Minnesota’s Small Town Grocers Adapt to a Changing World
In 2011, Corey and Ket Christianson relocated from Singapore to buy the grocery store in the northwest Minnesota town of Badger, on Highway 11 southwest of Roseau.
Badger, a town of 400 less than 20 miles from the Canadian border, was at risk of losing its grocery store if a buyer didn’t come through, Corey Christianson said.
“We thought, well this is much less expensive than Singapore to live and it’s a great place to raise a family,” Christianson said. Plus, he grew up working at the store: his parents had owned it before some of its more recent proprietors.
More recently, the family bought another store in nearby Greenbush that risked closure and runs them as KC’s Country Markets.
Lots of Minnesota towns like Badger and Greenbush don’t have grocery stores anymore, and new research from the University of Minnesota Extension helps shed light on why. In a survey of 129 grocery stores located in communities of 2,500 or fewer, the researchers found that while nearly two-thirds of respondents said their business was thriving, 88 percent were worried about their economic sustainability and roughly half are worried their store will go out of business in the next five years.
Studying small-town grocers
Kathryn Draeger, the survey’s principal investigator, is the statewide director for the U’s regional sustainable development partnerships. She became interested in rural grocery stores after moving to Big Stone County, on the South Dakota border, 12 years ago. “The first few months I lived here, I would pack coolers and bags and I would go back to [Twin Cities co-op] Mississippi Market, places like that to shop. And I would bring the back of my car full of food that we were familiar with,” she said.
Ultimately, she started thinking more about how local food refers not just where it’s grown, but also where it’s purchased, and started shopping at the local grocery store in Clinton, Minnesota.
Draeger says the United States Department of Agriculture considers Big Stone County a food desert: a place where many residents don’t have easy access to a supermarket or a large grocery store. “[But I noticed] these small-town grocery stores really create an oasis in these rural food deserts, and even though they’re too small volume-wise to be counted by the USDA as being a solution to food deserts, they really truly are,” she said.