Sowing Possibility Episode 4: Ben Winchester

TOPICS:

[3:45]: Ben’s youth on the Mississippi River in Winona, MN

[5:45]: Growing up in a pro-union household

[7:00]: Finding a job in rural America

[8:15]: Defining size: small town or small city?

[9:00]: Building social capital through community service

[9:30]: Finding a rural development job as a math student

[11:45]: Red River Flood of 1997

[13:30]: Ubiquitous narrative of rural despair

[16:20]: Tension between academia and the lived experience of rural residents

[17:30]: Letting data tell the story

[19:00]: Going to graduate school for rural sociology

[21:10]: Population growth and nonprofit data points

[22:00]: Brain drain vs. brain gain

[23:00]: Debunking rural monoliths

[24:15]: Population stagnancy or population stabilty?

[25:00]: Diversity in rural America

[26:00]: Delineating rural and national social issues

[26:45]: Rural housing stock

[27:50]: How established residents can be welcoming to newcomers.

[30:00]: Weathering economic storms with volunteers

[30:40]: Harm that’s done by a negative rural narrative

[31:00]: Welcoming and lifting up the voices of newcomers

[32:00]: Casting rural returnees as failures

[33:25]: Rural “brain gain”

[35:00]: Top reasons people move to rural America

[36:00]: Percentage of people moving to rural America for a job

[36:55]: Regional model of rural life

[37:20]: Rural resident recruitment and retention

[38:50]: Re-envisioning economic development[39:30]: Rural narrative’s role in business success and business succession

[40:45]: Primary rural industries and the caring economy

[41:45]: Dying narrative

[42:42:]: Epochs of how rural has been defined/understood

[47:30]: Mechanization of agriculture and the declining rural population

[49:15]: Rise of big box retail and its impact on small businesses

[50:00]: Rampant individualism will get you to our small towns but community will keep you there.

 

[51:30]: Making research available to the public in lieu of publishing in academic journals

[52:00]: Understanding the newcomer experience
[55:00]: Montana State University Extension Mover Study
[56:30]: MSU Extension’s Reimagining Rural program
[58:15]: Bridging community divides
[58:45]: Montana’s leadership gap
[59:30]: The future of rural America

[1:00:00]: Baby boomers and upcoming housing stock 

RESOURCES REFERENCED:

Ben Winchester, Univ. of MN Extension Center for Community Vitality

A rural brain gain migration: key research findings

Center for Small Towns, University of Minnesota Morris

The Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri

Montana State University Extension

MSU Extension: Reimagining Rural

Montana State University Extension Launches Survey to Understand Montana’s “Brain Gain”

Montana Community Foundation

Demographic and economic trends in urban, suburban and rural communities, Pew Research Center

Otter Tail County: New to Town program

Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission: Get Rural! program

West Central Minnesota: Live Wide Open initiative

Bemidji’s 218 Relocate program

McKnight Foundation

Bush Foundation

Northwest Area Foundation

Blandin Foundation

EPISODE CREDITS:

Guest: Ben Winchester

Host, creator, producer, editor and mixer: Megan Torgerson

Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan 

SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:

Greater Montana Foundation

Humanities Montana

TRANSCRIPT:

Megan Torgerson (narrating): A new story is emerging from the detritus of weathered headlines on rural despair, the suffering of small businesses, death of small towns and the fleeing of young people. This is a story of rural prosperity, and it can be backed up by data.

 

Ben Winchester is a statistician and sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension, who integrates applied research and data to spotlight the positive trends in rural population growth, civic engagement, social and economic opportunity and more. Well-known for popularizing the term rural “brain gain,” Ben is celebrated in rural community development circles as a purveyor of good news that the lights are staying on in small town America.

 

Ben Winchester: We’ve got piles of articles and piles of books talking about how our small towns have been negatively impacted. And my point is, that can’t be the only story we tell, because right now what I see are stable housing units, a diverse economy, like people are actively engaged, they love small towns and rural life because of what it is.

 

Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today, a conversation with Ben Winchester.

 

Raised in a pro-union household, Ben cut his teeth bridging community needs with math and statistics as Center for Small Towns’ first employee at the University of Minnesota-Morris. He later attended graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he earned his master’s in rural sociology, and has since become a widely-cited researcher on the forefront of reframing the rural narrative, evaluating resident recruitment and retention strategies, and understanding rural community leadership needs. This year Ben won the Rural Renewal Research Prize for his brain gain research that uncovered the trend of 30- to 49-year-olds who are making rural communities their home.

 

I was introduced to Ben by Tara Mastel, a rural Montana advocate who I sincerely look up to and who leads Montana State University Extension’s Reimaging Rural program. This year Tara and Ben worked together on a study supported by the Montana Community Foundation that gathered data on who is moving to rural Montana and why they’re choosing the Big Sky State. Ben and I will talk about the movers study he helped conduct in Montana, how small towns can be more welcoming to newcomers, and how different generations define and understand “rural” differently. We’ll also unearth the economic shifts in rural America that have led to a historically negative rural narrative, along with the strong network of rural community development organizations, extension agencies and foundations that are paving the way for a narrative on rural America that sows hope and possibility.

 

***

 

Torgerson: So this season I seek to ground each interview with a question of guests’ geographic origins to really illustrate what early experiences may have sparked their interest in rural. So I'm wondering how would you describe the geographic background of your childhood and the human geologic, economic, familial and cultural elements that really inform your understanding of home and your sense of place?

 

Winchester: Right. I think it's hard to you know, understand where you live when you grow up. And I think as you get older, you gain some perspective on where you were. But I grew up in Winona, Minnesota, which is among the rolling bluffs in the hills of Southeastern Minnesota. We got lots of valleys around there too. I still have lots of family in the region. And I grew up in the town of Winona, which is about 25 to 30,000 people and I think growing up I thought that was a super small town and I quickly realized, as I have been did my professional work that Winona is actually a pretty good sized city. And it's you know, it ends up being this relativism that we you know, talk about quite a bit when we're doing rural development work.

 

But really overall, my whole life I've never lived too far from the Mississippi River. I grew up on the Mississippi in Winona. I went to school in Missouri and spent time in St. Louis, which is by the Mississippi River. And even right now back in St. Cloud, we live right next to the Sauk River, which is only about two miles now from the Mississippi River again. So I've always had this kind of thread of heavy, you know, water around where I live. And I do like to canoe and whatnot too. So it's always been really rewarding to have this kind of natural environment that immediately surrounds my life that we that we take part in.

 

Torgerson: Wonderful. And you've also spoken about your family's dedication to service and serving the community. And I'm wondering how that was modeled for you growing up and also how the small town and rural setting of your youth inspired your work as a rural research fellow today.

 

Winchester: Right, so yeah, my grandmother was the town clerk in the township of Dresbach, which is by La Crosse, Wisconsin, but on the Minnesota side. And I really learned, she talked about city work all the time, and about, you know, the struggles she had with growth, especially with growth in her area, because it was a suburb of La Crosse, and a lot of people wanted to live in these smaller towns and rural places and open countries and the bluffs and valleys. And so I started to learn pretty early on just what it took on the on the administrative side to ensure that you're going to plan for your community.

 

And I was also raised in a very strong pro-union family. My mom's always been a part of the union. She's retired now, but during that time, very active in the Union doing manufacturing work, which is labor intensive. It was long hours, it was second shift, it was night shift. It was It wasn't always an ideal situation, in terms of having mom away at work all the time. But at the same time, I heard a lot about the union. And she was a very active union representative for the business she worked for. So that's always, you know, got me of the mindset that, you know, labor needs to protect itself in many ways. Because we don't have those protections. And those protections are in place for very good reasons. And unions have taken a very hard hit.

 

But you know, this kind of collective action is not new in terms of rural life, or even American life, you know. So it's kind of disheartening a bit to see unions take such a bashing over the decades, really. But even today, you know, my sister, Beth lives in Stockton, Minnesota with my mom, and she's a city clerk there. So again, kind of this theme of service through all the things that we do in our lives. So again, with Beth at the city clerk, they're dealing with growth to. A lot of people move to Stockton because they want to work in Winona. And Stockton is seeing great growth, and we talked about many of these challenges that people have understanding the places that they live in as they change and for newcomers understanding what the community may have been, that impacts how it's perceived today.

 

So I think all of these have really played into, for me, just wanting to live in a more open rural area, as well as just this theme of service. You know, I continually in college, watched my friends go off to you know, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and work for private businesses. And it was kind of disheartening to think that there, there are no opportunities unless you create them, or you know, they just aren't presented to you. You don't go on Indeed, and find a bunch of rural jobs all the time. I think, given how you find a rural job is different. And I know that now, I did not know that then. But you know, there are a lot of things about rural life that get missed when you look at it from the outside. So really, those are the types of, I would say the familial pieces that have really played into my aspiration for wanting to live and work in our small towns in rural places.

 

Torgerson: Yeah, and how you said labor needs to protect itself, the same thing could be said about rural-raised people need to defend and rewrite the narrative on rural America. And so I wonder if you could share a bit more about your journey entering a master's in rural sociology program in the University of Missouri Columbia, and also some of those small towns that you lived in along the way during your career.

 

Winchester: Right. It even started right before that. So I grew up in Winona that took a couple years off to work and went back to college. And I went to Morris and again, Morris is a town of 5,000 people. So I went from Winona thinking that was a small town to Morris, like oh my gosh, this is actually a really small town with 5,000 people.

 

And what I know now is that Morris is actually a good sized city as well. They are a regional center. Like 85% of all the cities in Minnesota are smaller than Morris. So like for every town you hear about there's another 20 or 25 you never hear about you know. So for everyone that's got a radio station, everyone that's got a newspaper, there's dozens that you tend not to hear about.

 

So I went school in Morris and I loved living on the prairie. I loved the fact that you weren't easily distracted. You had to make your own fun. It was not about being entertained in Morris. It was about finding your own way. And so we built strong networks of social capital, I call it now. But you know, I started a fraternity at the time and all by brothers at the time we lead campus in community service hours year after year. So again, there's a narrative around fraternities too right I had to battle at the time.

 

But during this time though, again, I watched my fellow students kind of go off to Minneapolis, St. Paul. One of my friends, he was a math major to me, he struggled to find a job. And I thought, man, I have to do something more than just take classes. I need to get involved, I need to have some practical experience. So Dr. Engin Sungur, who is a professor of mathematics and statistics in Morris, and this is before we even had the statistics major. I went into Engin’s office, so because you're in a small town in a small campus, I was like, “Hey, Engin, I want something to do. I gotta get some work. You know, over the summer, I want to do some applied research here.” So he hooked me up with the Initiative Foundations out of Fergus Falls, and they needed some updates to economic data. And this was my first look into what I call now the rural development industry. That there are a number of groups that work in in for small towns in this country. And they're not small. These groups have lots of employees. These groups have lots of resources that they bring to bear to help solve real issues and support rural efforts. So I started to look around like man, who are all these groups, like the initiative foundations and regional development commissions. And here in Minnesota, we've got a wealth of riches when it comes to some of these social aspects, too. So you know, we have the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the Northwest Area foundation, Blandin Foundation, and all of these groups do work in and for small towns. So and I was literally like, who are all these groups.

 

I was never told that this could be a career path as a student, because I think as a student, you think you're going to go to work in the private sector, right? You got to get a job. And it's most likely in the private sector, like maybe you get a state job. But I was really looking at all of these quasi-governmental positions and extension, like university extension too, stomping around in our rural communities. And I thought, man, can I do this? Like, can this be a job for me? And so I did a bunch more research. And one day, Roger McCannon, who was the head of continuing education at Morris had called and said, “Hey, Ben, I know you like to do this rural stuff. And we are starting this organization called the Center for Small Towns, and we want you to be the first employee,” and I was like right on!

 

So I started to do rural work. We started to do technology transfer stuff, the Internet was fairly new, like how to build websites and what to put on there, and how to make it not look dead, or die and all that kind of stuff, right. So I started stop around doing rural development work, and then, which was great, it was nice to be able to stay in Morris and do this work.

 

And then in the spring of 1997, I got flooded out by the Red River flood of ‘97. And I was the head of the Red Cross at the time of our disaster team. And I was like, well, we just spent the past two years, really getting our disaster team in place, getting all these agreements you need to have for resource sharing, and all this stuff. And I literally was like, alright team, you're all going to come to my house. And we're going to practice doing the forms on me, because I had a fuel oil tank spill all over my house. So I ended up living in a hotel for I don't even know two to three months while we cleaned the house.

 

So essentially, I was the first recipient of disaster relief, during these floods. Which we had many other people that end up living in the hotel with me that needed services, needed these types of supports. But it just reaffirmed to me how important it was to have these types of organizations to help each other. And in the midst of this was the University of Minnesota Morris, which has thousands of students that could ultimately help our small towns during the Red River flood. And we did. So whether it was packing sandbags, or donating money to help people go pack those sandbags, you know, we had a lot of opportunities to help our neighbors.

 

And I think it was really reaffirming for me at that time that number one, this is the career I wanted. But number two, I didn't know enough. My undergraduate was in math and statistics, I really don't know the history of rural, but I'm, you know, stomping around all these small towns, and it seems pretty nice. Like people love their towns, there's a lot of positive things happening. But at the same time, I started to weave myself into this rural narrative and better understand kind of how has rural been described. You know, what is the work I'm going to do. And so I look at the types of books and the types of articles that are, you know, popular amongst rural development industry people, and they tend to be focused around the negatives, like what our town used to have, what are you know, what our Main Street used to look like, and here's the restructuring, here's all that we have left is blank. Or our schools consolidate and now we lose our high schools. There are a number of events that really are kind of transformative and what it meant to our small towns. But at the same time, a lot of these events were not unique to rural communities. You know, closing their hardware store, that happened in metropolitan areas too. But they would have three to five other options to walk to. In many cases. So, really it became rural is a canary in the coal mine. You want to understand how the world changes, look to our small towns because it's very apparent, you know, how these changes play out in our rural communities.

 

So because the narrative was so bad, like there's a brain drain, we lose our kids, these industries are moving out and moving to regional centers, we have big box retailers that are killing our retail categories. And I kind of comically told my boss like Roger, like, boy, if all our small towns are dying, then am I just going to help our small towns die, like is that my job is to like really be a critical care assistant, and be like, we're just going to help you die in a respectful way. Clontarf, Minnesota. You know, like, it's ridiculous to think of it that way. But it was really reaffirming to me that all of these voices I heard, tended to go against that very persuasive, negative narrative that rural is dying.

 

So I was very proactive that I need to get out and learn more. And so I went to graduate school at the University of Missouri, Columbia. I had found the office of social and economic data analysis, and they were like this bridge between sociology and the data, which was right where I was. And so Darrell Hobbs who is no longer with us. But he was like, a pioneer in helping us understand some of these trends that are impacting our small towns, and not framing it in a way that we are just one more nail in the coffin. Because I think it's easy, you know, you lose your bank, it's another nail in the coffin. You lose your school, it's another nail in the coffin. And all of these very structural changes are quickly followed up with proclamations that our small town is going to die. Like, if blank closes, our small town is going to die. And I kept looking around like our small towns are dead. Like we're actually still around, you know. So that was the first way in to me, trying to readily build my own understanding of what I think I was seeing across rural America, that didn't always parallel the research that I was totally embedded and immersed in.

 

Torgerson: And it sounds like you've really grappled with the narrative on rural America that the media tells and then, what you were learning in school, along with the regional knowledge and lived experience that you're receiving from people on the ground when you're in different communities. And I'm wondering, as well, considering the arc of your career, and when you first started visiting some of those small towns in Minnesota? How did you sit with the tension between academia and the quote, unquote, real world? Like, I know, you mentioned to me before that you had people just like coming to you for guidance, and how did you kind of respect their knowledge and share the knowledge that you had and kind of exist within that tension between academia and the real world?

 

Winchester: Yeah, that's, that's a great question. I mean, we do live in an anti-intellectual society in many ways. And this isn't new. This is how the country was founded. So this has been a you know, a real issue for me over the years is how do I bring this knowledge out? I'm with the University a lot of times you know, the Ivory Tower, bringing that knowledge out and telling us how to do things?

 

Well, everything I do is community based research. It's applied research that, you know, I might find some data points I'm interested in, but ultimately, the community says - well, okay, now I see that, but what about this - and so the community continually tells me a response to the research, I bring, in a way that I need to build up my research more. So I do not start with the academic literature at all. I have started with my own data and let the data tell the story of what is happening. I think one of the key points here is data doesn't exist for everything. Data exists for things we want to know about. So we want to understand agricultural restructuring. We're collecting data on that. But we want to understand the experience of newcomers, nobody is collecting data on that. So for me as a data person, really reminding people that data doesn't exist for everything, and a good point of leadership is actually just asking the right questions. It's not letting the narrative tell you which data points to look at all the time.

 

So there is this real coherence for me in trying to bring this forward. And at the same time letting people know that if this doesn't sound, right, you need to let me know. But I think this actually played into my very proactive approach of my own education. I have my master's, I do not have my PhD, and for good reason. I think many times you get the you get those letters after your name and immediately you are cast into a different light in our rural communities. And so there are there are differences and how you are perceived and what those expectations are. So I think not having those three letters after my name, has done me a great service. But at the same time, I didn't shortchange myself on the education I got, I spent five years going into a rural sociology program, within which I had never had a sociological course before that. So I really got down to this program and was fairly ignorant of the fact that it was a whole other discipline that I had no knowledge of. So I got down I'm thinking with my statistics mind and trying to piece these models together. But I pretty quickly realized I had a lot of work to do. Like I don't know anything about the sociological basis for understanding how societies have evolved.

 

So I did and I had some great colleagues at the University of Missouri and I connect with them regularly today. We are part of this cohort and I think what's really important is that, you know, once you get into graduate school, you're there with other people who are dedicated to that mission where, you know, I'll be honest, like. I didn't go to school, my undergraduate I wasn't there to learn the whole time, like it was. It was college, we were having a good time, and we loved it. Morrison was very isolated, but our friend group was very strong. So we did a lot of different things there that really helped me for myself as a person. So rather than the academic, but I think it was very formative for me to have that experience that nonacademic experience in small town life.

 

So in Morris, you know, I had been in the Eagles club, I was in the Red Cross, I saw how easy it was to get involved. So it was very easy for me to see my skills be used in a small town. Immediately and to have our organizations benefit from it. So ultimately coming to a story of all of the work I do in these small towns, I really try hard not to come in with a preconceived notion of where they are or where they should be. I understand we've all gone through this dramatic change, that is the narrative we have gone through change. But the key point I've got now is that that narrative we're using to describe the changes negatively that have happened, can't be the only narrative that we have for our small towns and rural places. And I don't want to take anything away from the importance of understanding unemployment, or poverty or that, but that can't be the only way we come to understand our talents is through the eyes of poverty. Because then all we are is just a poverty community, and nobody defines themselves by those problems. So ultimately, people like to define themselves by what they are and what they will be. And so I try to emphasize that my work.

 

Torgerson: That's really beautiful. And I love how positive the narrative is that you share. And to believe in the power of narrative is really to believe that words and the stories that we tell ourselves matter. And in a political and ecological climate where negative narratives dominate, how do you recenter narratives that are asset based and future focus both in your role as a researcher and community member, as you mentioned?

 

Winchester: Right, yeah, so I'm data driven. You know, there's a couple of data points, I look at. All the trends I see since the year I was born in 1970, since then the rural population has not gone down, it's gone up by 11%. At the same time, the number of nonprofits in our rural communities continues to rise at a rate well exceeding that of population growth. We do have new people moving in, they're generally in a 30s 40s, sometimes 50s, and 60s, but a majority of counties he gains and these age groups. And so I, when I first started looking at the data, I was seeing this influx of people in their 30s 40s and 50s. While my colleagues and people in the rural industry, were all looking at the loss of 18 to 24 year olds. They graduate from high school, they want to spend all their time looking at why these people are leaving. And I was like - well, I left and I don't consider myself a failure. You ask educators in your small town; do you consider yourself a failure when your kids leave and go to college or start a career? Like never. So why do we have this be such a negative thing. We're not hollowing out our towns, we are making room for people to come back in productive ways as adults. So I do look at you know who's moving in that we have had this brain game that is, again, people in their 30s 40s and 50s moving in. Now, roughly half are bringing their kids, or they're starting new nonprofit groups. They've got jobs that don't look like the jobs we've already got. They may be bringing a job with them. They may be telecommuting.

 

So for me better understanding the narrative of our rural communities is best told through the eyes of a newcomer. And so there is a sense of coherence of the rationale that they have for why they're making the move. There's a rationale for why they get pushed away from where they were. There's a rationale for why they get pulled into the communities they want to move to. But there has been a renewed interest in rural. I think, especially in the past five years, you know, really since Trump was elected, everybody thought we're all was this monolith. And I think we're quickly realizing, I hope more people do, though it's still cast as a monolith in many ways.

 

And there's lots of different monoliths of definition here. It could be the monolith that rural equals agriculture. Well, less than 5% of rural people today are engaged in ag or ag-related field either employed or income by that, or we get this straight line equation that rural people are racist, right? This is was a very common theme for five years and we still hear remnants of this today. A lot of these things are very difficult to work with. But I kind of go back to the point that some of these changes that happen in our small towns have been slowed, especially in the past 10 years. Because we tend to use total population as our indicator for success or failure. And we want our populations to go up, right. And if we're not growing, we're dying. I call it the Ricky Bobby approach to population change. He's the racecar driver and his line is if you're not winning, you're losing. Right? And that's kind of the theme that communities have when it comes to their population. If we're not growing, we're dying. And I keep talking about

stability.

 

And even stability in our rural communities is cast as stagnancy, right, which is a negative narrative right off the bat. But I will tell you this 56% of counties in the US lost population from 2010 to 2020. But 95% gained housing units. So how can that be, you know, we've got a very stable base of housing units in our small towns, the real issue is our average household size goes down. So we have fewer people per house, which your population does go down, right, when you have fewer people per household, but at the same time, your homes are filled.

And so whenever I'm exposing my message to a new group, I like to start out with the key comment, which is, if your small town is dying, then why can’t find a house to buy? Like, does this not make any sense? So a lot of times like we're in Minnesota, in the upper Midwest, where majority of our rural communities, especially the smallest communities are not diverse.

 

Most of the diversity that occurred in our communities here, are in the regional centers where there's food processing. We’ve had immigrants from Mexico, Latin America, moving into these areas. At the same time, we've had Somali refugees move into certain communities in Minnesota too, but it's not everywhere. And I like to remind people that the lack of diversity in some of our communities, especially up here, is not an outcome. It's not that diverse people are like, I would never live there. It is more so that you can't find anywhere to live. And it's hard to welcome in diversity, it's even hard to walk them in any new people when there's nowhere for them to live.

 

So it's really trying to use data informed topics that ultimately lead to a conversation about where is your town. And so my message is, you've had new people moving in. Your households are stable, in fact, filled. They've created new nonprofit groups that look different. And we could talk about that a little bit. Now they've diversified the economy. Our rural economy is more diverse today than ever before. So I don't think there's any time in our history that we were better off. I think, in many ways, we've got more jobs, we've got more opportunity.

 

Now, when you look at wages that's been stagnant across the board, that is not just a uniquely rural experience. So again, trying to play out the differences here between what's rural and what's not. Closing your grocery store, not solely a rural thing, right. There's ones that closed in Portland too and not just all the small towns. So we get through that. And then we look at housing.

 

And I think the biggest struggle we've got now is having open housing. You can't just build new housing because you want it. Housing gets built where there's income. Well, okay, so that turns off majority of homeowners. So right off the bat, I look at our housing stock, and how much is that going to turn over? And this is the most telling indicator I've got is that 1/3 of our rural homeowners today are over the age of 75.

 

Really, a third of our homes are going to turn over in the next 10 years. How welcoming are we? Do we even recognize new people moving in? Do we have any welcome wagons? Like, how do we talk about these new people, when we know from our experience that new people and they move in? It's like, oh, Megan, you moved into town here. Why would you move here? You know, it's never cast as a positive thing. It's like, you're the exception. So, I think it's, I think it's important for us how we react to newcomers. And that's even when we see them. I mean, we're in the Upper Midwest here where it's dark in the morning, you know, when you leave for work and dark when you get home. You wouldn't know what if new people moved in across the street until the spring. And then you're like, oh, I guess there's somebody new over there. Right? It's because we don't have welcoming experiences in our small towns. We don't have organized efforts around those anymore. So that is my one of my largest advocations is recognize your newcomers. They are the future of your small town.

 

Torgerson: Yeah. And in Montana, you often hear people saying things like – there aren't a lot of people here, but we like it that way, or Montana is our best kept secret, and we hope it doesn't get out – yeah, so I'm wondering, what would you say to people who don't want people moving into rural America? Whether that's because perhaps they're fearful of change? Or maybe because they're concerned with urban encroachment or the loss of green spaces? So how do you address those concerns from established presidents?

 

Winchester: I would say real real quickly. Why do you think these people are so different from you? We have found very consistently that these people hold the same ideals around respect for the environment, concern for the community, a theme of service, being an ambassador for your community, you are an important person you can you can make a difference. So I don't know. There's a very consistent pattern no of us disparaging the younger generations. That's not new. And so every time today we hear baby boomers disparage the millennials, right that they're lazy and titled. I like to remind the baby boomers, that's what your parents said about you. And why are you repeating this? This is the most negative circle of disenfranchisement, we have, which is the disparaging remarks we make about our young people.

 

And in fact, you call the young people like lazy, which they're not, even though they're now starting to believe it. Research shows that millennials are now starting to believe some of these mischaracterizations that are being cast upon them. So it is very much like a continuity of change. You know, the community that you had when you grew up isn't the same as you had when you were an adult. And the community you have as an adult is different than when you are a senior or a retiree. That change is constant.

 

The communities that we live in today look vastly different than what they looked like 100 years ago. Yeah. So maybe we should be reframing what we have. And when we do look back at all these historical changes, whether it's closing hardware stores, or banks, grocery stores, and all this, and schools, I like to remind ourselves and encourage our small towns to pat themselves on the back for the fact that they're still here. And they have managed all this change with volunteers. Because we don't have big paid staff in our small towns to deal with school consolidation, or you know, all of these things that happen to us. We still have to react to it. And we know from a social capital perspective, the research says that when these affects impact all of these places the same, what differentiates one town from another in successfully responding to that, is social capital. And that is how well does your community work together.

 

So if you continue a negative narrative to these newcomers coming in – like you need to just learn how we do it around here - kind of attitude, good luck managing that change in the future. I'll put it real bluntly, right here. Because if we continue this disparaging, disrespectful conversation about who they think these new people are, or what they think these new people want. You aren't actually talking to any of these new people. So I would actually advocate for people to get out of their recliners and go and talk to these newcomers. And we actually say, take them out for a meal. There's a program called grab a bite in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. And it is when a newcomer is found in any of these towns, there's an ambassador that takes a new person out for a meal. And the only rule is the Ben Winchester rule, which is you can't ask them for anything.

 

Don't ask them to sit on your board, don’t say - hey, we've got a meeting. Like all of these obligations. It's hard enough moving period. Much less moving into a place you might not know anybody. And our research shows that between 25%, Minnesota and 34% of newcomers in Montana, are from there. Put the other way, almost two thirds of new residents into Montana are not from there.

 

So what type of experience do they have? Is anybody actually asking these people how it's went? Because you know, like I’ve moved many times in my life, and especially if you're making a large move, it's anxiety ridden. You really hope it's going to go all right. Now imagine you're moving to a town that you know, someone, it's probably going to go better. But even familial moves have their own kind of constraints on the newcomers. Because like - oh, Megan, you move back to town like, oh, did you weren't able to make it in the broader world, right? Like you're a failure when you come back and like, oh, people are actually choosing all of these really great reasons why they're coming to move back.

 

So that aside, that kind of characterization alone, that you're a failure when you when you are a returner, but if you're from that town too. Like, you can't get past that familial history. You're not seen as an adult with their own education, their experience. A lot of times, it's like - oh, Megan, I remember when you broke those windows at the school in fourth grade - you're like, I'm 35. Like, that's not how I define myself.

 

So I am always advocating for finding ways to lift up the voice of newcomers, because you'll quickly realize they're not all that different from you.

 

Torgerson: Yeah, yeah, that reminds me of the conversation that I had with an earlier guest from the season, Jake Ballinger, who was talking about how people will really venerate experiences like, oh, I moved to LA and then San Francisco, and then New York, and, but there's also a great wealth of knowledge in staying in one place. But as is the wealth of knowledge that you bring back to your rural community if you choose to move back, right.

 

Winchester: So we call this the brain gain. And this brain game has been defined internationally in the past. And that traditionally, in the past has been around when you had the whole diasporas that had left a country, like the Chinese diaspora. And now they're starting to come back. And they find out that when a country kind of exports its talent, like our young people are exported out of our small towns, that they actually come back and have remittances back to their home communities as well. So they're constantly finding ways to make those connections back and when they move back even better, so then they are bringing the skills with them. So I do, not to compare the two but if you've got brain drain and brain gain. And let's compare these two because apparently a lot of rural folks believe that the brain drain is going to kill off our towns. Well, what do you have on the brain drain? You have a high school graduate, with very little work experience, very little educational experience. So you've got that on one hand.

 

And on the other hand, you've got people in their 30s 40s and 50s moving in with degrees, moving in with experience, social and financial connections. I mean, holy cow, I'm going to compare the two of them. And I'm going to put a larger value on the brain gainer than to worry about trying to retain someone who may not want to stay. Like seriously, are you going to tell your 18 year olds that you can't ever leave town? Like you want to build more resentment in your 18 year old? You know, tell them as a parent, they can't leave? Right? Yeah.

 

Torgerson: What are some of the factors that lend to rural brain gain? Why are people moving back and also what contributes to population retainment?

 

Winchester: Right, so  what we do know is that newcomers move for three top reasons. This has been very consistent across Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, as well. Which is slower pace of life. Number one slower pace of life, connection with nature, appreciation for the outdoors. It’s kind of a catch all, but it's quality of life is number one. Number two is safety and security, which is especially high with people with children. We saw this in Minnesota, in fact, the George Floyd killing, we saw a lot of people start to move out for those motivational reasons. And the third top reason is a low cost of housing. That our housing is a lot cheaper, was a lot cheaper. Now we're starting to see these values rise quite a bit. So it has been historically a lot cheaper for these kinds of urban folks, and especially if you get people like this is relative too. We've got climate migrants from California, moving to rural Minnesota, because they can essentially sell their house there and pay cash for the house here and be free and clear, or maybe not always free and clear. But you know, it's a much more affordable avenue. So what we do know is those people move in for a variety of reasons around quality of life.

 

What we have found is people don't move for just a job. This has led to a great number of other research projects we work on called resident recruitment. It's the chicken or egg of economic development. Many academic economic developers believe that the only way for people to move into your community is if they have a job bringing with them. And what we had found is in Minnesota, 31%, in Montana, 35% of new households are moving because they have a job or a job offer. Meaning put another way, two thirds of people are not moving just for that job. What they do is they find all of their kind of constraints, i.e. I want to live by a park at a state forest system, or whatever it is, they've got all these quality life pieces, and then they start to narrow in on a job. But economic developers believe the only reason anybody would move here is if they had a job here.

 

And while we like to emphasize this, people don't, you know, live and work and shop and play in your town. In fact, like even our counties, our county boundaries were drawn during the time of horse and buggy. They don't reflect how people work or live or anything. And here in Minnesota, and this is very common across the country, just 51% of people live in the county that they work in. Half, right, are commuting out, half are commuting in, and you know, a bunch are working and living in that county.

 

So we end up with this regional model. And when we look at trying to attract people in, we have to do this regionally, we are trying to do more than just show off the job. We are here to show off what people's life is like. And this is important because I think typically even for our existing employers, I ask him, What's your recruitment strategy? How do you recruit new people, right? They're like - oh, we invite them in, and we show them the shop floor, and then here's the salary, and here's the benefits – that's gonna look pretty much the same as the other jobs that they've got offered to them. And if we're in a tight labor market as we are, and labor has power. Labor has the power to choose, and labor's got three job offers, right? What's going to differentiate one job from another now is everything but the job.

 

So if we are not doing a good job fiercely connecting people's interests and passions with what their life is going to be like, here, we are not going to be able to recruit them. And then if we don't actually involve people that do have a good fit in community life, we're not going to be able to retain them. And we know that, you know, if people say that the community is not welcoming, just 44% of households said say they'll be there in five years. It's retention. So we like to turn this around just a little bit to show that all of these community issues matter more, all these quality of life issues matter more. And if we look to recruit in new workers, we better be showing off more than just that job. There's some nuance here and a lot of the data. We’ve got a good 15 years of doing research on this here in Minnesota, as we've kind of worked this through on our minds, but many communities it's very new to think about. So we need to re-envision how we pursue economic development, in light of the fact that not everybody is moving to your community for a job.

 

We also show that anywhere between in Montana 8%, Minnesota 14% of households are telecommuting. They don't need a job. They never walk into your economic development office. And so are we opening our arms to them or are we you know, cut down the tree across the highway to make sure they can't drive into town anymore. So how we approach our view of economic development also dictates how we view our own region and our own selves too.

 

Torgerson: Yeah, and you've said before, that the businesses and I'm imagining like the brick and mortars, left in rural America are, are stronger than ever, because, you know, they've weathered a lot of storms. And yeah, so I wonder what role you see the rural narrative playing in both business success and business succession.

 

Winchester: Right? No, it's paramount. Because if you've got a dying narrative. Like - all right, Megan, you want to buy our flower shop? And you'd be like, why would I have dying flower shop? Like, everything is dying, right? - Why would you want to do that help us go, you know, respectfully, right. But nobody is gonna throw away their family fortune to do that.

 

We did studies here at Minnesota Extension that showed, we looked at business transitions by the brain gainers. And when we'd have a successful transition, their market goes up, their sales go up, there are more employees, like they actually do better. And so part of the narrative, though, is even a step before that, which is when you've got a dire narrative around the businesses, I just like to remind people that the businesses that we have today are stronger than ever. They were weathered through the storms of the recession of the late 2000s.

 

So the businesses that we have today are actually more than stable. But again, we've got like two thirds of almost three quarter of business owners are going to retire in the next 10 years. So what is our business community actually going to look like? We actually have opportunity. So rather than the like, wow, I could never live in a rural place. I'm not a rancher, I'm not a farmer. Well, 95% of people aren't either. Like, you know, let's look at the primary industries in rural America are education and health services. Number one and two by far. It's caring for our people. It's caring for our kids. It's caring for our health. It is a caring economy that we've got. But it's also been supplemented by the diversity of jobs that have been brought with people, that have been born in our rural communities by the brain gainers.

 

So in many ways, while anyone town may not have a diverse economy, when you open it up to look at a region of five to seven counties, now you find the same diversity in your economy that you find in a metropolitan area. So our point is that -  well, I lived in Hancock for a long time. There might there's no electrical engineer jobs in Hancock, but there's a bunch of them in Benson, eight miles to the south. And if I don't know about that, when I'm trying to promote my community, I am going to be in the middle of nowhere, like in which is another negative narrative thing. Like, where do you live in the middle of nowhere like this, this plays right into the hand of that dying narrative.

 

So if we do have a dying narrative, why would anybody want to buy a house here? Why would anybody want to buy one of our businesses, so it does have a direct line equation into the perspective that people have, that they could be a blank in rural America. And our point is fill in the blank with whatever job you've got. Because we know every job exists in rural America. May not exist everywhere, but it does exist.

 

Torgerson: That reminds me of an explanation you shared with me earlier about how rural is defined differently, depending on where you are on the map or when you were born. And I'm wondering if you could please walk us through the different epochs of the definition of rural?

 

Winchester:  Yeah, no, I love this. I don't really do this as an educational offering, but just a way that's informed by thinking quite a bit. So we've gone through really three large epochs of how world became understood. In the early 1900s, really, especially up until the early 1900s, rural was dichotomous – meaning if you're not rural, you're urban. And rural isn't defined by anything here, rural is a residual category after you define urbanity. So like, oh, there's New York City, and you carve the lines out around New York City, and then everything outside of that is rural. Minneapolis, St. Paul, here's your seven counties, but the moment you get outside of there, your rural. It's rural or urban.

 

But then in the 30s 40s and 50s, we started to see the rise of suburbs and we started to see the rise of these quasi-rural quasi-urban places. And people came to understand rural is a continuum, this rural urban continuum. Where you have rural on one end and urban on the other. And there was this ideal of that many towns and many towns still have it that they want to become more urban. You want to move up the ladder. Like we're mostly rural, we're not completely, but we want to keep moving up the ladder toward urbanity. Which, you know, a lot of places had that, but not everybody could win in that in that contest. And today, people understand rural through a very symbolic image in their mind. So I say, you know, what is rural and people think of lakes or farming, especially right farming, ranching, agriculture, mining extractive industries drive that narrative a lot of times. But it's also things like forests and lakes and prairies, and bluffs and valleys.

 

I used to do this exercise where I would hand out a blank map of the state of Minnesota and at the top, it would just say what is rural, and I would ask people to just fill it in however you felt comfortable. And you would see all three of these reflected and then almost always delineated by age. The oldest folks would circle in the, you know, major metro area, the Twin Cities for us, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and everything else was rural. That's dichotomous, you're one or the other. Where some people would draw in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and then draw another boundary around the first ring suburbs and another boundary around the second ring suburbs and draw all these kinds of boundaries out like, oh, yeah, it's not Minneapolis, St. Paul. But you know, it's kind of a suburb place, right, or ex-urban places.

 

Now you're into the continuum. Now you're kind of rural kind of urban, but you still have that urban ideal at the end. Now you have the rural idyllic definition, the idyll of rural, which is an image in people's mind. And I think first and foremost, people are like the Norman Rockwell-ish, winter snow land, and people like all downtown walking and caroling and like all that stuff. Like there is the Norman Rockwell his view of what really is, and I think many people have that. You've got many folks who truly believe that that's what they would come to expect to find in a small town.

 

But you can see this in the images that people create. So you saw the delineations of kind of rural and kind of urban. You're probably over the age of 40, between 40 and 70, 30 to 70, somewhere in there if you're drawing the continuum. But then I get many young people just draw images. There's the forest in northern Minnesota, there's the lake. So we've got tons of lakes. So there's lakes all over the place, but then plus the valleys. And then some people draw farms, right? You still have farming in that, or ranching, or whatever it's going to be we got cattle here, too. So this is part of the story of how rural has shifted over the years.

 

But for me, it almost always has been driven by an aspiration for urbanity, rather than respecting the fact that rural can be something too. And rather than always, you know, comparing ourselves, or trying to hold ourselves up to some urban light. I don't, I'm not comparing ourselves with anybody. If anything, I want to compare our small town with ourselves. I want to compare us with where we were last year. Are we doing better than we were last year. I really don't believe in comparisons. I know communities love to do it. But ultimately, you're doing yourself a disservice I asked us to compete against ourselves and to make ourselves better.

 

Torgerson: And this more recent, idyllic representation of rural ties back into the mythologizing of our pioneering past. And in your rural bringing presentations, you share a history lesson on the economic shifts in rural America, some of them that actually caused the decline in population before the population started increasing. And so I was wondering if you could talk through these forces like the mechanization of agriculture, Main Street restructuring and things that have impacted, rural.

 

Winchester: Yeah, I think a lot of the narrative hangs on the restructure of agriculture, primarily. I mean, even framework wise, like where is the Office of Rural Development in the U.S. government? It's under the US Department of Agriculture.

 

So we can't even define how we develop our rural communities without talking about agriculture in a sense, and that's important in many ways. But it builds on a historical fact that we were all farmers in the mid 1800s. And then 1900, we started to mechanize agriculture. 1910/ 1920, the number of farm workers that number ranchers was reduced by 25 to 60% in some places. Of your four kids on the farm, only one of them can really be employed here. The other three are off to the city. So rural populations, they did decline their early 1900s, solely because of mechanization ag. The introductions of roads and transportation systems too transformed rural life. This is where no longer was a town a one stop shop. We were in the middle of these places we could drive to and back in one day. So those two were transformative for our rural communities in terms of depopulation.

 

When it comes to the regionalization of our small towns, then all these trends since the ‘50s or so, all surrounding globalization, that led us to close our hardware stores, our grocery stores our apothecaries. You can't have three gas stations in town anymore, now you're down to one. And that one gas station is now a C store, which is like your gas station and car sales slash hair cutters slash deli, you know on the corner. So it'd be this is all shifted. And then in many ways, you've got longtime residents who don't see it as a positive thing. And it's probably not positive, right? But anytime you see changes, it's usually described as pretty negative, especially when it's part of what your life was like. It's true. We have gone through the lack of community ownership around our businesses. We saw the rise of big box retailers which were called category killers. There are certain categories of retail that cannot exist in any other towns within a 30 mile radius around big box retailers. That transformed our retail sector. I document a lot of this, but I don't spend a lot of time talking about those changes because again, that's the industry I'm in.

 

We’ve got piles of articles and piles of books talking about how our small towns have been negatively impacted. And my point is, that can't be the only story we tell. Because right now the things I see are stable housing units, a diverse economy. We’re driving more, which for people without a car is terrible, right. But I think there's two pieces here. One is like there's, and I say this kind of tongue in cheek, but not really, that rampant individualism gets a lot of people to our rural communities, this pioneering spirit, like I'm gonna do it by myself. But that will only get you so far. Rampant individualism will get you to our small towns, but community will keep you there. Because without community, we will not have that social fabric that allows us to better our communities in the future. But if we are not allowing for a positive narrative to exist, you are not welcoming to new people. Because of all the interviews and focus groups I've done. Nobody ever says they're moving to your town for pity.

 

Nobody says like, yeah, Hancock, I know you lost your grocery store 23 years ago, I'm moving in today to help you out. Nobody says that we would never expect someone to come in and move for pity. So meanwhile, shouldn't we have a narrative of positiveness these people are moving in today, and you should be listening to them, because they are moving in for what you are today. They don't look back and cast disparaging remarks based upon what may have been. They don't care where you been, they care where you are, and where you're going in the future.

 

Torgerson: And I think Minnesota is doing this really, really well, as evidenced by the large representation of Minnesotans in Reframing Rural’s current season. So yeah, the land of 10,000 Lakes is really at the forefront of this advocacy and rural development. And I just wanted to give you an opportunity to kind of celebrate your home state and just share with listeners who might not be from Minnesota, like maybe it can inspire them for different things that they could be doing.

 

Winchester: I am very thankful that the work I've done has spurred so much activity in this state. It is a real reward for me to know, that number one everything I do has value.

 

Because again, I'm in this bridge between my hat in the community and my hat in academia. And you know, I don't I don't publish in all the big name journals, I publish in white papers that are on our website that people can read for free. So we've been doing this in Minnesota, we've been talking about brain game for 15 years now. And we've had a number of what we call resident recruitment initiatives sprout out. You know, it's how do you welcome in new residents? And so how do you make the invitation? How do you welcome them into your groups? How do you come to understand what their life is like? And what that means for the new culture that may be being developed in your community? Because there isn't even one culture, really, there's multiple cultures that exist in our communities. And these newcomers are building theirs. What does that look like? We should be here to celebrate a lot of these things?

 

So anyway, we do have a number of initiatives from Get Rural or Live Wide Open, or there's 218 Relocate. We’ve got incentive programs in some places, or communication efforts, or we definitely have a distinct tie to tourism, very similar to Montana. High tourism areas here. We, you know double or triple our populations in the summer at times. So how do you then transition potential visitors as a full time resident, when there might be disparaging remarks about these visitors don't care about my town. Or the second homeowners here don't care. And then the second homeowners at the same time are like, well, this community doesn't care about me, they never invited me to the school functions, you know, and then they move there full time, and you continue this device of kind of line between the two for no reason, in my opinion.

 

There is no well worn path about how to welcome in the new resident, other than interaction. Interact with people is the number one indicator for social capital development. So we do things like we advocate for a newcomer supper. It's not a supper for all the existing residents to gawk at the new people. It is a supper just for newcomers. And we ask newcomers, like introduce themselves and their family and what they do or what they like to do. And you know, they build connections there. But the number one outcome out of that is newcomers saying - I can't believe there's so many other new people here. Because when you're from that town, and you look around you again may not recognize the newcomers outside of the returnees. You're not going to recognize the transplant, someone who came in from somewhere else. But even the transplants and how are they ever going to recognize other transplants? There's a great camaraderie that gets built and a great level of comfort that gets built when these newcomers come in and are able to socially engage on their terms. So rather than again, like Hey, Megan, I know you moved in you ready to sit on our chamber board? Like, why did you ask me? Like, yeah, I'm a warm body. We have to be very careful about the warm body approach to new residents that - oh, we're just gonna have you slip into here and like learn how we do it around here. Well, how about letting newcomers define what the community means for them. You can have the same organizations with the same missions, but different ways to get there. So I want to advocate for allowing newcomers to define what that town means for them before they're graded with what the town used to be, or could have been at one time kind of narrative.

 

Torgerson: Yeah, and like you've said before, those newcomers are going to have probably the most positive things to say about your small town because they're, like - I moved here, so my kids could bike around the neighborhood or so that I'd have greater hiking access or what have you.

 

So in my home state, you recently started working with Montana State University Extension, and Tara Mastel. And I'm wondering if you have anything else you'd like to add about this mover study that you're conducting in Montana, and who's moving into rural Montana, and kind of the research that you've been helping conduct there?

 

Winchester: Right, it's been fascinating. So essentially, we've had this  newcomer process here in Minnesota and Nebraska, where we do focus groups and surveys of newcomers. Montana has since replicated that in every single county across Montana. So with support from Montana Community Foundation, which is almost unheard of having that kind of great support, so kudos to them for doing this and recognizing the importance of the transitions that we're going to go through, as people age. We've got a third of our folks that are over the age of 75. Another 40% are baby boomers. Like 75% of people are going to turn over in our small towns, are we prepared for that?

 

So the survey that we did just reaffirms the research that we've done here, Minnesota and Nebraska, to say wow these things appear to be fairly consistent, that we do have people moving out in their 30s 40s and 50s. They're moving their quality of life. They don't always have a job, they, you know. They used to be a tourist, some of them, right. So the extent to which this has been replicated, is great.

 

I think there are strategies then to kind of bring the word out. Like what does this mean. Do you see your newcomers. So this is where Montana Extension has been a real pioneer across the state in advancing its Reimagining Rural series - which is reimagine what your town looks like. And it's been very energetic, very positive, had a lot of support for developing kind of positive narrative projects in the small towns to which I'm sure Tara can tell you about that.

 

This has been stimulating to many people. And I think what I enjoy the most is whenever I give this talk about rural narrative and about brain gain, almost always, there are people that nod their heads through it when I talk about the positive narrative. Because I believe rural people think their small town is doing okay, or that they're actually doing well, when the narrative is so negative. So in a lot of ways, I just confirm for people that you're right, you're not dying, and you're not dying anytime soon, like you've actually gotten a diverse economy, diverse social life, you've got opportunities for newcomers, like all of these really great things are going on.

 

And at the same time, when I give the presentation in the back of the room, are the newcomers typically, because they, you know, they quote, unquote, know their place in the small town or told their place that they're not part of the community yet, right? Until, like five to 10 years in. So meanwhile, they come to these presentations, and almost always, there are the newcomers shaking their heads, nodding their heads, like that's me. You just told the story about me. And nobody in this room saw me before today. And what does that mean? So I just love this because it's confirmatory for the people who are leaders in our small towns thinking they are doing okay, and they more than likely are. And at the same time, reaffirming to newcomers that they're important in our small town.

 

So I really encourage people to bridge these groups. Bridge the younger people with the older people, it takes a lot of work to do this. You have to be explicit about wanting to do it. But you can easily find ways to align your goals, align your missions, to do collaborative fundraising, collaborative volunteer recruitment. Then you are more successful when you do it together. Because I know we have a lot of social groups in our small towns that are struggling, because they don't really know how to connect. And I believe there's a wealth of work to be done in this area.

 

Especially in Montana, where Montana has the second highest demand for leadership in the country. You have between like governmental units that need people to serve on city council and county commissioners. You've also got nonprofit sector, when you add those two groups together and compare it to how many people you've got. It is like one in 22 people in Montana need to serve as either a government or a nonprofit leader, one in 22, like one per block. That's not even talking about who you go to for volunteers. That's not talking about who you go to for fundraising or anything like that. So it is like roughly every year Montana needs 800 new leaders to take over the leadership of all these new groups that were just formed in the past year, because, again, social life is not dying. It just looks different. But it's more than growing, especially in our rural communities.

 

Torgerson: So, kind of in conclusion, what do you foresee as the next wave of challenges and opportunities that rural America faces is more fun small town USA more desirable?

 

Winchester: I think, number one, rural is a place people want to live. There is no shortage of demand for rural living. Pew Research Institute has been very clear about that for decades that, you know, while just you know, 15% of Americans live in small towns and rural places. 54% of Americans say they would prefer to live in a small town rural place. Why don't they? I argue the narrative is so negative a bunch of people think they never could.

 

The other side is, with this large population of homeowners that are baby boomers and older, this is the largest transition I see. Which is if we don't have an opportunity for our seniors to move over to more appropriate housing, they're going to move out. Our small towns are going to lose these people, they're going to move out to find that housing that's more appropriate for them. And when they move out, they're going to take their old age social security, their Medicare and Medicaid dollars with them. And right now, that singular category makes up one in for dollars coming into a rural community.

 

So while seniors may not be in the productive workforce anymore, they're bringing in a considerable amount of income that all gets spent locally. So then we get into the topic of transfer of wealth. When these seniors actually do move on, pass away, what happens to their wealth in many ways. And we know there's been transfer of wealth research that shows we've got billions of dollars, and if our communities don't retain those dollars, they're going to lose them, especially if their kids don't live in town. And all those dollars go out and your community no longer retains those.

 

So I think we've got a wave of change of not only trying to help our seniors move over in ways that are appropriate for their lifestyle, but at the same time we have we have a job to welcome in new people into their homes. Because, you know, we talk about workforce housing shortage right now. And I commonly respond that we don't have a workforce housing shortage, we have plenty of workforce housing, it's currently occupied by our seniors. And our seniors today are staying in their homes longer than any previous generation. This actually inhibits our ability to welcome in new people. Because if you don't have anywhere for people to live, how do you welcome in new workers? How do you welcome in new residents? It is that simple.

 

So I do advocate for some serious community development work to be done with our senior population. But our seniors a lot of times are like, ah, I don't want to move here. They have fear of the unknown, they raised their kids here and all this. But I remind our seniors, that the kind of panic they feel about moving is exacerbated when you ultimately do have to move. And when you do have to move, you are forced to move, and you don't have choices. And we’ve watched this disaster play out in community after community, where our senior would love to stay in  Hancock, but now there's no openings in the condos, so they have to move three towns away to something more appropriate, because they decided not to plan. And this is the point and I say this very, very bluntly - our seniors have their policy is a policy of best intentions. And that is I'm going to live in my house forever. That's not a policy, any local decision makers can do anything with. Our housing units, while they're held in private hands are actually a public good, because our houses were a home to someone in the past. They’re a home to someone today. And we sure as heck would like this to be a home to someone in the future. But what kind of condition is that home in when that person ultimately leaves it is a big question for our communities right now. So that is our huge opportunity over the next 20 years, we are going to witness the largest change we have ever witnessed in turnover of population in our rural communities and I am looking forward to it.

 

Torgerson: Wow, lots of opportunities for further research in the coming decades, I'm sure.

 

Winchester: Yeah, no shortage there.

 

Torgerson: Well, I'm just so grateful for you sharing all of these actionable ideas with our listeners. And I'm hoping that people can implement some of these action items in their hometowns. And thanks so much for all for all the attention that you give to rural America. It's really exciting work.

 

Winchester: Well, and I've got to say thank you very much for having this platform. Because I think there's multiple ways that people learn about rural and more and more podcasts are being formed around rural topics. So I it's just certainly a pleasure to be able to support platforms like this and get the word out of the really great things we've got going on. Thank you Megan.

 

Torgerson: Wonderful, thank you so much Ben.

 

***

Torgerson (narrating): To learn more about Ben’s research, visit his Reframing Rural episode page where I’ve linked to the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality and other resources mentioned during this conversation.

 
Next month’s episode will feature another brilliant guest from Minnesota, Benya Kraus. Benya is the co-founder of Lead for America and is championing community renewal efforts with

over 20 rural and tribal communities in the land of 10,000 lakes. Next month we’ll get back to publishing full episodes on the last Thursday of every month, but before then, we’ll share a special bonus episode featuring Ed Roberson, the creator of the top-ranked podcast Mountain & Prairie.

I produced and edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Duwamish, Dakota and Ojibwe lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music is composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana and listeners like you.

Visit reframingrural.org to access full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.

 

Thank you for listening!