Agriculture, Rural Living June 01, 2023
Clicking Best of Both Worlds Together
Family builds full life on and off 5th generation farm.
"I've been an artist my whole life. It's a part of me; it just has to come out," says Kylie Rieke. Her words flow out quickly like the colorful, expressive pieces she creates.
She and her husband, Jake, met in high school in south central Minnesota. They both moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for college and early careers and eventually moved to El Salvador with the Peace Corps. She did not envision her future outside the small town of Fairfax, Minn., where Jacob's family farms.
He didn't either.
He was content in the city before they joined the Peace Corps. He later described the time abroad as the happiest time of his life, but it was while they were in the Peace Corps he decided he wanted to take over his family's grain and hog farm.
Kylie vividly remembers thinking, "What am I going to do there? I'm not going to be able to find an art job. Then, he told me if we move back to his family's farm, he would build me a pottery studio within 10 years."
That is what happened.
In 2020—almost exactly ten years later—they built a new shed on the 150-year-old farmstead and filled it with a kiln, potter's wheel, storage racks, and big windows. She quit her day job as a commercial potter making kitchenware for a company a few towns over and now creates individual art pieces. They have also developed a YouTube channel where they post videos of her process and the deep meaning behind each piece.
How it happened during the decade in between was not as smooth as the porcelain clay she molds with now, though.
"We were definitely going through a feeling of being trapped out here as a family on the farm, like we had reached our ceiling. There seemed to be no other paths for us to grow or other opportunities. We just never found our community; we didn't feel like we fit in," Jake explains matter-of-factly now that they have worked through those tough emotions.
Rural sociologist and University of Minnesota Extension educator, Ben Winchester, says Jake and Kylie are the perfect example of how rural America is changing. He says he sees this happening in many towns across the countryside.
"They have feet in both worlds in the sense they have a tie to the community, but they also have these experiences that bring potentially more to the community than if they had not had that outside experience. They probably align more with other transplants than returnees, even though they are returnees," Winchester explains.
"But they are not alone in the broader population. Nowadays, three quarters of new people moving to rural communities are not originally from that town."
Kylie and Jake struggled with the decision to move back to the farm and once there, they struggled with whether to stay and continue raising their family there until something finally clicked.
When it clicked. "Nothing's changed, but everything's changed," Jake reflects. "We felt isolated from the world to a certain extent here. You can serve on boards and do other leadership stuff, or you can run for office. But we needed something else."
He says the shift started when he finally acknowledged that he was unhappy. "I thought: Okay, I'm unhappy. Now what? You have to be open minded enough and receptive enough to engage with that realization. So eventually I asked myself, 'Well, what's one thing you can do?' Then, it goes on from there."
This seemingly simple change in both of their perspectives catapulted them to where they are now, which is very happy, rooted, and forward-thinking.
"I've never been intentional in my life, but my life has worked out fantastically. That has changed," says Jake. "We were trying to live in a bubble on our fifth-generation farm just like previous generations had."
As they took each new step they realized they had the infrastructure in place to connect to all the pieces of their lives that were missing being out on the farm.
"Now with fast internet, it really doesn't matter where we live. In fact, it's actually easier to have a pottery studio in the country than in town. We have the best of both worlds," Kylie says through a big, relaxed smile. "The rent's much cheaper here. We have so much more space and have an awesome view and nature all around us. Yet, at the same time, we're connected to the world."
Winchester's work focuses on how rural communities can welcome newcomers so they feel at home in their new community and add value so the town can continue to evolve. He terms this "brain gain" and sees a lot of positives from this family's story but feels community leaders can do a lot to help similar families get to this point quicker and more easily.
Much of his work boils down to the concept that rural towns are in the "middle of everywhere" instead of the "middle of nowhere."
"People like this family are moving to rural towns for hope and opportunity. I encourage community leaders to host newcomer meals. One of the primary outcomes from them is newcomers saying, 'Oh, I can't believe I'm not the only one,'" he says and adds, "Communities are not these stagnant things that have one definition. In rural America, our economy and population are more diverse than ever before."
How it clicked. One of the biggest concerns the Riekes had about moving to rural Renville County in 2010 was the lack of broadband internet access. They knew how important access to information and broad, diverse culture was to their desired quality of life, and they wanted to maintain that while taking over the farming operation.
"I knew how bad the internet access had been growing up here. We wondered if we were doing our daughters a disservice by raising them out here even though there are so many positives to growing up as a farm kid," Jake says.
Coincidentally, a group of people from theirs and neighboring counties had the same concern and were just starting to form a cooperative to bring fiber to their area, so Jake joined the effort immediately.
After many rounds of fundraising and different plans, they were able to build a network that serves 10 towns and 17 townships with high-speed internet. Jake now serves as the board's chairman.
The cooperative, RS Fiber, has a network with a unique mix of fiber-optic cable connections in town and rural line-of-sight, fixed-wireless transmissions. Rural customers currently can have speeds of 50 Mbps up and down, which is significantly better than the minimum requirement as defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.
When they were able to upgrade their farm's connection, the Riekes started to see beyond their acreage. For example, the girls now take their violin and cello lessons virtually. Both Jake and Kylie have taken on leadership roles in organizations that meet via Zoom instead of in person, and most importantly, they have developed an online presence for Kylie's pottery.
Winchester believes broadband access is key to rural life working for everyone.
"Agriculture has not been the primary industry in rural America for 60 or 70 years. Our research shows in the majority of counties, agriculture and related industries make up only less than 10 percent of all jobs," he says. "And when you examine a rural region, you have as diverse of economy as you find in metropolitan areas. This is a family where rural is working for them. They have a connection to the past, present, and future."
"We now feel like anything is possible," says Jake, his excitement for the future showing in his posture. "We feel that the art and online content we are creating through Raydiant Clay Works is what we are supposed to be doing." ‡
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