Many people in Otter Tail County (OTC) may have heard of the docuseries, “Rural by Choice,” featuring the land and people that live in this beautiful county.
The first season, which premiered Sept. 12, 2021, was a smashing success. The seven episode docuseries was selected to be featured at the 2021 Twin Cities Film Festival and has received over 200,000 views on Facebook and Youtube. In addition to that, the series was featured on a large electronic billboard in the middle of Times Square, New York City.
The docuseries shows off some of the best aspects of OTC, and promotes the county as a great place to live, work and visit. Each episode takes a deep, personal dive into why people choose to live in rural places. Along with that, it explores topics such as diversity, culture and the rural versus urban divide all while enjoying local food, drink and recreation.
The success of Season 1 has led to the confirmation of a Season 2, and filming in OTC has officially begun.
Cory Hepola, who grew up in Perham and is now a WCCO Radio host, hosts each episode of “Rural by Choice.” He shared that he was thrilled to start Season 2. “When we first developed the concept for the docuseries we had no idea how many people would see it or how it would be received, we just wanted to share authentic stories from my favorite place in the world — Otter Tail County,” he said. “So, to see hundreds of thousands of people watch this series, to get selected by the Twin Cities Film Fest and to be on display in Times Square in New York City is quite amazing. That success allowed us an opportunity to keep exploring and telling more stories.”
When asked about why he thought season one gained so much traction, Hepola explained that the series “captured a slice of life” that many people have never experienced or may have had misconceptions about.
“This series showed that anyone can choose to live a rural life, especially now with the ability to work from home,” he said. “I think, too, we were very honest and transparent in posing some big questions, through my own journey, which challenged people to think about their own lives.”
Season 2 will differ from Season 1 in that it will touch on some of the barriers that prevent people from moving to rural areas such as OTC.
“We’re thankful we get to explore more people and areas of Otter Tail County,” Hepola explained, “focusing in on some of the common hesitations that people typically have when thinking about starting a life here — like healthcare, childcare and broadband.”
Betsy Roder, executive director for the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, was interviewed on the first day of filming for Season 2.
“I really wanted to talk about the cultural center as a resource and how that really was a big pro on my list in terms of deciding to move back to New York Mills,” shared Roder about her interview with Hepola. “And I think there is this idea out there that there is not access to the arts in our area and I would argue that there is.”
Roder described herself as a “rural rebounder,” who grew up in New York Mills, moved away for college, lived in Minneapolis for 10 years and then moved back to New York Mills.
“I guess I’m like a built in little case study,” she joked.
In addition to the interview, Hepola and the Roder family went snowshoeing and got to show off their Finnish roots by having a sauna and jumping in the snow. Uff da!
Along with exploring the ins and outs of why or why not people move to or back to OTC, one of the main topics the series investigates is the so-called rural versus urban divide.
“What I like about ‘Rural by Choice’ and what Cory and Otter Tail Lakes Country Association are doing is it’s doing some of the same work that we try to do at the cultural center,” explained Roder. “Which is to say these divisions are largely made up, really. I mean, yes — we disagree about things but there is a lot more that we agree about.”
Hepola hopes that season two will build off of season one, continue to unite people, “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 explained. “In fact, that was 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.”