The Great Plains revival

Steve Tripoli Nov 21, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The Great Plains used to be in the news mostly for their economic troubles. Decades of farm crises, and a brain drain to the big cities. Businessmen jetting to meetings in New York or L.A. just made things worse. Flyover country, they called it. Not much going on down there, right? But closer to the ground the economic reality of the Plains today might give both coasts a case of envy. At the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk, Steve Tripoli has the story.

STEVE TRIPOLI: If you want to understand why the Plains are coming back, visit 84-year-old Cy Keller. Cy’s latest invention is a lot like his other ones. It’s all about solving an everyday problem.

CY KELLER: Then when the fish hits, it’ll just ring a little bell.

This invention replaces the old hand-over-hand fishing line used by many North Country ice fishermen.

KELLER: You set the hook and you’re fighting him with a little rod and reel.

Keller’s made and marketed many ingenious small products. But in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota he’s known for a bigger invention. It all started 50 years ago with a turkey farmer who couldn’t scoop manure from around the posts in his barns. He brought his problem to Keller’s machine shop.

KELLER: After he left, why, my brother and I thought, “Man, you know, if we could make somethin’ that would really turn sharp . . . Took us probably 3-4 months before we come up with an idea that, it would turn very sharp.

The Kellers’ sharp-turning skid-steer loader changed the way work is done on farms and in factories. It also launched the multinational “Bobcat” equipment line. Half a million Bobcats later it’s still based near Fargo.

Today there’s a lot more to the reviving Plains states than heavy equipment. Joel Kotkin of the nonpartisan New America Foundation has been studying the region’s comeback.

JOEL KOTKIN: The revival is concentrated in a series of, you can almost call an archipelago, of small cities and towns that are doing quite well. Des Moines, Sioux Falls, Fargo are three very good examples.

Kotkin says the stars are aligning for about a dozen Plains cities. Unemployment in these places is negligible. Wage gains are outpacing most of America. And they boast well-educated populations, growing tech and energy sectors, plus lots of cooperation between entrepreneurs, government and nearby universities.

In Fargo, electronics manufacturing like this computerized assembly line is one new strength. There’s biotech. A local software company bought out by Microsoft employs over 2,000 people.

Today’s comeback businesses trace a direct line from the farmers and ranchers of a century ago. Their descendants moved into crop and livestock science, farm management and heavy equipment. That’s Cy Keller’s generation.Then that generation moved its well-schooled kids into biotech, software, electronics and hard science.

MICHAEL CHAMBERS: This machine provides aeration for the bacteria in the DNA that we’re growing.

If Cy Keller has a spiritual heir today it would have to be 31-year-old Mike Chambers. His biotech start-up Aldevron in Fargo manufactures DNA for vaccine makers. In one part of the lab a big machine can shake dozens of beakers at once to aerate bacterial cultures.

Aldevron has 750 clients worldwide and has been profitable from the start. Mike Chambers says his roots in his family’s large beekeeping business put him on this road.

CHAMBERS: Beekeeping is a fascinating industry. So that’s sort of what got me into science. And working for my Dad and for my Grandpa got me into business. And it’s funny because making DNA is very analogous to making honey.

Chambers says local businesspeople are quick to fund promising start-ups. This nexus of rising businesses and community-wide cooperation has started paying another dividend.

CHAMBERS: We get a huge stack of resumes every month from people that want to come home.

The reenergizing cities of the Plains can now provide good work to both ends of a two-career couple. Then there’s another attraction. You can get a great house here for under $200,000.

But even with all the good news the Plains states are still an economic work-in-progress. Joel Kotkin says the whole region needs an infrastructure upgrade. It needs electric and telecommunications lines, irrigation systems, and better air service. He says the new Great Plains won’t look like the old Plains.

KOTKIN: It’s going to be something where there’s going to be fewer but more vibrant centers.

And those centers could easily be one of the more promising outlets for America’s future growth.

KOTKIN: This is another option for America in the 21st century, another strength that we can play on, something that we have forgotten. We haven’t looked at this huge part of the country that is essentially underdeveloped, and that has enormous potential that we haven’t even begun to tap.

Mike Chambers’ office at Aldevron used to sport an inspirational picture. Some farmer had turned an old headboard from a bed into a gate.

Chambers says that picture reminded him of the daily ingenuity that once made the Plains states grow. And it reminds him of what it will take to make today’s budding revival stick.

I’m Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

Cy Keller holds a model of the Bobcat loader he invented a half century ago.

Keller has his ice fisherman’s “rattle reel” in his home shop in Fergus Falls, Minn.

Photos by Steve Tripoli, Marketplace

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