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MARL graduates reflect on rural leadership

February 16, 2012
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

Editor's note This is the second part of a series on the purported rural leadership gap in Minnesota.

MARSHALL - There is a rural renaissance going on, but a lack of leadership saps the vitality of small communities, preventing them from taking advantage of the possibilities of a rebound in rural population.

Though young people continue to leave rural communities, rural demographic trends are hopeful, according to Ben Winchester, author of a study on rural leadership demands by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality.

According to Winchester, losses in rural population because of young people migrating to urban areas are partially offset by gains in the 30- to 49-year-old age cohort who are moving to rural areas looking for a slower pace of life, safety and security, and a lower cost of housing. They bring with them education, investment, and children. But they are not assuming leadership positions in their communities in proportion to their numbers, nor moving into leadership positions left vacant as the leaders of the older, traditional place-based organizations pass from the scene. While they do get involved in schools, they tend to be involved in geographically dispersed interest-based groups, as opposed to more traditional community improvement organizations.

"It's quite apparent there are significant differences between urban and rural places," Winchester said. "In urban areas you need one in 138 people involved in non-profit organizations. In rural areas you need one in every city block to be a leader."

One program to address the rural leadership gap is the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) program, founded 12 years ago in partnership with Southwest Minnesota State University. The MARL program seeks to identify leaders based on their participation in community and trade organizations and increase their effectiveness as leaders with a two-year training program which includes exposure to governance on the state, national, and international level.

Cary Grover is director of project execution at the Schwan Food Co. and is active in local athletics, Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, and the Marshall Area Safe Communities Coalition among other organizations. He is a graduate of MARL class IV.

"In southwest Minnesota we still have a core of people with a strong interest in bettering the lives of their families and their communities," Grover said. "My feeling is there will always be people interested, the problem is getting people involved."

According to Grover, gaining the trust of people in immigrant and minority communities, youth, and seniors is vital to meeting leadership needs of rural communities, and suggested social media like Facebook might play a role.

"We have to find a way to attract these people to the table," Grover said. "Marshall has some very innovative ways somebody can become a leader in the community. The Chamber of Commerce has a program. The Young Professionals has a network, a wonderful opportunity. Two years ago a group from Marshall went to be trained at the Blandin Foundation."

But Marshall, though small as cities go, still has a significant population with amenities not found as much in micro-communities and in the countryside.

Wendy Sterzinger farms and raises cattle outside of Ivanhoe and is a graduate of MARL I in 2002.

Sterzinger commented on the rural leadership gap, saying, "I think it's a problem we see throughout agriculture. The population is decreasing and putting a load on the people. It's the same few stepping up to the plate and the rest just busy surviving."

Sterzinger cited distance as a factor that keeps people from getting involved. Involvement in Catholic church activities entails trips to New Ulm. Trade organizations for producers of corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle send local representatives to the Twin Cities.

Another factor is the lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas that makes it impossible to meet by teleconference.

"I can't do teleconference; we've still got dial-up," Sterzinger said. "If somebody says, 'Oh, I sent you an email on that,' I think, 'Well, that'll take me 20 minutes to open.'"

Don Buhl, MARL class V, raises pork, corn, and soybeans near Tyler and is involved in several producers organizations as well as the Danebod Lutheran Church.

"One of the prerequisites of leadership is to have time," Buhl said. "Everybody is super busy. When I look at ag, it's become very complicated and very management intensive."

Buhl also thinks one thing holding people back is that assuming a leadership role in community affairs is intimidating to many.

"Some people fear public speaking more than death, so I'm told," Buhl said. "MARL and other courses can help people become effective members of organizations. I think you have to keep developing leaders to replace people who can't do these things anymore."

Jean Knakmuhs is as rural as they come. She lives outside of Walnut Grove, worked for many years as vice president of the State Bank of Lucan, and is now at the Marshall office of Rabo AgriFinance. She went to the MARL III class hoping to improve her leadership skills, and describes it as the best educational experience of her life.

"Traditional organizations are still active, but the leadership is getting older as our population ages," Knakmuhs said. "The Jaycees have an age limit, and in Walnut Grove they converted as a whole to a new community club. They're very active but they're not recruiting enough young people."

According to Knakmuhs, there are programs available to train future leaders, such as the Minnesota Corn Growers classes people can apply to which take them out of state for training in leadership skills.

"In one respect young leadership brings in fresh ideas, such as in technology, and they can relate to the young part of the population," Knakmuhs said. "Leadership is leadership, no matter what the age. But if one young person joins, another is more likely. If you get the right ones involved in there, you could start a flood."



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