VERGAS, Minn. — "Can I get a few Mickeys for a young kid like you?" said the silver-haired volunteer behind the griddle, flipping a pancake shaped like the Disney mouse. A man of roughly the same vintage holds out his plate, smiling at the joke.
It's not even 9 a.m., and the line for Vergas' annual Maple Syrup Fest pancake feed is already out the door. Soon it will snake down the block. Not a bad turnout for a town of 355 people in the heart of western Minnesota's lake country.
A guy with a goatee, casually dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, walks among the tables introducing himself. He's Erik Osberg, Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator — presumably the only person in the country with that title — for Otter Tail County. Wielding two cameras, Osberg documents the event, making it look as appealing as syrup poured on a hotcake.
As the packed hall would suggest, and much data attests, reports of rural life's demise are greatly exaggerated.
Following a steady decline in population, rural areas in the U.S. grew 11% from 1970-2010 before leveling off. According to Pew and Gallup polls, roughly half of all Americans say their ideal place to live is a small town or rural area. Gen Xers and millennials have been acting on that preference, as the population of 30- to 49-year-olds has increased in rural communities, countering the so-called "brain drain" of those who depart after high school.
Minnesota is a leader in capitalizing on this rural resurgence, launching many recruitment initiatives around the state even before the rise of remote work made moving to the country more viable. Otter Tail County's approach — Osberg's turning social media into a vision board of an aspirational lifestyle — is among the best resourced and most innovative.
Since 2017, Osberg has been posting, often several times a day, about local restaurants, resorts and community events; he passes along home listings; he shares scenes of bonfires and sunsets and serenading trumpeter swans. The sum of these "micro-stories," Osberg says, creates a larger narrative: You can live the good life in rural Minnesota.
Last fall, Osberg took a deeper look at the local lifestyle by producing a video series called "Rural by Choice," hosted by Twin Cities broadcaster Cory Hepola. In it, the millennial dad returns to his roots in Otter Tail County to explore why people like living in rural communities — and busts a few myths in the process.
Among those misconceptions is that people are drawn to rural communities by jobs. In fact, newcomers often say they were inspired more by the bucolic lifestyle, which includes the fishing lakes and the scratch-made caramel rolls Osberg likes to feature. "What do caramel rolls have to do with resident recruitment?" he asked. "I would argue everything. That's part of rural living charm."
Driving on I-94 through western Minnesota, the flat agricultural expanse suggests the impending arrival of North Dakota. But Otter Tail County, tucked between Alexandria and Detroit Lakes, is entirely different terrain: woodsy and hilly and dotted with 1,048 lakes, more than any other county in the country. Much of it is considered "rural," according to the U.S. Census definition of any locale with fewer than 2,500 people.
This part of the state doesn't get the attention the North Shore, Brainerd Lakes or southeastern bluff country does. So Osberg's first mission is to simply let people know that Otter Tail County exists. Fergus Falls is its largest city, at about 14,000 residents, but the county also has towns of a thousand or three, including Perham, Pelican Rapids and New York Mills. Osberg aspires to have tourists think of the area as a collection of many small towns, like Wisconsin's Door County.
The second step of resident recruitment is to get people to visit. Then after their vacation, you repeat the mantra: You don't have to pack up and leave.
"I've been one of those people," Osberg said. "I've packed up on Sunday night and I've driven back to the Cities — no offense, I love the Cities — but man, you're depressed," he said.
If you simply live in vacationland, as Osberg does, in Wadena, then you can go fishing on a Tuesday or Wednesday. "I don't have to try to cram it all in on a weekend," he said. "What if it rains on Saturday? Then all your plans are shot."
Osberg bases his recruitment strategy on studies conducted by Ben Winchester, a sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension. Known for giving presentations titled "Rewriting the Rural Narrative: Speak Softly and Carry Statistics," Winchester is armed with plenty of them. One of his most cited is that nearly all of Minnesota's rural counties increased their ranks of 30- to 49-year-olds between 1990 and 2010. This population's education, skills and spending power bring a "brain gain" to rural communities.
"You want to keep a high school kid who doesn't have any education or experience? Let them go," Winchester said, dismissing concerns about brain drain. "What these kids need to know is they have somewhere to come back to."
Yet, according to Winchester's study of rural workforce movers, most are transplants: Only 25% of the roughly 600 respondents to a 2019 survey had a household member who previously lived in the community.
While rural returnees are often motivated by wanting to live closer to family and friends, Winchester found the most common reasons newcomers cited for moving were a desire for a simpler, slower-paced life, in a safe, affordable community with good access to outdoor recreation. Only 31% moved primarily for a job.
The old model of trying to lure new residents to rural areas by attracting businesses seems to hold less sway. Instead, Otter Tail County's lifestyle-based resident recruitment strategy has been successful because Osberg focused on creating synergy among economic development, community development, housing and tourism initiatives.
Osberg, the father of three teenagers, understands the social media habits of younger generations: Their appetite is voracious, and their attention span is short. Leaning on his experience as a former sports reporter and host of a TV outdoors show, Osberg documents rural life as it is, vs. slicking it up, as advertisements do. The approach feels more authentic (even charming, due to the frequent appearance of a talking otter puppet) than traditional promotional campaigns. "He's got a real pulse on what feels right," Winchester said.
For Osberg, showing the vibrancy of rural life means both Instagramming pics of a new brewery and a "Rural by Choice" episode on diversity. When Osberg shares these stories, Winchester said, he helps fight a negative narrative that rural America is "some stagnant place that people turn out the lights on every night and wish they lived somewhere else."
Sarah and Johnny Carlson did live somewhere else — the Twin Cities, where they both went to college — before returning to the place they grew up. Working in the Cities, Sarah felt caught in urban culture's current of long work hours, and always being on the go. She wanted a life that didn't feel so busy, that she could create for herself. Johnny's future boss in Perham hooked him with the line: People think this is the life you retire to, but why not live it now?
In 2011, they bought property on a lake outside New York Mills. They've since built a house and had two children. While they do drive to the Cities for concerts or sporting events, they've found no shortage of things to do in the community. "You can be involved with things seven days a week," Sarah said.
Sarah runs her own interior design business, an entrepreneurial risk she felt was buffered by the support of a small community. "It's hard to build that level of trust when you're a little fish in a big pond," she said. "The life you can live here is a lot bigger than you might imagine, because dollars go further and reputation goes further and community is so strong."
Betsy Roder also returned to her hometown of New York Mills after going to college and living in Minneapolis. She loved her career at Target, but found it difficult to balance it with raising two young children. The family moved north in 2011, so Roder's husband could take a job at the bank where her father and grandfather had worked.
Roder was worried about leaving the arts, culture and diversity of the Cities, but she found much of what she missed through the New York Mills Cultural Center, where she's now executive director. The family's new locale offered three-block commutes and eliminated the decision fatigue of the Cities' endless options. "It doesn't feel as overwhelming," she said. "It was the lifestyle change that we needed."
The political climate is more divisive than Roder remembered. But when she disagrees with views that her neighbors post on social media, she tries to focus on their common ground. "We all have so much more in common than we have that is different," she said.
The urban/rural divide, widened by politics in recent years, is an issue Hepola hopes "Rural by Choice" can help bridge, as it returns for a second season this the fall.
Hepola looks at the job opportunities and amenities of his childhood home from a fresh perspective, as a parent who might consider moving back to raise his family there. He meets community members he'd rub shoulders with, including a young farmer and a school administrator who immigrated from Mexico. Hepola asks locals about their experiences with racism and feeling judged by urban dwellers, hoping that talking openly can help dispel misconceptions.
"It was important to me to ask those uncomfortable questions, to say, 'But how do you feel?'" Hepola said. "I think if we all did that more often, that's a way for us to heal and progress."
"Rural by Choice" gained national notice after it was screened at the Twin Cities Film Fest and advertised on a billboard in Times Square. Hepola received meaningful feedback as a result. "People said, 'I never looked at a rural life like that, and you helped me see something that I hadn't seen before,' " Hepola said. "If we can help each other learn and empathize, then we're doing something."
Plenty of seats
After the pancake feed, Osberg heads to nearby Maplewood State Park, where its retired manager, Bob Hanson, oversees the annual maple sap boil. "Some of 'em call me the Sugar Daddy," Hanson admitted, as the large wood-fired evaporator roils.
Rolling his camera, Osberg asks Hanson to explain the syrup-making process. He captures kids using hand drills to bore into logs and a demonstration of how Native people boiled sap with heated rocks.
Standing among the trees, Osberg shoots footage of a sap-filled barrel as he extols the outdoor lifestyle. Humans, he believes, are meant to spend more time out in nature than sitting in cubicles. "I get cranky like a toddler without a blankie if I don't get outside," he said.
Osberg stops for a moment to take in the sound of near-silence: a quiet you just don't find in the city. "If you just listen to the woods — the geese, the trees and the wind," he says. "That really trips my trigger."
Ever the marketer, he can't help but add: "There are plenty of good seats available."