Programs bring the world to rural towns

Editor’s note: This is part three in a four-part series on University services to outstate Minnesota through extension services and experiment stations.
Alan Bjerga

GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — This northeastern town, the seat of Cook County, is one of the most isolated in Minnesota.
The boundary waters community of 1,200 is 110 miles away from the nearest four-year college. Highway 61, which runs through Grand Marais and follows the coast of Lake Superior from Duluth to Thunder Bay, Ontario, has long been the only road connecting the town to other communities.
The only one, that is, until the information highway came to Grand Marais.
With startup costs of $10,000 taken from a $500,000 grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to provide Internet access to Minnesota counties, Grand Marais has been logged on for one year. Residents have judged the “Access Minnesota” project, which is run by University of Minnesota county extension agents, a success, and the service is only one example of how extension services are adapting to community needs for the 1990s.
“It’s tremendous for the community,” said John Ofjord, who owns a horse farm outside Grand Marais. Ofjord has used his e-mail account, which extension agents helped set up, to communicate with other people who raise Norwegian fjord horses. There are only 3,500 of the rare breed in North America; by communicating with other owners, Ofjord can learn what grasses and hay are best for his horses, and when to expect fjord horse prices to rise.
“I’ve been researching equine stuff on the Net,” Ofjord said. “Right now I’m trying to make contacts in Norway. I’ve also spoken to people at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.”
There are about 100 Access Minnesota Internet accounts in Cook County, and the number is growing rapidly, said Bob Sopoci, the University of Minnesota extension agent who coordinates the Grand Marais program. Area businesses are creating home pages that promote tourism, Grand Marais’ major industry, and Internet users like Ofjord are establishing both personal and professional networks that span the globe.
The Access Minnesota project is a study in how the Minnesota Extension Service expects to serve rural communities in the future. Initial funding for computers and software comes from outside the University. The Minnesota Extension Service is contributing $100,000 to support the program for counties statewide during this second year of the program, which is a trial period of county use.
When the trial period ends, county funds — often generated by Internet user fees — will be used to sustain the service. University extension will continue to provide facilities and the expertise of its agents.
For the University, this is a low-cost, efficient way to help rural communities adapt to changing economic demands.
“In a time of reduced resources, we have to be more innovative in what we do to educate,” said Dean and Director of the Minnesota Extension Service Katherine Fennelly. “We need to define our priorities when there are many needs.”
Fennelly, who became dean last January after serving as head of agriculture and extension at Penn State University, said the Minnesota Extension Service might be better equipped to deal with the non-agricultural needs of rural communities because of its organization. While many extension services at land-grant universities are contained within their schools of agriculture, the Minnesota Extension Service is independent of the University’s College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, and works with numerous schools at the University, ranging from University College (formerly Continuing Education and Extension) to the Humphrey Institute.
And the Minnesota Extension Service is not the only program from the Twin Cities campus which serves outstate Minnesota. The Rural Physicians Access program has sent third-year medical students to rural communities for the past 25 years, and similar rural outreach programs exist in departments throughout the University.
However, experiment sites and extension services still provide the backbone of the Twin Cities campus presence in outstate Minnesota. “The (University) extension agent is a well-respected figure,” in Minnesota counties, said Patrick Plonski, chief administrator for the House Agriculture Committee of the Minnesota State Legislature. “And people still look to agents as the central source for information from the University.”
Extension agent Sopoci is perhaps the University’s most visible resource in Cook County. Along with disseminating University information as an extension agent and Internet information via the Access Minnesota project, Sopoci also has been encouraging communication within the community.
One byproduct of providing Grand Marais with community Internet access has been more cooperation and communication among residents, Sopoci said. The expense of bringing the Internet to Cook County on outdated phone lines and the imperfections of the new system have led to efforts to improve the technological infrastructure of the community. A citizens’ technology committee is pushing to bring to Grand Marais phone lines with the capacity to carry interactive video. Cook County is currently one of a handful of counties which does not have this capability.
“It’s spurred people to really talk about serious issues,” Sopoci said. “We’re hoping the government, the county, the school and the hospital can work together to expand what we can do” over the Internet,” Sopoci said. “There’s a new school and a new hospital being built here — and there will be a new technology center too.”
An unusual feature of the Grand Marais Access Minnesota site, located in the town community center, is its 24-hour, seven-day-a-week accessibility. After completing an Internet training session, Internet account holders sign up for the use of one of three computers at the site.
Ofjord often spends much of his lunch period surfing the World Wide Web. Along with spending time in chat rooms and working on his skills in conversational Norwegian, he communicates with other Grand Marais residents through a notepad provided for Net users to write down interesting sites.
“It’s stuff of common interest,” Ofjord said. “Everything from recipes to long-lost addresses of people you used to know.”
For Ofjord, Access Minnesota adds a quality that makes living in a rural community a more attractive option, he said. An exception to the trend of rural migration to urban areas, Ofjord and his wife Mary moved to Grand Marais in 1984. Ofjord left a Minneapolis job in office supply sales to “get away from the crowd,” he said.
His new connection to the outside world, however, gives Ofjord “the best of both worlds,” he said. “If I want to discuss things with a lot of people, I can do that.
“But right now I can look out over Lake Superior,” Ofjord said. “The northern lights were out last night.”
“We’re a small community, and the world is moving,” Sopoci said. “You have to appreciate the uniqueness, when you are this rural in Minnesota. But you also have to keep in touch with the real world. Society here is adjusting well,” Sopoci said.
“And who knows what’s on the horizon?”

Tomorrow: A conference on creating sustainable communities points to the future of University outreach.