Telecommuting levels the field for some rural Minnesotans

Rose Buer
Rose Buer lives with her husband, Brett, in Dawson, Minn. She telecommutes to her job as a software engineer in Bloomington every morning.
MPR Photo/Chris Welsch

Rose Buer commutes to her job as a software engineer in Bloomington every morning.

But she doesn't drive from Minneapolis or St. Paul or another suburb. She makes the short trek from her 10-acre farm to a small office in Dawson, next to a hair salon and the Dawson Sentinel, the newspaper that serves the town of 1,300 people in western Minnesota.

From there, thanks to a DSL Internet connection, she telecommutes to her job at PPT Vision, a company that designs electronic monitoring systems for assembly lines.

Buer and her husband, Brett, moved to their country 1912 foursquare house from the Twin Cities seven years ago. Both were raised in rural Minnesota and longed to return. They've planted a garden and are planning a fruit orchard. "It's the best of both worlds," says Buer, who rents her Dawson office for $100 per month. "From 8 to 4, my head is in technical stuff. I can use my abilities as an engineer. After hours, I have the country farm life."

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At first, Buer's employer was skeptical; it cut Buer's hours to three days per week. But after two months, she was back to full time, with full benefits and full city salary.

"I don't know where else I'd have an engineering job out here," Buer says. If she chose to live on the farm but didn't have telecommuting as an option, "I don't know if I'd be working at a dime store or what."

All over Minnesota — from Cook County in the northeast to Sibley County in the south — public and private entities are contemplating or building high-speed Internet networks.

Rural communities, dying for success stories like Buer's, are hoping that better connectivity will make it feasible for more people to live and work farther from the city. They hope it'll stave off a pattern of out-migration that's been draining young people from their towns and farms for a century.

Eighteen state broadband projects have received more than $228 million in federal stimulus dollars. Other communities are pushing ahead on their own in an effort to make Internet access faster and more universal than the private marketplace has so far. For example, Buer at first considered working her job from the farm, but a sluggish connection made that impossible.

"This is the only thing that's going to help stem the decline in rural areas," says Mark Erickson, the city administrator in Winthrop who is championing a publicly-owned, non-stimulus-funded broadband project in Sibley County. He says Sibley is ripe for telecommuting because it's only an hour and a half from the Twin Cities. "Broadband has the ability to grow this state," he says.

It's hard to measure the extent to which better Internet service will change the rural economic landscape. Certainly there's more at stake than telecommuting — farms and other businesses can use the web to access markets; faster connections can improve rural healthcare through telemedicine and education through interactive video classes.

But communities have reason to think broadband could level the playing field, especially with the growing number of workers not tethered to a desk. A recent study by ConnectMinnesota and the Minnesota Broadband Task Force found that 37 percent of Minnesotans work from home at least occasionally; twenty percent telework on a regular basis. What's more, the report says, "Three out of ten Minnesota adults who are not currently in the workforce say they would work if empowered to do so through teleworking. This includes 17% of retirees, nearly three out of five unemployed adults, and almost one-third of homemakers."

A 2009 report by Forrester Research predicts those numbers will grow: "Fueled by broadband adoption, better collaboration tools, and growing management experience," by 2016, 43 percent of American workers will work from home at least one day per week.

It's unclear what portion of those telecommuters will pick up stakes and move to the country. Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota sociologist who studies rural areas, thinks good Internet service isn't so much a pull as its lack is a deterrent. "Broadband is not necessarily a draw," says Winchester. Rather, he says, "If it doesn't exist, it's a push factor. It pushes people away."

At least for some, however, broadband and all its attending technologies — video conferencing, virtual private networks (VPNs), instant messaging — is making rural life possible.

Tom Wirt
Tom Wirt, pictured, and Betsy Price run Clay Coyote, a successful pottery shop outside Hutchinson, west of the Twin Cities, featuring hand-glazed tagines and other cookware.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

Mike Bubany works as a financial analyst from his 21-acre property in Spring Valley, south of the Twin Cities, for David Drown Associates in Minneapolis. "The commute is hellacious," says Bubany. "I have to walk down the stairs and kick the toys out of the way. I put on the coffee." He adds, "I am wearing a sweatshirt and jeans right now and not because it's casual Friday." He goes to the Minneapolis office just a few times a year.

Tom Wirt and Betsy Price run Clay Coyote, a successful pottery shop outside Hutchinson, west of the Twin Cities, featuring hand-glazed tagines and other cookware. The couple moved from the Chicago area, where Tom worked in marketing for Bakers Square, to their 55-acre farm 16 years ago. Since then, they have honed their pottery skills.

Their big break came thanks to the Internet. "An editor at Food & Wine magazine had ordered one of our colanders online," recalls Wirt. That editor recommended Clay Coyote to Paula Wolfert, a well-known cookbook author. "She was writing a book about cooking in southwest France and we made a cassole for her." From there, Wirt and Price became consultants on Wolfert's book about Mediterranean clay pot cooking.

"It blew the top off our business," says Wirt. He and his wife have become stars of the foodie world, racking up their best sales ever last year. More than half their orders came through Coyote's website; they shipped pots to Israel, Germany, Australia and England. "Without high-speed Internet, none of this would exist," says Wirt. "It's absolutely critical. Without it, we would be potters doing art shows."

Betsy Price
Tom Wirt and Betsy Price, pictured, run Clay Coyote, a successful pottery shop outside Hutchinson, west of the Twin Cities, featuring hand-glazed tagines and other cookware.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

In 2009, the state Department of Transportation and the U of M launched a campaign called eWorkPlace to encourage employers to allow more staff to work remotely. The idea was that fewer commuters would mean less highway congestion during rush hours. Since its debut, the program has found that telecommuting leads to increased productivity, fewer sick days and decreased overhead costs.

One of the companies that participated in the eWorkPlace project is MMIC, an Edina-based provider of medical IT services and liability insurance. MMIC has been pushing its employees to work from home since 2009, according to Steven DuBois, a senior risk management consultant. He says 40 percent of the company's workforce telecommutes at least one day a week — and some telecommute full time — saving over $1 million in office rent alone.

"We closed an office in Plymouth," he says. "We moved to a smaller office facility." MMIC offers what are known as "hotel cubes" to its workers when they're in the city, which may be as infrequently as twice a month.

DuBois himself telecommutes full time from Appleton, Wisconsin, thanks to a cable Internet connection. "One of the requirements," he says, "is that employees have access to broadband or cable. We do have one person who is working on a satellite hookup," he says. "But it's inconsistent. It's not as reliable as a hard connection at this point. I'm not aware that any of our folks have a wireless system where they are."

MMIC represents the future, according to Adeel Lari, a research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs who directs the eWorkPlace program. He believes that more and more workers — no longer bound to the city for jobs — will move to the country.

"Most of the jobs in the United States are becoming knowledge-based," he says. "The percentage will go up and up. Can you imagine the implication for where people live?"

Those underwater on their mortgages may be stuck in place for the short term, Lari says, but eventually, "I think the suburbs and exurbs will have a serious problem. People who want to move out of the city can move way out." Instead of stopping in, say, Eden Prairie, they may go all the way to Grand Marais. "At the present time, they may be tethered to the center city, but that will break away."

There used to be a stigma to working from home, Lari adds. "I think that stigma is lifting. Everything is done electronically. People ask for your email address, not your physical address anymore. I believe we are at the tipping point," he says. "We're on the cusp."