Frontiers: Land grant university & rural resilience

Kathryn Draeger

In 2008, Kathryn Draeger and her husband left their home in St. Paul for a 320-acre farm in western Minnesota to experience life on the rural landscape.

Portrait: Kathryn DraegerDraeger, statewide director of the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and an adjunct professor of agronomy and plant genetics, discussed her experience in her Frontiers in the Environment lecture, “The Land Grant University and Rural Resilience: A Minnesota Story” Oct. 23.

From poverty to population loss, rural regions are struggling. But Draeger and her family moved to Big Stone County in order to try their hand at a wide range of sustainable practices. She shares her experiences on her blog, “A View From Here: Resettling Big Stone County, Minnesota.”

“We had bright dreams and hopes that we were going to be able to walk the talk,” Draeger said. “We were going to be able to do sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and we were going to be able to help restore the environment, to be a carbon sink, to be a part of a really vibrant, healthy local foods movement and a community food system that took care of the people. And I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but we wanted to be on the front line of that rural revitalization as being part of the people that stood up to still maintain a presence on our rural landscape.”

Throughout her presentation, Draeger emphasized the role the University of Minnesota can have in building rural resilience.

“I am personally a multigenerational beneficiary of the land grant university,” Draeger said. “My grandmother attended a one-room schoolhouse in Dodge County, Minnesota, and in that one-room schoolhouse she read the classics in Latin. And this was thanks to the teachers she had that were educated here, actually on the St. Paul campus, in this land grant university.”

Established by Senator Justin Morrill in 1862, a land grant university is a publically funded institution of higher learning created to provide research and academic opportunities to the masses. Its core mission makes institutions like the University of Minnesota excellent resources for communities throughout the state.

“The ideal was that public university, public education of a higher sort, should be accessible to all the people of the nation and it should also be a part of the empowerment and a part of the democracy building,” Draeger said. “Frankly, we all are very much beneficiaries of this system that is established in all 50 states.”

In greater Minnesota, the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships are actively working with communities to identify needs and find university resources – including professors, students and funding – to take on those challenges.

Among other projects, the partnerships have been involved in clean energy initiatives, scenario planning programs and a food security project that involved planting 180 apple trees at Big Stone County students’ homes.

And while living in rural America and seeing the challenges face to face isn’t always easy, the experience has been both eye opening and rewarding for Draeger.

“It’s 200 miles from my office in Borlaug Hall to the front door of my farmhouse where I live and I got to experience firsthand what that grief, what that loss and what that change that’s happening on the rural landscape looks like,” she said. “It has become a part of my life.”

Watch Draeger’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.