In the well-lit basement that serves as headquarters for the Whole Farm Co-op in downtown Long Prairie, a handful of farmers sit around a table munching locally-baked cookies and drinking a locally-made milk beverage called kefir.
"We say, know your farmer, know your food," says Robert Bromeling, who manages the co-op, which sells everything from lamb chops to maple syrup. "If we say it's raised in a pasture, it's raised in a pasture."
Started in 1997 with the idea that farmers should set the prices for their products and reap most of the proceeds, the co-op was somewhat ahead of its time. Time, however, appears to be catching up. Whole Farm represents 30 farmers (49, if you include seasonal contributors) and sells directly to a growing base of customers, mainly in the Twin Cities, who desire local and organic foods.
The co-op, which saw a 25 percent jump in sales over the past five years, is an example of how some residents are thinking creatively in a county that's seen more than its share of difficult economic times.
It's been, as they say, a tough row to hoe in Todd County.
As agriculture, long an economic driver, became increasingly corporate and global, more small producers were squeezed out. Not only has the number of farms declined over the years, but the manufacturing sector has taken hits as well. RR Donnelley trimmed hundreds of workers and now has a staff of around 400. In 2008, Stearns Manufacturing, which employed nearly 100 people, closed its doors in Grey Eagle.
A dearth of job opportunities has led young people to leave Todd County for college or work, exacerbating an existing age imbalance. The county has more elderly than the state as a whole, and by 2030, it's expected that 1 in 4 residents will be aged 65 or older.
"It's hard to attract young people to rural areas," says Alex Weego, who ran the county's development corporation from 1995 to 2009. "There are transportation and quality of life issues. You're giving up a variety of cultural options, like science museums and plays."
Long Prairie-Grey Eagle High School student Jordan Reed, whose great-grandparents and grandparents farmed in the area, hopes to study civil engineering or political science at college. He acknowledges that it's unlikely he'll return after graduation.
"There's not a lot of opportunities here for those types of careers," he says.
Still, the charms of quiet, small-town life are not lost on young people. "It's really safe here," says high school senior Baileigh Faust. Classmate Maria Juarez agrees: "It's a good place to raise children."
Hoping to develop a strategy for coping with the coming demographic crunch, county residents this year secured a Healthy Communities Partnership grant from the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. Much of the focus will be on services for the elderly, but the larger economy is part of the equation.
"We've been known forever as the poverty county," says Long Prairie Mayor Don Rasmussen. Over the years, there have been ample studies, grants and plans discussing how to boost the local economy.
Suggestions have included focusing on the health care industry, investing in new energy and laying a fiber optic network to promote high tech.
In fact, the county has moved up in the state's wage rankings, from dead last a decade ago to 67th out of 87 in 2008. That's in part because the local agricultural processing sector is doing well. Long Prairie Packing expanded last year and now employs about 400 people. Daybreak Foods, also in Long Prairie, processes millions of eggs every day, according to Rasmussen. "Tankers of egg go out of there," he says.
Some think Todd County's strengths in agriculture -- it ranks fourth statewide in beef production, seventh in milk production -- can serve as a foundation for the future.
Robert King, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota and a Whole Farm Co-op customer, suggests that local farmers develop a high-quality specialty food.
"Sometimes that really spurs a lot of economic development," King says. "A classic example is Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy. That's a production region that's defined geographically. Thousands of farmers in the area produce the milk that goes into the cheese."
King notes a potential stumbling block: "It's really hard to pick the winner on that." Would this signature crop be fingerling potatoes? Grass fed beef?
"I think Todd County could be the garlic capital," says Herman Hendrickson, who grows garlic and shallots on his farm near Sauk Centre. He sold close to 1,000 pounds of garlic last year, much of it through Whole Farm. "We can grow things here, in terms of vegetables and fruit," he says. "Potatoes are successful. We could be the garden county of the state."
Innovation could take other shapes as well. "If I had to guess, I think the future of agriculture in the county is in the energy field," says County Administrator Nathan Burkett. He and Weego agree that biofuels, whether from wood chips or manure, deserve exploration.
Whatever the plan, Burkett is pushing for action. "We have a lot of data," he says. "We want to see results off of that data. We want to see economic opportunity in this county, so people who want to live here and want to move back can do so."
Second of four parts: This series has been prepared by Minnesota Public Radio News as part of a project called Ground Level, which explores Minnesota communities facing their futures.