“Rural By Choice” Explores a Growing Otter Tail County, Minn., to Learn Why Americans are Returning to Rural Life

New Docuseries Hosted by WCCO’s Cory Hepola Reveals a ‘Rural Brain Gain’ in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Highlighting Why Millennials, Families and Remote Workers are Choosing Rural Life

A sample of what the 'Rural By Choice' video series is about.
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Rural By Choice Video

A sample of what the 'Rural By Choice' video series is about.

Otter Tail County, Minn., October 26, 2021 – “Rural By Choice” is a new seven-part documentary series that reveals how rural communities in Western Minnesota have experienced surprising population growth — from surprising demographics — in recent years. The story of this rural America rebound is told through the eyes of WCCO radio host Cory Hepola (a native of Otter Tail County), who returns to his childhood roots to discover that rural Minnesota offers as many opportunities as it does miles of sugar sand beachfront.

“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.”

Otter Tail County — Rural, But Not Remote
With 1,048 lakes (more than any other county in the U.S.) providing more than 157,000 acres of crystal clear waters, Otter Tail County is the vibrant, beating heart of Minnesota’s famous lakes country. Located between the region’s two largest metropolitan areas — 2.5 hours from Minneapolis, Minn., and just 45 minutes from Fargo, N.D. — Otter Tail is home to 24 deeply-rooted communities, championship-level golf courses, countless lakefront resorts, world-class hunting and fishing, and an eclectic mix of locally-owned breweries, restaurants, art galleries, theaters, museums, flea markets and music venues.

The Otter Tail Lakes Country Association (OTLCA) developed the “Rural By Choice” series to showcase the many reasons why the county has seen such positive population gains, as more and more people are searching for simpler, safer and more affordable lifestyles that can only be found in rural Minnesota. But before diving into all the benefits of rural living, OTLCA had to first overcome a misconception that stubbornly lingers despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Confronting a Tired Narrative
“Rural By Choice” tackles the myth heard over coffee at any small town cafe: young people flee and never come back. Though partly true, the real story uncovered in the series is more complex. While small-town living with it’s quiet neighborhoods, safe schools and objectively beautiful landscapes may not appeal to the 18-year-old high school graduate, these qualities are exactly what’s attracting them back in their 30s and 40s, according to research conducted by the University of Minnesota.

After hearing the same well-worn narrative for years — even from the mouths of rural residents themselves — Otter Tail County’s Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator, Erik Osberg, knew he had to confront this negative self-talk head on. “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.”

To help tell this bigger story, Osberg and the OTLCA enlisted the help of Minnesota-based Kvidt Creative and tapped Hepola with his familiar metropolitan voice to anchor the “Rural By Choice” seven-part series. In each episode, Hepola shares a unique story, centered around topics that are woven into the fabric of rural living — farming and agriculture, fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation, local food and brews, arts and culture, quality education and a safe community for families. And true to the documentary format, Hepola challenges locals with honest conversations about diversity, the so-called rural vs. urban divide and misperceptions about rural life and the people who call this place home.

‘Rural Brain Gain’
The biggest misconception the team overcame throughout the series was highlighting — contrary to the old narrative — what researchers have dubbed the rural brain gain… the fact that young professionals and families are returning to smaller, quieter communities to live, work and play. In many cases, it was a vacation that opened their eyes to the quality of life to be had away from big 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.”

The Covid-19 pandemic also proved work can be done outside the cubicle, clearing a considerable challenge for many who felt tied down by their workplace. In fact, telecommuting will likely open up more relocation opportunities and spur on the rural brain gain boom for years to come. And the data show those who are migrating to rural communities bring with them significant education, skills, connections and spending power in their search for a simpler life, safety and security, affordable housing, outdoor recreation and high quality schools for their kids.

Live – Work – Play: The Holy Trinity of Rural Living
The thread that ties “Rural By Choice” together is the idea that you can have it all in Otter Tail County, Minn. You can live here. You can work here (now more than ever). And whatever “play” means to you… well, you can do that here, too. It’s not just an idea. By the end of the series, “Rural By Choice” proves life in West Central Minnesota is everything it promises to be.