Editor’s Note: Cory Hepola, featured in this story, recently began a third-party candidacy for governor in Minnesota. This piece was written and reported before Hepola publicly announced his campaign.
Folks in Otter Tail County, Minnesota are rewriting a misleading narrative about rural America: that it’s poor, conservative, and deteriorating. Through a documentary series released last fall called “Rural By Choice,” they are establishing their own narrative, one of resilience, diversity, opportunity, and quality of life for all—one episode at a time.
With more stories to tell, season 2 is now in the works by the same team behind the first series: Kvidt Creative, Otter Tail Lakes Country Association, and a prominent Minnesota media personality.
Another key person behind the endeavor is producer Erik Osberg, Otter Tail County’s Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator, reportedly the only person in America with that job title. The county, a two-hour’s drive northwest of the Twin Cities, is experiencing its own rural rebound, surpassing a population of 60,000 for the first time in history as people return to rural life.
“Rural By Choice” is more than just a documentary about small-town life, according to Osberg, who grew up in Upsala—a Central Minnesota community of just under 500 people—where he graduated high school with 28 others. “It is a movement based on the fact that people relocate to rural places in search of a simpler pace.”
Osberg noted that a simpler life doesn’t have to come at the expense of a decent living, having opportunities, and modern services and amenities. He points to the research of University of Minnesota-Extension’s Ben Winchester, which has shown the population of residents 30 to 49 years of age has increased in rural Minnesota counties and these newcomers have significant education, skills, connections, spending power, and children.
The research challenges the narrative, and according to Osberg, “It’s happening organically. Yes, we lose some 18-year-olds but some come back. It’s not all doom and gloom.”
According to Winchester, the main reasons people migrate to rural communities is for a simpler life, safety and security, affordable housing, recreation, and quality schools.
In carving out Otter Tail County’s narrative, “We’re talking about all the good things happening here,” said Osberg, in hopes of attracting newcomers.
“Otter Tail County is an ideal area to live and work,” he asserted. “With over 1,000 lakes, plenty of career choices, great schools, and supportive communities, you can live your best life here.”
He continued, “Rather than wondering when your next vacation is, perhaps it’s time to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.”
Another major factor in the success of “Rural by Choice” are the contributions of two-time Emmy award-winning media personality Cory Hepola, the show’s host and co-producer.
Osberg praised Hepola’s involvement. “Cory had to be vulnerable and open up about what it was like to grow up there, leave there. He was authentic and genuine.” He praised Hepola’s writing skills and persona, combined with behind-the-lens talent.
Hepola described it like this: “We were very honest and transparent in posing some big questions, through my own journey, which challenged people to think about their own lives.”
He added, “What ‘Rural by Choice’ did so wonderfully is capture a slice of life that a lot of people haven’t experienced or maybe had a misconception about. This series showed that anyone can choose to live a rural life especially now with the ability to work from home.”
Jenna and Micah Kvidt, of Kvidt Creative, were the main team behind the camera. They both grew up in Pelican Rapids but wandered the globe with their storytelling skills. “They have a gift,” declared Osberg. “Micah has a golden eye and can see the shots. They get into editing and work as a team and are phenomenal.”
Community Vibes in Otter Tail County
Osberg is enthusiastic when he speaks of the successes of all Otter Tail County’s communities—places like Battle Lake (pop. 857), New York Mills (pop. 1,294), Parkers Prairie (pop. 1,020), Pelican Rapids (pop. 2,577), Perham (pop. 3,512), and Fergus Falls (pop. 14,119), the county seat and largest city in the county.
He recounts each place’s unique strengths, such as Perham’s new school, top-notch healthcare, industry, and progressive mindset. “They are problem solvers,” he asserted. “Perham does a good job of identifying a barrier and getting a group of people together to battle the problem.”
He described how Battle Lake citizens banded together to build a new childcare facility, a need in the community.
On Fergus Falls? “It has an eclectic vibe to it. Arts scenes. Bigger school. M State. Industry.” At a Tudor-style supper club named Mabel Murphy’s, just off the interstate, one can dine with views of deer commonly grazing nearby.
What about New York Mills? “Lund Boats. Cultural Center. An arts hub.”
And Pelican Rapids? “Cultural Diversity with large Latino and Somali populations there.”
Back to Battle Lake. “Tourism. Lots of good restaurants to choose from.”
“Each of the communities within the county are doing a really good job of living up to expectations,” he said.
How ‘Rural by Choice’ Came to Be
“Rural by Choice” aimed to tell stories that people all over can relate to, said Osberg. His boss, Nick Leonard, an administrator for Otter Tail County, gave the green light on the project as a way of leveraging CARES Act emergency relief dollars for marketing purposes.
Though the project morphed into something else, Osberg said, “We set out to create a pilot episode to send it out to Netflix.”
Prior to working for the county, Osberg’s background was as a sports anchor, where his experience documenting the news proved fitting. He said, “This project was absolutely an extension of that.”
The docuseries premiered September 12, 2021, at a small theater in Perham, Hepola’s hometown. Episodes were released weekly thereafter. A highlight, it was also screened at the Twin Cities Film Festival.
“We went on a large national media blitz that gained a lot of positive attention,” claimed Osberg, “including a billboard on Times Square!”
Since its release, some of the episodes have achieved some viral buzz. For example, Episode 2, “Cory Learns to Farm”, is approaching 100,000 views on YouTube.
“It resonated with a lot of people who grew up on a farm and maybe others who had never been on a farm,” explained Osberg.
Hepola said, “We’re thrilled by the response to the entire series, but the farming episode really hit people for one reason: Cordell Huebsch.” Huebsch, owner of Otter Berry Farm, offers a glimpse of rural Minnesota’s agriculture industry in the episode.
“What an incredible family man living out his purpose to feed the world,” said Hepola describing Huebsch, who grew up in Otter Tail County, moved to Montana, but decided to move back to raise his family.
“You could feel his energy and love for others jump off the screen,” added Hepola. “There are a lot of misconceptions about farming and that lifestyle, and this episode was able to break those all down, showing people a slice of life through Cordell’s eyes.”
Urban vs. Rural?
Living in a rural versus an urban setting is not polarizing in and of itself. Osberg believes each episode gives people a lot to think about while shining a light on the idea that living in different places doesn’t divide us. “Instead, it gives us an opportunity to find mutual respect,” he explained.
When asked what was learned in Season 1, Osberg said, “Mainly, there is perception and reality. We all look at things with our own lens, experiences and biases.”
He said insight was gained into why people live where they live, whether it is urban or rural. “It’s hard to put your finger on one reason people may choose to live in a rural place,” he said. But, an overriding theme is that “people were looking for a simpler pace of life.” Osberg emphasized learning from one another, “The intent has never been to create an ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ It is not urban versus rural. It is about sharing stories.”
Of Season 2, Osberg said there is an unlimited supply of stories to tell and they are changing and evolving. Of the five planned episodes for release in Fall 2022, he stated, “There’s one more episode to film.”
Hepola added, “I’m pumped I get to show off more of my Finnish roots by taking a hot sauna and jumping into the snow. We’re thankful we get to explore more people and areas of Otter Tail County, focusing in on some of the common hesitations that people typically have when thinking about starting a life here, like healthcare, childcare, and the cold weather.”
Osberg quipped, “If you’re going to live here, it isn’t always July. People who live here in the winter don’t just hibernate. There’s snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling.”
Hepola said, “I pray that our story continues to unite. That it builds off Season 1 and allows even more people in Minnesota, and around the world, to see the beauty of the people and this lifestyle in Otter Tail County.”
He continued, “The comment I heard the most about Season 1, and the one I valued the most, was that our series helped them connect with rural Minnesota differently than before.”