decline as school districts are forced to consolidate already merged districts and close more school buildings.  Of all the things rural Minnesota needs, more school-less towns isn't one of them yet that's exactly what's about to happen.

I grew up just southeast of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In the 1970s, roughly 750 people lived in town. The 2000 census recorded 599. Thirty of us graduated from Walnut Grove High School in 1981, fairly evenly split between town and country. Today, I can only think of one classmate still living in Walnut. Everyone, in effect, moved away although many still live in southwestern Minnesota.

So, what changed? Farming.

Small towns, sited every seven to 10 miles along a railroad track, platted in the 1870s and 1880s, were small farm service centers. They functioned as marketing and service hubs, featuring a general store, a blacksmith, a train depot and railhead, a post office, a feed and grain merchant, a saloon, a restaurant or two, a school, and somewhere between two and four churches. Fundamentally, small towns supplied farmers and facilitated moving raw farm goods--grain and livestock--to market.

Over time, farms slowly consolidated into larger operations requiring different agricultural support services. Technology and crop science relieved farming's labor-intensive production burden. Fewer farmers now grow crops and raise livestock on a scale previously requiring many farmers and farm workers.
Realizing increasingly larger economies of scale meant that farmers needed more land. Today, farmers farm roughly the same acreage as earlier generations, but fewer farmers doing that work translates into fewer business opportunities in the farm services sector. It all means fewer families living in and around small towns.

Minnesota has repeatedly experienced school district consolidation. Small schools struggle to balance secure community identity rooted in demographic sparsity, meaning everybody knows everybody and everything about everybody's business, with contemporary education's rising demands. Eventually, too few kids force schools to pair with a neighboring town's school just to achieve a reasonable educational economy of scale.

At one coolly observant, schools-are-a-business level, it makes economic sense to continually fold small schools together. But, living as a community, rearing and educating children, are not necessarily rational acts but they are intrinsically human.

A dozen years ago, a tornado leveled Comfrey, Minnesota. And, I do mean leveled. The rational, return-on-investment decision would've been for Comfrey residents to take the insurance settlement money and move to Springfield or New Ulm. Instead, Comfrey rebuilt, valuing its deep sense of community over the coldly rational analysis.

Minnesota 2020 fiscal policy fellow Jeff Van Wychen recently released research examining the eight-year pattern of school district funding shifts. Conservative public policy has reduced state financial contributions, forcing school districts to raise property taxes, making up funding shortfalls while reducing expenses by eliminating teachers and cutting programs. District-by-District Funding Trends" uses eight years of state data to document Minnesota's downward educational funding spiral.
Minnesota's financial disinvestment in Minnesota's schools will accelerate small town decline as rural schools will be forced to consolidate into geographically larger school districts. Marshall, Crookston and Willmar are clearly affected by state funding cuts but their existence isn't threatened in the way funding shifts undermine the adjacent cities of Balaton, Fosston or Grove City.

It's time for Minnesota to consider soil conservation's lessons, hard learned during the 1930s, and apply them to rural development public policy. Stripping nutrients degrades soil productivity. Unproductive, nutrient-poor soil in turn results in progressively poorer crop yields. What soil isn't blown or washed away can't sustain a corn, wheat or soybean crop worth harvesting. When farming's bet is no longer worth the risk, farmers leave, terminating a complex economic activity chain.

Rural Minnesota faces the same challenge. Conservative public policy priorities are closing the door on small towns and rural schools. Minnesota is more than a collection of metropolitan and regional city priorities. Rural Minnesota's economic development potential can move Minnesota forward but only if we make it a priority rather than an afterthought. When a rural school closes and the kids are bused even further from home, Minnesota loses more than economic vitality.

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