Mike and Amy McQuery of Waseca, Minn., along with their two sons, often find eating meals together a rarity. Mike is the head brewer and a co-owner at Half Pint Brewery, a farm-based brewery operation that he and some partners began in 2018. Amy works in health care in a neighboring city. Their two boys are busy with basketball, coached by their father, and other activities. It’s not an unusual scenario. But one detail does set them apart: Six years ago, they decided to uproot their lives in Portland, Ore., and move 1,700 miles to a 10-acre farm in rural Waseca.
“We get asked [why] all the time,” Amy McQuery chuckled.
“Every time we would come visit, we felt like this was such a wonderful community to live in,” she said.
Inspired by a friend who opened an operation in Oregon’s brewery-saturated Willamette Valley, Mike dreamed of one day launching his own farm brewery. The native Oregonian said that, after doing the math, rural Minnesota started to make sense.
“I love Portland, I love the breweries, but for me it was too big. The traffic was awful, the cost of living was high, we didn’t really have a sense of belonging to a community.”
Instead, Waseca offered them a lot of what they were looking for as a family. Researchers say that more people in their 30s and 40s are discovering rural Minnesota and opting to leave the Twin Cities metro, as well as other urban areas around the country. Ben Winchester, an educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, said it shouldn’t be a surprise.
“The narrative around our small towns is terrible. It’s based on what we had, should’ve had, and rarely based on what we’ve got – and we’ve got people choosing people to move in for what they are today and what they will be tomorrow,” he said.
He is working on a study that shows what he called the “brain gain.” His team has surveyed residents in a quarter of all Minnesota rural counties who have moved there within the last five years. Preliminary findings show that an increasing number of people aged 30 to 49 have moved to rural Minnesota. They brought children, careers, knowledge and life experiences. They looked for a slower pace of life, affordability, safety and good schools.
And they’re not all returnees, or residents who had previous ties to an area. Megan Dayton is a demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center. She said that up to 120,000 people move to Minnesota from other states each year, and more than one-third are destined for addresses in Greater Minnesota.
“In any given year, about 30 percent of all people move from another state to Minnesota are Minnesota-born people. So that leaves 70 percent of the people who move into our state from a different state were not born here,” she noted.
Winchester said that, while these communities may be welcoming, longtime residents are often baffled about why these newcomers find their cities and towns attractive. He said it adds to a negative narrative – where the locals might not see the benefits of living there themselves.
“Many times, the first thing newcomers hear when they move to a town is, ‘Why would you move here?’ And that tells a lot about, not only how that town expresses itself, [but] also how that person is going to experience that place.”
Some rural Minnesota communities are eager to share Winchester’s narrative. In Otter Tail County, the community has hired a Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator to highlight new residents who have moved there and why.
“I’m at different happenings around the county, and that’s my job to document all the cool things about the county… We can only be in so many places at one time. If we can get every community in the county to start beating the drum about, not only how awesome it is to visit here, but to live here as well, that makes my job a whole lot easier,” said coordinator Erik Osberg, in a promotional video produced by Otter Tail County.
Waseca also has plans to help get the word out. This year, the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce will hold a class to welcome newcomers and help them find ways to get involved.
As for the McQuery family, Mike and Amy said they have no regrets, other than being far from family – though some of Mike’s family members have followed them to Waseca, which has helped. Mike also said that some of their neighbors weren’t initially supportive of the farm brewery concept because they feared the operation would amount to a noisy bar or roadhouse that would send drunk people out onto county roads. But even that early opposition wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We felt that that was something that was great about the Waseca community – that they were all supporting each other,” he said.
Eventually, they were able to get others on board, including the neighbors. McQuery said some have even become frequent customers.
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