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Midwest Rural Assembly

June 13, 2011

An invitation to return

Graduation1 Rural leaders from across the country gather later this month to discuss the future of rural communities.   Paramount to the discussions at this joint gathering of the National/Midwest Rural Assembly will be the establishment of environments that attracts young adults to work, live and engage in rural communities. So it’s natural, with graduation season on our doorstep and the National Rural Assembly right around the corner, that I am weighted down with thoughts about our future education system,  the vibrancy of our rural communities and how we fit youth into the picture. 

At the heart of it

Most rural communities operate under the principle that the school is the heart of the community. It causes me to wonder, then, how we will have successful communities with dwindling school enrollment. While many of the 2011 graduating classes in rural Minnesota are large and prosperous, the future looks bleaker for class sizes coming down the pipe. As school districts foresee these smaller class sizes and simultaneously face increasingly tight budgets, action is necessary to change and adapt the system in order to remain resilient.    

So what do these small-town rural communities do when faced with future dwindling class sizes, resulting in the dismissal of qualified teachers, administration and staff who have invested in their community and served as important leaders to the students? While students may rarely think about the long term impact of the class size issue, they are indeed personally impacted in meaningful ways. In one rural community it means farewell to a beloved principal, a guiding star to both struggling students and those whom seemed to make excelling look easy; it means, for some of the students, their first real-world lesson that life is not fair

When life is not fair

When students of the Benson High School graduating class gathered this last week, all 109 of them, they faced this reality head-on. While heartfelt student speeches and Baccalaureate addresses tackled all of the classic sentiments of graduation, one leader in the community addressed an issue that weighed heavy on the hearts of not only the students, but the entire community. With elementary classes at Benson carrying half the number of students of this graduating class, cuts were inevitable. The Baccalaureate addressee—as community pastor, father of a graduate, long-time school board member and universal fan of the graduating class of 2011—offered up his sympathy for this first post-graduation life lesson, but gave it to them with a dose of reality. He offered the students a choice. He said, your beloved principal can stay if half of you stay and redirect life’s next journey to re-enter the education system at Benson High school. And while eager to take on the next adventure—to head off to college or take a job in the real world—it must have been astounding to see many of the student’s hands reach high in the air as a testimony to their principal and friend. The students’ reaction was heartfelt, though clouded with the weight of reality.  

The message to the graduates was simple, yet heavy. Deep relationships with teachers, principles, community members, underclassmen, parents and others who share their definition of home, have irreversibly changed the students. While they will carry this change with them in their character, they cannot re-live their last adventure; it is time for the next journey to begin, a journey that will continue to show them that life is neither fair, nor just. 

Circle them back

But perhaps our message to rural youth is not complete; perhaps it is not quite that simple. Our message to our rural youth empowers them to stretch their boundaries, push against their comfort zones, travel, move away and spread their wings; it prefaces that life is not fair, yet regardless they must push forward. Perhaps we also need to send along one other message in conjunction with these: that while pushing forward, it may mean that we return to where we started. Perhaps we need to extend, along with the supportive push out the door, a deliberate open-ended invitation to return home. We must emphasize that life is not a one-directional path, and circular paths don’t indicate set-backs, but instead are the most fulfilling paths we can take.   

In fact, recent studies support this trend, as discovered several years ago by Ben Winchester, a research fellow with Minnesota Extension. In a paper titled “Rural Migration: The Brain Gain of Newcomers,” Ben shared research showing that rural counties in West Central Minnesota were losing high school graduates, but were gaining college educated adults who were migrating to small towns to raise their families.

Invest and be proud

Lastly, there is a message to be heeded by the community. While the students head on to their next adventure, carrying with them a wild excitement that is only slightly dampened by sentiments of home, the rural community must carry something with them as well: pride. In rural communities that suffer daily reminders of depopulation and the out-migration of their youth, it is easy to feel helpless, but I tend to agree with Mike Knutson, of the Rural Learning Center. The reality is that "rural residents have as much responsibility for the future of their communities as free market economics or government policies. We choose where we buy our groceries. We choose how trashy or vibrant our communities look. And we choose how our young people feel about their communities by what we tell them and how we invest in them." By the actions of this graduating class of 2011, I say that many rural communities are investing well.  Furthermore, what goes around comes around; there is hope that with an invitation to return, 2011 graduates across rural America will circle back, in time, to the place they call home.   

Join us in Saint Paul for the National Rural Assembly, June 28–30, to talk about strategies and issues of concern to existing, new and returning rural residents, among many other topics pertinent to rural America (http://2011.ruralassembly.org/).


Anna Claussen

September 01, 2010

Great ideas from the Midwest Rural Assembly

Last month, IATP and some of the Midwest's leading rural thinkers and doers got together for the Midwest Rural Assembly in South Souix City, Nebraska. Participants exchanged ideas on how to address the gamut of challenges facing rural communities, including the loss of jobs and young people, inadequate health care and education, and other issues related to rewewable energy, agriculture and natural resources.

At the Midwest Rural Assembly site, we've posted a series of video interviews with many participants, blog reports on the rich discussions and the fantastic photo slideshow below. Look for many of these ideas and initiatives to continue to bloom throughout the rural Midwest in the coming years.

Ben Lilliston

August 18, 2010

What health care reform means for rural communities

The challenges of providing adequate health care for rural residents has been a common theme throughout the Midwest Rural Assembly. Stephanie Larson of the Center for Rural Affairs discussed how the recently passed health reform law could benefit rural communities.

Many farmers are self-employed and must travel great distances to find health care. There are too few doctors in rural areas. Additionally, one in five farmers has medical debt. Larsen outlined several provisions in the new health care law that will help address these issues. 

Many aspects of the new health care law will take affect in 2014; however, some aspects of the law will be implemented more immediately. As of July 1, 2010 insurance companies must permit adult children under the age of 26 to remain on their parents insurance plans. Additionally, patients who fall into the Medicare “donut-hole,” a gap in prescription drug coverage that patients must cover out of pocket, will receive $250 to apply to drug costs that would not be otherwise covered. Also starting July 1, the government, at either the state or federal level depending on the state’s preference, will create “high-risk pools” for people with pre-existing and chronic conditions who have been uninsured for six months or longer. 

September 23, 2010 is another important implementation date of the health reform law. Larsen reported that after September 23, insurance companies will no longer be able to use rescissions, a term that refers to denying patients health insurance based on previous health conditions or errors in paperwork, even if their premiums have been paid. 

Additional aspects of the law will continue to be phased in beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2014.  Some of these aspects relevant to rural communities include incentives for health care providers to increase primary and preventive care, incentives for doctors practicing rural medicine, a 50-percent discount on drugs that fall into the Medicare prescription drug benefit program donut-hole, and a provision that will require nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance either through programs like Medicare or Medicaid, government provided vouchers, or private coverage. 

By Wade Hauser

Ben Lilliston

August 17, 2010

USDA says “Think regionally”

Thinking regionally and strengthening VVasqconnections with urban centers are essential to strengthening economic activity in rural communities, Victor Vasquez, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development told participants at the Midwest Rural Assembly today.  

Vasquez talked about the need to think regionally on economic development, and to institutionalize that thinking in policy discussions. In particular, it's important for rural communities to strengthen connections with larger cities. "When it comes to food or fuel, you can’t walk into a store without finding something that has a relationship to rural America," said Vasquez. "The next few years are going to be tough due to the budget situation. We’ll hear more about what we can do to improve and how we can work together."

Vasquez outlined the key areas of focus for the USDA's Rural Development program in the next several years:

1. Local and regional markets for farmers through the Know your Farmer, Know your Food program. "We’ve seen nothing but success."

2. Expanding broadband access. It will make rural communities more competitive economically. "It’s not just about technology. It’s going to change the nature of education for children who live in poor, rural communities. It will change how they perceive education and the world."

3. Renewable energy. The Department is working closely with the Department of Energy and other partners to reduce and eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil. "Ultimately, this is how we view our natural resources and the environment and do things in a better way." He anticipated an enhanced level of collaboration with DOE that could result in more announcements supporting energy efficiency in the months to come.  

4. Better land management. USDA oversees tens of thousands of acres of public land. The agency is studying how it can work better with the communities around that land, along with state and local governments, to increase economic development and better manage the land.

After outlining these key priorities, he returned to the need to think regionally, like the Midwest Rural Assembly is already doing. When asked how those outside the USDA can help support the efforts of the agency, Vasquez urged participants to continue to educate people about the importance of agriculture and rural communities to the economy and the country. "We need to convince people that agriculture and people in rural communities are a huge part of this economic engine" and continue moving forward.  


Ben Lilliston

Not your grandfather's energy utility

The small town of Milan, Minnesota is trying an innovative approach to reduce it's energy burden. At the Midwest Rural Assembly today, Cheryl Landgren of the Greater Milan Initiative and IATP's Shalini Gupta told participants about setting up the first rural sustainable energy utility (SEU) to help reduce the town's energy costs while supporting larger community goals of job creation and population retention.

Homes and buildings in rural communities like Milan often use a lot of energy and are a high cost for rural residents. Winter heating bills are particularly tough on low-income residents. The Greater Milan Initiative is now setting up an SEU: a model developed by the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware. SEUs create long-term community infrastructure around reducing energy usage and costs and promoting energy production where it is used.

The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is continuing work with the Greater Milan Initiative to get this new SEU off the ground. Look for more details soon.

Ben Lilliston

Navigating the Farm Bill for beginning farmers

Thinking about getting back to your roots and farming/ranching? Well you might get help from an unlikely place—the farm bill. The 2008 farm bill established several new loans and grants specifically designed for beginning farmers. There might be something for you whether or not you are looking to go organic.

Traci Bruckner (Center for Rural Affairs) sat down with several of us at the Midwest Rural Assembly to talk about provisions in the last Farm Bill focused directly on beginning farmers and ranchers. She mentioned the Land Contract Guarantee Program, Direct/Guaranteed Loan and several other programs directed towards sustainability.

She cited a South Dakota grass-fed beef rancher who was able to get reimbursed for 90 percent of his expenses to establish his grass forage, new fencing and a watering system for each paddock through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

But it may not be that simple. Lou Anne Kling and Loretta Jaus mentioned that some farmers who were eligible for various conservation programs were denied grants. And that is where the expertise of Bruckner comes into play—she works with farmers/ranchers to help them navigate the sometimes convoluted realm of Farm Bill grants and loans. 

So if you are thinking about starting up a farming or ranching operation the farm bill might be a great starting place. And if you are starting to look at the Farm Bill then Bruckner is a great resource.

By Andrew Gross

Ben Lilliston

Rural communities: Keep track of your water

The flooding in rural Iowa was terrible for the cattle, the corn and the people, but what about the wastewater treatment systems? Joe Dvorak and Dennis Siders from the Midwest Assistance Program have been thinking about Midwest wastewater system for years. At the Midwest Rural Assembly yesterday, they led a learning roundtable session to talk about the problems that rural Iowa faces and the water infrastructure challenges that we all face.

The day-to-day problems of aging infrastructure, lack of funds, declining budgets, and losing knowledgeable and skilled certified operators are all of major concern. Dvorak and Siders also noted that many small communities simply pay a flat rate for water coming into the town on a main pipe, but a lot of that water is lost to inefficient distribution systems and even holes down pipe from the main pipe meter. In a world where water is becoming the new oil, water inefficiency is no longer an option especially for rural communities.

So the answer is, well, complicated. Dvorak and Siders are clear: “keep track of your water.” And although the motto is simple, the implementation is anything but easy. Small communities are not keen on mandating water meters on end-usage sources because of the added cost. Plus local governments are not even charging the actual cost of the water usage because they don’t want to add any additional costs to struggling individuals. However, Dvorak and Siders maintain that through simple steps such as monitoring usage and plugging leaks to keep wastewater out and clean water in, small towns can lower their costs and conserve one of our most important resources.

Addressing water infrastructure in rural communities is very difficult, complicated and possibly expensive but still less than the cost of doing nothing.

By Andrew Gross

Ben Lilliston

Spinning wheels on rural broadband

At a learning roundtable at the Midwest Rural Assembly titled, "Broadband Regulation: What Title II Reclassification Means to Rural America" we tried to answer some tough questions: What does broadband access mean to rural America? How do different rural communities think of broadband access? What costs do rural communities bear that the urban areas don’t? Although, these questions are of central importance to rural America they are of little importance to the future of broadband. Why? The topic of broadband regulation has largely become a question of jurisdiction.

Pursuant to the 1996 Communication Regulation Act, the question of whether or not the Federal Communications Commission has regulatory authority over broadband has been anything but clear. Is broadband a communication service and therefore regulated by Title II or is it an information service and therefore not required to comply with Title II regulation? Without answering this question we won’t be able to talk about the more difficult questions of what to do about broadband access in rural locations, according to Parul Desai (Media Access Project) and Edyael Casaperalta (Center for Rural Strategies). We discussed the National Broadband Policy (proposed FCC regulation), but both Desai and Casaperalta stated that even if they thought the new policy to be wonderful, it will be locked up court because it’s impossible to know if the FCC has the regulatory authority to enact any of its proposals.

Desai and Casaperalta advocated for the importance of FCC regulation on broadband and mentioned some other possibilities to increase rural access to broadband. But in the end this roundtable was dominated by a single theme: The FCC needs to make clear its regulatory authority over broadband. Until this happens all wheels are simply spinning.

By Andrew Gross

Ben Lilliston

August 16, 2010

Listening to the call of your hometown

"I felt like I had nursed a low-grade feud with where I grew up" for many years, Debra Marquart told participants at the Midwest Rural Assembly in South Souix City, Iowa this morning. Marquart is an English Professor at Iowa State University and author of the book, The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere.


The book, spurred by the death of her father and wanting to understand more about the North Dakota town where she grew up, is the culmination of 14 years of research in small town libraries, cemetaries and interviews. Marquart left the small town of Napolean at age 17, but always carried the photo of the long road leading to her house with her. She went to college, toured with rock bands and then found teaching. The book documents her journey to learn more about the hometown and farm she grew up on but didn't pay attention to during much of her childhood spent working on the farm. As she described it, people there "lived on the narrow margin of life."

Her great grandfather emigrated from Russia in 1886 and built a large house with a balcony to look out over his acreage with the hope that future generations of his family would live on the land. But growing up in the 60s and 70s, Marquart couldn't wait to leave.

Marquart's book highlights one of the central themes of the Midwest Rural Assembly: How to engage young people in ways that they see the value of small towns and the land—before they leave. Several of the panels here later this afternoon will look at this challenge more deeply. Marquart was optimistic, describing how her hometown has actually grown in the last ten years. Many people are returning who left when they were younger. Others are attracted to some of the same traits that brought her great grandfather to North Dakota: low housing and land costs and a connection to the land. 

Ben Lilliston

August 13, 2010

The next generation for rural communities

One of the big focuses at next week's Midwest Rural Assembly will be on retaining young people. One of the leading afternoon sessions on Monday will feature young and inspiring leaders from the Midwest talking about the challenges of living in rural communities, and solutions for addressing those challenges. Check out this excellent story by Public News Service on the Midwest Rural Assembly and its focus on strategies to retain young people. 

More on the Midwest Rural Assembly next week! 

Ben Lilliston

Thinking about the Midwest Rural Assembly

“Anyone who is passionate about the rural Midwest should plan on attending the Midwest Rural Assembly.”  I made that statement last year in a post about the assembly, and I want to repeat it again this year. If you are one of those persons, I hope I will see you in South Sioux City, Nebraska on August 16 and 17.

What is the Midwest Rural Assembly?
The Midwest Rural Assembly is an effort to gather people who are care about the rural Midwest and hold a conversation about its future. In many ways it provides an opportunity to regionalize and localize the efforts of the National Rural Assembly by “providing an opportunity for rural leaders and their allies to unite in a common cause, advocating for common-sense policies that improve the outlook and results for rural places, people, cultures and economies.” After all, rural means different things to people in different parts of the country.

Even within the Midwest, people have different ideas about what “rural” means and what needs to be done to build a vibrant future for our region. One of the things I like about the event is that the agenda is shaped by the people who show up and are willing to do the work. That’s a lot like how things get done in our rural communities.

What’s happening this year?
The program is being positioned around the four guiding principles of the National Rural Assembly:
1. Investments in our People; 2. Health of our People; 3. Stewardship of Natural Resources; and 4. Quality in Education.

Last year I met some great people from whom I continue to draw inspiration and ideas (i.e., Neil Linscheid, who I wrote about in my last post). Unfortunately, I was too wrapped up in a presentation and some other activities last year to fully engage myself in the conversations. Hopefully that changes this year.

What I’m interested in
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role education plays in the future of our rural communities. Specifically, I’m interested in the ideas put forth in Hollowing out the Middle. I’d very much like to hear what others have to say about the concept that educators and community members over-invest in those most likely to leave our rural communities at the expense of those who are committed to staying.

I’m going to look for places where that conversation is most likely to emerge. If this year’s event is like last year’s, many good conversations will take place in the hallways between sessions. If this is a topic of interest to you, I hope you will seek me out. And if you know of places where that conversation is already taking place online, I hope you will share them with me. It would be great to have interesting food for thought before the assembly meets.

Details of the 2010 Midwest Rural Assembly
Website: www.MidwestRuralAssembly.org
Date: August 16 & 17, 2010
Location: Marina Inn and Conference Center (Phone: 1-800-798-7980)
Social Media: Be sure to follow the Midwest Rural Assembly on Facebook and Twitter as well.

This blog first appeared at Reimagine Rural. Written by Mike Knutson.

Ben Lilliston

July 27, 2010

What's working in Midwest rural communities?

On August 16 and 17, rural community leaders in the Midwest have a unique opportunity. U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development leaders from Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas will be in South Sioux City, Nebraska at the 2010 Midwest Rural Assembly. And they want to hear about what's working in rural communities in the Midwest.

Join some of the Midwest's leading organizations working for rural prosperity, along with state and federal government officials, at the Midwest Rural Assembly. Topics covered will include how to retain young people in rural communities, cooperative business models, sustainable energy, local food systems, green job creation, rural teacher training, microenterprise programs, integration of immigrants, rural infrastructure projects and more. Policy discussions will cover federal health care reform, farm policy and broadband policy.

Find out more in the press release below, and at the Midwest Rural Assembly website.

Midwest Rural Assembly to bring together community and government leaders
Participants talk strategies for rural prosperity

Minneapolis – Rural community leaders and government officials will gather at the 2010 Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA) to exchange ideas and strategies for rural prosperity.

The MRA will be held on August 16–17 in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Along with rural community leaders from throughout the region, participants will include U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development directors from Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Keynote speakers include South Dakota state representative Kevin Killer and Iowa State professor and writer/poet Debra Marquart.

“Rural communities have been particularly hard hit by these tough economic times,” said Jim Kleinschmit, director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Rural Communities program. “But there’s also a lot of innovation, energy and ideas coming out of our small towns. This is an opportunity for rural leaders and government representatives to learn about what’s working, and as importantly, how we can join together to face many of our common challenges.”

A special area of focus is to identify strategies to attract and retain young people in rural communities. Young rural leaders from Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Kansas will share their priorities. Other leaders will discuss successful examples of increasing rural prosperity through cooperative business models, sustainable energy, local food systems, green job creation, rural teacher training, microenterprise programs, integration of immigrants, rural infrastructure projects and more. Policy discussions will cover federal health care reform, farm policy and broadband policy.

In addition to IATP, coordinating organizations include: Avera Rural Health Institute, Center for Rural Affairs, Center for Rural Policy and Development, Center for Rural Strategies, Dakota Rural Action, Great Plains Rural Policy Network, Heartland Center for Leadership Development, Iowa Policy Project, League of Rural Voters, Meadowlark Institute, National Rural Assembly, National Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Housing Developers Association, North Central Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Renewing the Countryside, Rural Learning Center, Rural Policy Research Institute, South Dakota Rural Enterprise, Inc., and West Central Initiative.

The MRA will be held at the Marina Inn Conference Center in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Registrants will receive a special MRA rate if rooms are booked before August 2. To register, and read the full agenda and speakers list, go to www.midwestruralassembly.org.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. www.iatp.org

Ben Lilliston