Most of us have heard about the challenges of running a small-town business in today’s economy. With competition from big-box stores in nearby cities and direct orders from online retailers, keeping a mom-and-pop operation viable is tougher than ever.

Much of what we know is anecdotal, but a recent report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development, a Mankato-based research organization, documented that outstate Minnesota lost 14 percent of its grocery stores between 2000 and 2013. The grocery store is usually the linchpin of a small town’s economy. If it closes, that means other main street businesses often follow. Once a small town is afflicted with boarded storefronts, it’s a difficult image to overcome.

The report cites several factors for the loss of rural grocery stores, such as declining population; a retiring owner unable to find a buyer; smaller store volume making it difficult to offer competitive prices with high-volume stores in nearby cities, and people working in these higher-population cities and picking up their groceries before returning to their small-town homes.

Despite those obstacles, some are hopeful about the future.

“Minnesota is blessed in that we still have viable, vibrant independent-based stores,” said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. “We don’t have that many corporate chains in the state. We have the heartiest retailers who really do dig in and figure out how to stay viable within the community when the big-box stores come in.”

Indeed, the Center for Rural Policy and Development report suggests new strategies to change the small-town business model, such as shifting from a larger, traditional store to a smaller, multipurpose store; upgrading older inefficient refrigeration equipment through grants, low-interest loans and crowdfunding; marketing to overlooked customers like immigrants and minorities; and partnering with farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs).

Pfuhl said some of the independent grocers have responded to the big-box retailers that have direct suppliers by creating their own supply network, but she said rural residents also must understand that financially supporting the local grocer is the key to the town’s whole economy.

“People like the convenience of that immediacy of just getting some eggs, some milk, or I want to make a cake,” Pfuhl said. “But they don’t always think about supporting them long-term. If you don’t shop at that local grocer, and you’re only picking up milk and eggs, that won’t turn the lights on.”

… “The consumer has a responsibility, too,” said Pfuhl, who described the relationship between the grocer and customer as a partnership.

Yet, with all the challenges facing rural businesses, there is evidence of a rebound. Ben Winchester, research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, has been tracking rural demographic trends. He found a marked increase in well-educated people between 30 and 49 who have children helping to reverse population losses in what he calls “the brain gain of the newcomers.”

It reminds us of the proverb that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. That axiom applies to rural business as well.

FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE ROCHESTER POST-BULLETIN