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Author talks of changing landscape in Minnesota

Dr. Bill Ammentorp, pen name Marston Moore, signs a copy of his book, "Prairie Perpendicular," for Worthington High School ag instructor Jeff Rogers following a program Wednesday at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- While Nobles County actually gained population according to the last census, its neighbors to the west, north and east all lost population -- a trend that Dr. Bill Ammentorp believes will spread as concentration continues to widen in areas of the agricultural sector.

Ammentorp, professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota, spoke to high school and college agricultural students, as well as agribusiness leaders, Wednesday at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington. Author of the book, "Prairie Perpindicular," under his pen name, Marston Moore, Ammentorp talked about the death of small towns in North Dakota and the spread now into western Minnesota.

Displaying pictures of abandoned farm houses and schools and dilapidated small businesses and elevators, Ammentorp said the dream died for many people who settled in North Dakota in hopes of carving their future on the land.

As their dreams were slowly shattered on the dry land, the people saw first their schools close, then their small businesses and services and then, when few remained, even the church shut its doors.

"This is now a very serious problem in North and South Dakota because there are so many abandoned churches," Ammentorp said.

The last thing to go in a small town is its grain elevator, closing its doors as railroads pull up their short lines and grain goes to larger, concentrated elevator systems where one needs a 100-car rail loop in order to warrant a stop by Burlington Northern, he said.

"That's the next wave of small-town closures that North Dakota will experience, and you can see it beginning in western Minnesota," Ammentorp said. "It eventually ends up with abandoned houses everywhere. The result is a depopulation of a lot of rural America."

Depopulation in rural areas, Ammentorp said, is due to everything in agriculture is getting big. For example, 84 percent of beef packing in the U.S. is handled by Cargill, Swift, Tyson and National Beef, while 64 percent of pork packing is owned by Tyson, Swift, Smithfield and Hormel. In flour processing, Cargill and ADM are the major players, with Cargill also at the top with Bunge and ADM in handling 71 percent of the soybean crushing nationwide.

As the demographics of rural Minnesota change and react, Ammentorp has identified a new geography emerging in the state. He refers to northern Minnesota as the Empty Land with a dwindling population. As populations decline, he said we may begin to see that not all county government centers will be able to survive.

"That's one thing that still exists throughout all of North and South Dakota, and western Minnesota," Ammentorp said. "As numbers decline in population, there may be merging of counties and those communities, too, will be at risk."

Central Minnesota, with its access to highways and ability to connect economically with the Twin Cities, is referred to as The Colonies. Ammentorp said they are experiencing rapid population growth, though they tend to export human capital.

Sprawl Land is defined by its epicenter, the metro area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This region is defined by light industry, urbanized communities and rapid population growth.

And then there is southern and southwest Minnesota, termed by Ammentorp as Ethanol Land. It is defined by corn, beans and social capital -- productive land and slow to no population growth.

"If you look at where the (ethanol) plants are, that defines a new geography," he said. "It seems to me that is going to determine your futures and give you some set of opportunities and some set of challenges. As ethanol production evolves, we have to be very careful with what happens. Is it going to persist? Will there always be some sort of federal incentive? If there isn't, what will happen to land values?"

Ammentorp asked the audience what they would do and could do as a community to stem the tide of the perpendicular prairie.

"Look at the economic environment of the town," he said. "Pay close attention to human and social capital and how it defines this area."

Following his presentation, Ammentorp conducted a book signing of "Prairie Perpendicular," which contains a plot based on his own experiences as a farmer, elevator operator and educator.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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