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Winter and Worries Settle into North Dakota

As this is written, the temperature in Bismarck, the capital city of North Dakota, is minus-17 degrees Celsius. And the forecast for the week is for high temperatures falling far short of zero.

And North Dakota, which sits up against Canada in the windswept Great Plains, will get only colder and snowier in the months to come. Miserable winters and relatively scarce job prospects in this flat farm state have produced a slow but steady population decline. Most older farmers and their spouses have hung on. They treasure the neighborliness of rural life, the clean air, low crime, and measured pace. But by the thousands, young people leave North Dakota the first chance they get for warmer, sunnier, and livelier places with good job opportunities.

As the USA Today newspaper wrote recently, "the hands passing the pitchers of melted butter [at the breakfast table] are weathered; the heads bobbing in animated conversation are mostly silver-haired." Already below the national average, North Dakota's percentage of people who are of prime working age is projected to fall from 40 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2020.

That means North Dakota farmers and other employers may have no choice but to recruit labor from outside the state. Many, perhaps most, of those workers would likely be immigrants — foreign-born speakers of Spanish and other languages that will seem strange in a state that is 92 percent white and English-speaking.

How will a graying population, somewhat set in its ways, react to an influx of people of a different heritage? It's one of the hot conversation topics that those silver-haired folks passing the melted butter in North Dakota are bobbing their heads about.