Behind the “brain gain:” Ups and downs of going rural

"Growing up in the Twin Cities, I never thought I'd be standing under a tree someday, plucking chickens," said Karen Tolkkinen, who moved to Clitherall, in west central Minnesota, in 2010. "Oh, gosh, I felt sorry for them, especially the last one who kept calling and calling to the other chickens that were already butchered."

Raising poultry is just one of the adjustments Tolkkinen made after moving to her husband's family farm. She eats venison now and plans to generate income by selling produce at a nearby farmer's market. "I didn't realize it would be so hard to make money in rural Minnesota," she wrote in response to a query from MPR's Public Insight Network (PIN).


She is one of the people who represent what University of Minnesota Extension sociologist Ben Winchester calls the "brain gain" in research being published today. For a collection of other MPR News Public Insight Network members' experiences, go here.

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"When I visit the city, I see my old friends wearing the latest clothes and they have smart phones with 4G and they go on expensive trips. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I lived in the Twin Cities, I looked down a little at poor people. You know, 'Get a job.' Well, when you're 30 miles from the nearest employer, and gas prices are $3.60 a gallon, and the job only pays $10 an hour, you really have to weigh whether that job is worth it."

And yet, she loves the "peace and beauty" of her new home. "Our farm sounds like a bird sanctuary in the spring. You can walk down the gravel roads for miles without seeing a car. In the winter, the snow stays white. During the summer, the fields shimmer with thick crops of hay or oats or wheat. And at night, the stars are brilliant."

Tolkkinen's experience is similar to that of many people who move from the city to the country. They love the beauty and peace and security. But they tend to have a hard time finding decent paying jobs and don't like to drive the long distances to work, school and shopping.

Winchester posits that while young people continue to leave rural areas for the cities, there is an ongoing countertrend of people in their 30s and 40s moving back. He calls the phenomenon the "brain gain." We'll have more coverage of the report this afternoon, but here's a summary of what people told us.

There are myriad reasons behind these moves to rural Minnesota. People may want to be closer to family and friends. In some cases, they return to look after a sick parent or relative. That's what inspired Jannet Walsh to quit a public relations job in Ocala, Florida and move to tiny Murdock, Minnesota. She made a video for us about the experience, which you can view here.

Sometimes people move to raise families, in the hopes of providing their kids an upbringing similar to their own, in a community where everybody knows everybody. Laura Knudsen moved to Alexandria eight years ago from Minneapolis. "My husband and I were ready to start a family. We had watched my niece and nephew grow up in a small town outstate. After a great deal of discussion we decided we wanted a similar experience for our children. There is a quality to life that is less revolved around material items in smaller areas. We felt that growing up in an area with a stronger sense of community was important when raising our kids."

The notion of freedom and natural pleasures was a big draw for Mike Bubany, a financial analyst who recently moved from Bloomington to Spring Valley, south of the Twin Cities, where he teleworks from his 21-acre property. He appreciates that nobody is looking over his shoulder, as he demonstrates in this video he made for us.

Sometimes, people move to rural areas dragging their feet, only to realize it was the best decision they ever made. "I was born and raised in Minneapolis and did not want to move to a small town," wrote June Kallestad, who moved to Cloquet in 1993. "I thought people would be small-minded...and there would be nothing to do. I found out that I LOVE the woods and outdoors. I didn't know that about myself. I have a lovely quality of life even though I don't make a lot of money. I have everything I need - including a horse! I also didn't know what a joy THAT would be!! I never even dreamed of owning a horse..."



Interestingly, Winchester has found that people who move or return to rural areas tend to have higher incomes and be more civically engaged than longtime locals. That's definitely true of Ann Thompson, who returned to her hometown of Milan, in western Minnesota, seven years ago after living overseas for 18 years. "When I left, I didn't necessarily think I would come back," she said. "I just thought I wanted to see the world."

She moved back to spend time with her aging parents. "I didn't want to live with the regrets of not doing that," Thompson said. Also, "I wanted to start a business. I thought it would be easy to do here." She opened a gift and art shop called Billy Maple Tree's in a building that's been in her family for generations. She volunteers much of her time and teaches English as a second language to the town's growing Micronesian population. "Our lives are frantically busy, but that is our choice," she said.

"In a city it's easy to meld in with everyone and go with the flow. In a small town, your community is what you make it. I'm quite happy to get involved and make things happen. I've been energized by my return."

Michael Dagen, an audio engineer who moved to Hewitt in central Minnesota with his wife after living in Fargo, Duluth and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, kept to himself at first because he "didn't want to freak people out." But, he said, "It didn't take long to realize we needed to get involved." Now, they've used a grant to repair the local historical museum, are starting a lending library and have launched a music and barter festival that's in its third year.

"There is quite a creative community we're tapping into," Dagen said. "We feel right at home. We feel connected, which is a powerful feeling I've never had before. I imagine it's similar to the first settlers to the area that came because there was opportunity. Land was reasonable. Everybody depended on each other. Nobody had any money, so they would trade their services and goods."

But breaking into a small town's social scene isn't always easy. "It's hard to get to know people," said Amy Hoglin, who moved from a Twin Cities suburb to rural Lake Wilson in 1998. "People are all in their established groups and are not accustomed to welcoming newcomers."

"Meeting people when I first moved here was very difficult," Erica Ellis agreed. She moved to Bemidji from Delaware by way of Missouri 14 years ago. "A lot of people have lived here their whole lives and have established friendships, so breaking in to that was difficult....It is still difficult for me to meet people, because a lot of the social activity around Bemidji is church-centered and I am an atheist. There aren't any groups here for atheists, humanists, etc, so it is hard to find like-minded people. It is also a fairly conservative community and I am a liberal."


Being single doesn't help matters, wrote Cynthia French, who moved to Little Falls from Minneapolis 16 months ago. "People are nice, and it has been easier to make friends than I was told it would be... That said, most of my friendships are with people who have families. I have not found a supportive community for single people and I have to really work to make connections to creative people in my age group (which usually means driving 30 miles to arts events outside of my town)."


Cheap housing draws a lot of people to rural Minnesota, judging by Winchester's research and responses to our PIN query. Hoglin wrote that her husband "was missing rural life and wanted to be able to hunt and fish more often. I was definitely not missing rural life, but eventually warmed to the idea of moving back when I realized we could afford to buy an acreage, while we couldn't afford to buy anything in the Twin Cities area."

"There are no decent restaurants," wrote Daniel Triestman, who moved to Eveleth 10 years ago from Philadelphia. "There is no diversity, be it ethnic or intellectual. On the plus-side, my wife and I were able to buy our home for under $12,000. Our family of five lives comfortably for under $30,000 a year."

While housing may be inexpensive, newcomers sometimes find that other aspects of rural living are more costly. "We have to drive to get everywhere or anywhere," wrote Tracie Yule, who moved from Chaska to Belle Plaine a decade ago. "It's expensive. Plus, it takes a long time to get anywhere and it's almost a day trip if we want to go shopping. Also, my husband and I have to commute to work because there aren't a lot of employment opportunities in our area or ones that pay well."

Knudsen, from Alexandria, wrote, "I also didn't expect the cost of living to be so out of balance with the wages in the area. Most of our expenses are the same or higher than living in the Twin Cities yet wages are lower."

French says the rural cost of living is helping push her to move back to the Twin Cities. "The decision is partially social and partially financial," she said. "I cannot sustain myself financially."

The answer for some is to adjust their standards of living and do more for themselves. "Friends from the metro tell me they would love to live in the country, but the jobs don't pay enough," said David Barrett, who moved from Kimball seven years ago to the country near Murdock. "My response is always that you don't need to make as much when your cost of living is less and you become somewhat self-reliant. Our taxes are less, we can't order food and the nearest big box is 35 minutes away. We are also able to cut our costs of living by providing our own heat, much of our own food and not having shopping as a hobby/habit. Living in the country is a luxury within itself."


With broadband Internet becoming more common in rural Minnesota, some people telework from home while drawing a paycheck from companies in the Twin Cities or other urban areas. But without an arrangement like that, the job landscape can be bleak.

Wrote Tolkkinen, "A lot of people in the country end up patching together several part-time jobs, so they work without any benefits, which is what I did for several years. After seven years in rural Minnesota, my savings are nearly depleted. I did start my own business four years ago, but finances and access to good health insurance continue to be a struggle. You have to look for different opportunities. You have to ask yourself, what do I have? What can I offer?"

Dave Konshok moved back to his home town of Park Rapids from Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, six years ago after decades in the military. He calls Park Rapids, "a great community in which to raise the family, surrounded by a fabulous natural environment... But I also knew to expect limited economic opportunity: Upon graduating from high school here many years ago, my friends and I dubbed it a 'BYOJ' area - 'Bring Your Own Job'"

"Without a doubt, the biggest challenge of living in rural areas or small towns is economic: making enough money to survive and thrive," he wrote. "It's very unlikely a high-paying job will even exist, let alone be handed to you. You have to dial down your financial expectations, while at the same time be ready to do whatever it takes to survive financially."

Whether someone thrives in rural Minnesota seems to come down to priorities, what's most important in a person's life. Where some see social and economic restrictions, others see new opportunities to connect with people.

"My community is nothing like I expected and everything that I had hoped," wrote Adrienne Sweeney, who moved to Lanesboro in 2002 from the Twin Cities and was raised in Philadelphia. "Growing up in a huge city like Philadelphia, I had no idea what to expect from a small (REALLY small) town. What I have found is that it is one of the most artistically creative places I have ever been... To be able to create a piece of theatre and then have an in-depth discussion about the work with the teller at your bank or your server at the diner the next day is a remarkable experience and makes your work feel so much more real and immediate."


"To be able to participate in a molten iron pour or attend a barn dance or string quartet performance with your neighbors is so inspiring," Sweeney wrote. "I have been more artistically energized here in this town of 750 than any of the 'big cities' I have lived in."