February, 2019

By Kelly Asche, Research Associate

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Each year, the Center for Rural Policy and Development provides a brief update on various economic and demographic data in rural Minnesota. As policy discussions concerning rural Minnesota unfold, it is important to understand the past, present, and potential futures of rural regions. This report provides historical data points, illustrating how rural conditions have changed and where they are at now, making for healthy discussions about the current demographic and economic vitality of these areas.

Rural Atlas Online

To supplement and support the annual State of Rural Minnesota report, we also maintain and regularly update an online, interactive collection of maps and charts that shows readers this data broken down in different ways. In addition to this report with its high-level analysis, our Atlas of Minnesota Online provides more interactive maps and charts showing a variety of data on demographics, the economy and more at the state, county, planning region, and economic development region levels. Click here to view the site.



Currently, population growth in Greater Minnesota is largely concentrated in the larger metropolitan-designated counties such as Blue Earth and Olmsted, the north central lakes area such as Itasca, Cass and Hubbard, and in counties where there is a concentration of non-white populations, such as Kandiyohi and Mower.

Meanwhile, the most urban areas of the state, including the Twin Cities, have seen a significant increase in annual population gains compared to the previous decade, primarily due to a significantly larger international migration into these areas. Unless a similar migration trend of either growing domestic or international in-migration is seen in rural areas, most of rural Minnesota is projected to continue losing population over the next 20 to 30 years.

Also, one aspect of these trends that continues to get overlooked is the in-migration of 30- to 49-year-olds across Greater Minnesota. Many rural development organizations are recognizing this trend and are developing initiatives that focus on recruitment and retention in this age group.

Economic Vitality

There are few significant differences in employment when comparing urban and rural areas. Education and health services along with trade, transportation, and utilities employ nearly 50% of the labor force in most of our counties no matter how rural. Rural counties, however, have a higher percentage of people employed in agriculture and government jobs or are self-employed, while the Twin Cities area has a significant share of people employed in the professional and business services sector.

There continues to be significant opportunity for employment in regions outside the seven-county metro. The highest job vacancy rates and largest increases in wages for job vacancies have occurred in Greater Minnesota.

Although the largest gains in earnings per job have occurred outside of the most urban counties, the growth hasn’t been enough to close the gap between this region and the rest of the state. The agriculture sector experienced enormous growth in earnings between 2008 and 2012, but low earnings over the last four years have erased those gains.


Although agricultural land values are beginning to decline since their peak in 2014, they continue to be historically high, with the largest increases in land value occurring along the western side of the state. Meanwhile, low commodity prices and increases in the costs of production have created a situation where many farmers have a negative net income. Even when including government payments, which typically represent 2% to 3% of total farm income, most farmers are barely getting by.

Rural-urban Commuting Area regions

Everyone has their own idea and definition of “rural” based on their perceptions—one person’s small town is another person’s weekend city shopping hub. However, anyone traveling across our state can agree that most of Minnesota can’t be categorized as strictly rural or metropolitan. Most places are in between.

To develop a better understanding of trends across Minnesota, this report will be using two different breakdowns: a) maps highlighting data at the individual county level, and b) county-level data aggregated into four categories developed by the Minnesota State Demographer: entirely rural; town/rural mix; urban/town/rural mix; and entirely urban (Figure 1). As the names suggest, counties have been grouped based on the degree of their “ruralness” or “urbanness.” The appendix provides more complete definitions for each of these categories.

The number of counties within each category are: a) entirely rural: 14; b) town/rural mix: 35; c) urban/town/rural mix: 25; and d) entirely urban: 13.


While the state’s most rural counties are still experiencing annual population declines, the rest of the state is seeing growth slowing, except in entirely urban counties, which since 2010 have seen a significant increase in annual population gains. Meanwhile, although Minnesota has experienced an average annual net loss in domestic migration, urban counties have overcome that loss through significantly higher international migration.

Population gains slowing throughout Greater Minnesota while the most rural areas see declines continuing

Currently, population growth outside of the seven-county metro is largely concentrated in metropolitan counties such as Blue Earth and Olmsted, the north central lakes area (for example, Itasca, Cass and Hubbard), and in counties where there is a concentration of non-white populations, such as in Kandiyohi and Mower (Figure 2).

All of these trends are influencing population projections. The counties expected to continue experiencing population increases over the next 20 to 30 years are in areas with higher percentages of non-white populations and have a higher number of people migrating in from outside the United States.

Despite all of these trends, though, one aspect that continues to get overlooked is the in-migration of 30- to 49-year-olds across Greater Minnesota. Many rural development organizations are recognizing this trend and are developing initiatives that focus on the recruitment and retention of this age group.

In urban counties, international in-migration makes up for domestic out-migration

A relatively significant change in Greater Minnesota’s population is occurring across the state, but that change varies depending on how rural or urban a county is. As Figure 3 shows, the more urban a county is, the more likely it is to have seen continued population growth, but between 2010 and 2017, that growth has slowed compared to the decade 2000-2010. The exception is in entirely urban counties, where growth in the current decade has continued to accelerate. The state’s most rural counties, however, have continued to see population loss on average, but the rate of loss has stayed fairly steady.

One of the primary differences in any of the rural county groups compared to the most urban areas is the lack of international migration. All regions are experiencing an annual net loss in domestic migration, but the loss in urban areas is significantly less and has been overcome by huge gains in international migration (Figure 4).

Without international migration, natural change can barely make up for out-migration from rural counties. In addition, counties in the entirely rural group continue to see more deaths than births, meaning those counties are experiencing on average both outmigration and negative natural change (Figure 5).

Population projections show gains in counties with non-white populations

Although the nonwhite and Latino populations have increased across all of Minnesota since 1970, that population has exploded in entirely urban counties, going from 2% of the population in 1970 to 22% in 2017. Today, that percentage averages between 7% and 8% across the other county groups (Figure 6).

In Greater Minnesota, nonwhite and Latino populations tend to be concentrated in a few areas, such as St. Cloud, Worthington, and Rochester, while the demographics in the rest of the region have stayed largely unchanged. The counties where these populations are concentrated in Greater Minnesota are not only the same locations that are currently experiencing population gains (compare Figure 2 and Figure 7), but are also projected to continue seeing population gains (Figure 7 and Figure 8). However, Southwest Minnesota is an outlier. Despite the higher concentration of non-white population, they are still projected to experience a decline due to the significantly higher percentage of older people and the net loss in domestic migration.