A Rural Guide
As president of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, Julie Tesch puts experience and numbers around the pressing issues of rural Minnesota life.
Julie Tesch (B.S. ’98, M.E. ’01) may have once left rural Minnesota for jobs in larger cities, but her heart never left. Growing up on a dairy farm, milking cows and baling hay weren’t just chores but life lessons.
As president of the Minnesota-based Center for Rural Policy and Development (ruralmn.org), today Tesch leads a team focused on bringing nonpartisan rural research to citizens and policymakers who can make a difference. From producing research webinars on subjects like the pandemic’s effect on the rural workforce to integrating rural areas with healthcare, the group provides a picture of rural life by the numbers and beyond. (The organization was formerly headquartered in St. Peter, Minnesota, and now has virtual offices.)
If Tesch is strongly in touch with rural issues, it’s because she lives where it all began for her, on her family’s farm in Waldorf, Minnesota: a town of roughly 200 people about 25 miles southeast of Mankato. “It gives me regular reminders of this life as you find yourself [talking] with county commissioners, city council members, economic policy coordinators and more, breaking down numbers in a way that relates,” she says.
And most people can relate, because most of the issues affecting rural areas also affect urban locations—the solutions just look different, Tesch says.
“Childcare is a major issue here like it is in large cities,” says Tesch. “However, what’s needed doesn’t look the same. One is used to daycare centers but with rural [areas], it will often be one person running a daycare out of their house. Are policies taking into account all situations, or just the daycare center scenario? It’s up to us to help people know the realities.”
Although her organization has been around for 25 years, Tesch says it’s gained more traction in the past five. “We were heavily steeped in academic white paper research for so long, but that isn’t as likely to move people,” she explains. “Embracing videos that are a few minutes long, doing podcasts every other week, or a webinar to match almost every report we’re putting out, has created much larger engagement.”
Tesch, who was executive director of the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture from 2013 to 2017 and executive director of the Minnesota Agriculture Education Leadership Council from 2003to 2012, finds looking for commonalities with urban life to be a worthy undertaking.
Last year the Center partnered with the Citizens League, a metro-based, nonpartisan nonprofit focused on civic life and public policy. “We’ve been doing a series called INTERCONNECTED, focusing on issues for both rural and urban areas, and did one on EMS (emergency medical services). The response was strong,” Tesch says.
The Center issued a report on rural EMS, which led them to cohost listening sessions and roundtable discussions around the state with the Minnesota Ambulance Association. Their goal? To help envision the future of EMS.
“People have been gravitating to this, believing they can have a voice,” Tesch notes. “And people not from rural life are showing empathy as they’re coming to grips with the issues [facing rural areas]. A call to 911 can mean every moment after is vital. People living in rural areas need to be able to not live in fear that they won’t get the help they need when they need it.”
The challenges around medical care in rural areas aren’t limited to 911 emergencies, she adds. “There is a huge problem of how long it takes [rural residents] to get to [medical] facilities with proper treatment, whether for cancer or other issues,” she says. “Even the solution of telehealth for those who live far away from certain medical facilities is tough as internet connectivity [in rural areas] can be an issue.
“So many different areas are connected. You hear of an issue with [rural areas lacking] internet and you may visualize someone who can’t see a fun video,” she says. “No, it may be someone who’s missing out on an important doctor’s visit through telehealth.”
Another challenge in rural areas relates to demographics: There are many more rural area jobs available than can be filled. “Baby boomers retiring have decreased the workforce, hitting rural really pretty hard,” she says. “There are good-paying jobs here, but the infrastructure is keeping some people away. I had someone say to me they wanted a job but there just wasn’t adequate housing. Adequate childcare is often brought up. These areas could thrive more, but there needs to be a reasonable center for people to move to many rural areas.”
As she reflects on her family farm, which goes back to the late 1800s when her family settled in Minnesota from Germany, Tesch has seen the ups and downs of rural life. “We were lucky and we were able to have [farming] work out for our family,” she says. “But others were not so lucky. It’s important to see problems before they get bigger. With more information, it can get better. Many people would care more about rural life if they knew more about it.”
Eric Butterman is a freelance writer based in McKinney, Texas.