Investing in rural Minnesota

Economic crises in agriculture and mining have caused severe declines in population and economic growth in many Minnesota rural communities, particularly in the southwestern corner of the state. The symptoms of the crises are stark. Most farm-dependent counties in Minnesota have seen their populations shrink by 10 percent or more since 1970 as young people flee for metropolitan areas. The decline in rural economic growth has been even more severe. In 1972, income per capita in Minnesota farming communities was 80 percent of metro area income; by the late 1990s it was down to 65 percent. Shrinking incomes has made rural economies increasingly dependent on government transfer payments.

To arrest this decline, Minnesota needs to create opportunities to bolster rural income and allow Minnesotans to purchase ever-more-expensive housing, health care and higher education. Unless this is done, the future expansion of government services and public goods in rural Minnesota will depend on a deteriorating tax base.

Minnesotans gathering at the University’s Morris campus believe they have found such an opportunity. At a workshop, participants will discuss the development and financial potential of renewable energy alternatives such as wind, oil crops, animal fats and manure.

Similar projects have been successful but still face many hurdles. Inconsistent energy production, the lack of rural power lines, the subsidization of coal and natural gas, and minimal technology investment are among some of the obstacles. Despite this, renewable energy projects in rural Minnesota supplement the revenues of many farmers, creating high-paying jobs and expanding the tax base in rural Minnesota. To further expand the renewable rural energy industry and realize its economic and environmental benefits, more capital investment is needed.

Thankfully, it appears some leaders are beginning to understand this. The recent farm bill provides $405 million of farm-based renewable energy programs. Among other examples, a movement to decrease our dependence on foreign energy and to reduce air pollution should also bolster rural renewable energy projects in the future. As Minnesotans and energy consumers, it should be our task to make sure these obstacles to rural renewable energy projects continue to erode.