Urban woes take root in rural towns

Alan Bjerga

Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of a four-part series on the University’s commitents to outstate Minnesota.

They talk about the environment. They talk about the proper use of manure and how to keep communities economically sound.
They sound like they could be farmers, or Minnesota Extension Service agents. But most of them are not. They’re urban city council members, suburban landscape designers and University professors. And their discussions show the increasingly shared concerns of rural and urban communities as Minnesota approaches the 21st century.
This year’s Minnesota Conference on Sustainable Development, which began yesterday and continues today at the Minneapolis Convention Center, brings together educators and urban planners from across the nation to discuss ways communities can create sustained economic growth and be environmentally responsible.
“As communities change, we try to help plan them to be sustainable,” said Vera Krischik, a conference organizer and coordinator for the Center for Urban Ecology & Sustainability, an organization established in 1994 by a $91,000 grant from the Minnesota Extension Service.
Krischik said distinctions between the problems of rural and urban communities are blurring, and that as Minnesota continues to become more urban, urban ecologists are working to ensure that growing communities in formerly rural areas don’t develop traditionally urban problems. For example, “if a new housing development is going up in a wooded area,” Krischik said, “we encourage planners to plan to build houses close together and put bike paths through the forests. What you build and how you build it are important things we deal with.”
To make ecological planning work, Krischik said, cooperation between environmental groups and urban planners is necessary. The sustainability conference which the Center organized was co-sponsored by the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Board, and the Minnesota Extension Service.
Cooperative ventures like the sustainability conference are the ones which will succeed as demands on University services increase and funding decreases, Krischik said. They also reflect the increasing complexity of community issues. The role of extension services is in “bringing alternatives,” Krischik said. “A lot of what extension does could be done by industry, but extension brings (University) research and knowledge to these issues.”

Cities and small towns: Common problems
College of Human Ecology administrator Beth Emshoff has seen rural community needs change during more than 20 years working with the Minnesota Extension Service on outreach programs.
“Communities are dealing with things they’ve never seen before. There are school districts where 25 percent of the students don’t speak English … and these communities are not prepared to deal with diversity.
“Many of the same problems inner cities have — lack of access to technology, poverty, unstable families — are in rural areas too. Communities are changing,” Emshoff said.
As one of 10 colleges at the University which works with extension, the College of Human Ecology focuses on family and community development programs. It has about 100 employees in outstate Minnesota, all longtime residents of the communities they serve. Often the College of Human Ecology employees work closely with county extension agents. While the extension agents often have strong backgrounds in agriculture, the College of Human Ecology workers have complementary skills.
“There never was a county that had an (extension) agent that didn’t have a home economist,” Emshoff said. “There has always been a presence of family development across the state.”
Family development programs co-sponsored by the College of Human Ecology and the Minnesota Extension Service include parenting programs like the “Parents Forever” program for families undergoing divorce, programs which teach parents alternatives to physical punishment, and culturally-specific nutrition programs in practice on Indian reservations.
One of the largest programs sponsored by the Minnesota Extension Service and the College of Human Ecology is the “Families at Work” program. The program — which features the motto “the ‘u’ and you … together” — educates families that qualify for food stamps about proper nutrition. “Families at Work” operates in 71 of the state’s 85 counties.
About 40 percent of the program’s $4.5 million budget goes to the seven-county metro area. The rest is spread evenly throughout the remaining counties, Emshoff said, adding that need for the program is only going to increase in light of recent changes to the welfare system by the federal government, Emshoff said.
“Welfare reform is just going to knock the socks off” of rural communities, Emshoff said. “What I see is (Families at Work) doing education that will direct research into communities where economic security will be a problem.”
Welfare reform is only one of the changes the University will have to help Minnesota communities face, Emshoff said. “Violence prevention. Housing. Getting access to technology.”
And to meet these needs, the University will need to rely on extension programs in cooperation with other departments more than ever. “The University is dependent on extension for its outreach, and it needs to do a better job of using other departments, along with extension, for outreach,” Emshoff said.
Sustainable communities,sustainable agriculture
West Central Experiment Station head Gary Lemme is trying to help rural families in the Morris area in a more traditional way — by preserving the family farm.
A growing movement within agriculture is sustainable agriculture — farming with a minimum amount of chemicals and with an emphasis on preserving the quality of farmland. Farms using sustainable agriculture practices tend to be smaller than farms which still use chemicals heavily, and to make up for smaller yields they often concentrate on specialty crops rather than traditional crops such as corn, soybeans or wheat.
A “Grazing Day” program held last month at the West Central Experiment Station featured a lunch made up entirely of products raised and processed in rural Minnesota communities. The lunch included barbecued pork from Ortonville, smoked trout from Starbuck area lakes, and wild rice soup from Long Prairie. Although the producers of these goods can’t compete with the prices of mass-produced equivalents, they can make a profit through enhanced marketing quality.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Steve Wenzel, DFL-Little Falls, said the future of state agriculture is on two tracks. “There are the larger farms, but there’s non-traditional sustainable agriculture, and those farms are small and specialized. Extension services to them will require specialized service to (small sustainable farms). Extension has to keep up with the trends,” Wenzel said.
Minnesota experiment stations help sustainable agriculture farmers by doing research on new product development and helping farmers find businesses that can market their products, Lemme said. By assisting farmers in “making those connections,” Lemme said, family farms have a fighting chance to survive despite the growing dominance of their larger competitors.
At the Central Lakes Agricultural Center in Staples, University agricultural engineer Mel Wiens said that University services are just beginning to adjust to the needs of sustainable agriculture farmers. “I could give (the farmers) lots of information, but I don’t think they think the University pays much attention to their concerns,” at the present time, he said.
However, groups promoting sustainable agriculture have been cropping up in the Staples area, and the relationship between University services and non-traditional farmers will probably grow stronger as the farmers grow in number, Wiens said.
Trends toward larger farms and a smaller rural population in Minnesota are unlikely to change. By the year 2020 the seven-county metro area is expected to grow by 625,000 residents, with continued stagnation or outright decline in rural population. Despite the forecast, agriculture is certain to remain economically important, and family farms will continue to play a role in Minnesota agriculture.
“The vitality of family farms is important to the vitality of this state,” Lemme said. “Let’s hope they’re all sustainable.”
The land-grant mission
In its 1851 University charter, Minnesota’s territorial legislature established a college of agriculture. Agricultural education became central to the outreach mission of the University as a land-grant institution. But as an urbanizing state focuses on urban needs, the University’s commitment to rural service is destined to change.
“Until recent years,” said Regent Stanley Sahlstrom, a lifelong farmer, “grandma and grandpa were still on the farm, and children, even if they lived in a city, could see how things are produced. They no longer can do that.”
“People in the Twin Cities depend on farmers,” Wenzel said. “People in the Twin Cities do buy food. The food doesn’t come from Red Owl. It comes from the cow of someone in rural Minnesota. And people have to stay aware of that.
“The University has always been there for agricultural purposes,” Wenzel said. “But (University administrators) need to keep that goal in front of them.”
The goals of University service to rural communities, while maintaining research into traditional agriculture, have also focused on the support of non-traditional, sustainable agriculture and family and community development issues similar to urban programs. Cooperative programs are also growing more prominent as University extension and experiment programs for rural Minnesota have less funding to fulfill their missions alone.
“As urban and rural distinctions are disappearing, the University’s responsibility and knowledge transfer,” University President Nils Hasselmo said. “But we can’t forget rural communities and their importance to the state.”
In technology, demographics and economics, Minnesota is a dramatically different state than the one which designated the University as its land-grant institution through the Morrill Act of 1862. But “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” Emshoff said. “We will continue to be connected to communities. That link to the community — that’s the essence of a land-grant institution.”