It's funny to read as of late about people who, because of the pandemic, are finding that they can do their jobs from anywhere, which has them thinking about living somewhere other than cities. As Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota, said to me during a recent chat: "Welcome to the party."
I moved to a small town about 12 years ago. It's where my husband farms and ranches, and it's where he grew up. For the first seven or so years, I primarily commuted for work. But for the past five, I've worked from home, doing jobs that not so long ago would have required an in-off presence.
For me, moving to our small, central North Dakota town was a no-brainer. Quite simply, I knew that in the event of a blizzard, I could do my job from anywhere; my husband cannot feed cows if he's stranded an hour away. The good things that came along with the move — the quiet, the small schools, the tight-knit community? For us, those are bonuses. But for many, those are the primary factors in moving to a small town.
And that's nothing new, Winchester told me.
"We've been looking at this for almost 20 years now, and there has been a trend to people generally in their 30s, 40s and sometimes 50s that, you know, reevaluate their priorities in life," he said. People go out to find their paths in life at college or by seeing the world. "But you know, as you start to find yourself, I think people start to reevaluate their priorities in life and, in many ways a commute for 45 minutes a day each way is not really spending time with your family."
Winchester said this "brain gain" has been going on since at least the 1970s, which goes against the picture many have of dying rural areas. Small towns can be vibrant places, full of opportunities. (It's worth noting, of course, that people coming from large metropolitan areas consider "small" what someone who lives in the Upper Midwest might consider to be a decent-sized city.)
The vibrancy and livability of small towns is important to agriculture. We need a place for the next generation to not only live but also for future generations to be connected to. Recently, our publisher Katie Pinke and I reported on the Tuttle (N.D.) Rural Innovation Center, an effort to spur revitalization in a small community. It got us thinking about what other towns are doing to stay alive and what keeps their communities vibrant.
In the coming months, Agweek is planning stories on the role industry plays in providing jobs and tax base to small towns. But we also want to look at what's happening in small towns that want to attract people to move in and become part of the community. How are you inviting them in? How are you getting them involved? What successes have you had?
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com or 701-595-0425.