"Rural By Choice" is a new seven-part documentary series that explores how rural areas in Western Minnesota have witnessed unexpected population increase – resulting from surprising demographics — in recent years.
"Rural By Choice" debunks the notion that might be heard over coffee in every small town cafe: young people flee and never return.
Though partially factual, the true tale revealed in the series is more complicated. While small-town life with its peaceful neighborhoods, safe schools, and gorgeous landscapes may not appeal to the 18-year-old high school graduate, these attributes are exactly what is attracting people back in their 30s and 40s, according to University of Minnesota research.
The narrative of rural America's comeback is presented through the perspective of WCCO radio host Cory Hepola (a native of Otter Tail County), who returns to his boyhood origins and discovers that rural Minnesota has just as many options as it does miles of sugar sand beachfront.
Hepola tells a new narrative in each episode, concentrating on issues that are woven into the fabric of rural living — fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation, farming and agriculture, arts and culture, local food and brews, safe communities for families and quality education.
Hepola also confronts residents with candid discussions on diversity, the so-called rural vs. urban split, and common misconceptions about rural life and the people who live here.
"Growing up here, I loved it, or at least what I knew about it," Hepola explained. "While filming this series, I got the chance to find out more, and while doing that, discovered a new appreciation and understanding of rural living. Getting to come back now as somewhat of an urban outsider, I also see why people who visit decide to come back for good."
Erik Osberg, Otter Tail County's Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator, knew he had to challenge this negative self-talk after hearing the same tired narrative for years — even from the mouths of rural inhabitants themselves.
"We needed to dig a little deeper and find out why people choose to live in rural places," Osberg said. "We did not want to shy away from topics that surround that question, and I think that will give viewers of the series a lot to think about… it will give current residents a lot to be proud of, as well as showcase our lifestyle and our opportunities to a new audience and encourage those folks to give rural life a closer look."
The most significant misconception that the crew overcame during the series was emphasizing — contrary to popular belief — what academics have nicknamed the rural brain gain... the reality that young professionals and families are relocating to smaller, more tranquil places to live, work, and play.
In many cases, it was a trip that opened their eyes to the quality of life available away from the hustle and bustle of major city traffic.
"Tourism really has become the front door to rural living," Osberg quipped. "Folks come for a week, enjoy our lakes, our local restaurants, play our nationally-ranked golf courses and realize this could be their way of life full time. Once they get here, you can see their eyes open and they figure out pretty quickly that there's more to gain than what they'd leave behind."