Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation has long worked on early childhood programs. The foundation offers literacy and early childhood incentive grants, as well as loans to licensed providers to expand or enhance their services. It connects AmeriCorps corps members with centers serving at-risk children. And it provides training and professional development for licensed providers.

“There are 2,000 early childhood providers offering childcare in home,” Penny said. “They’re always retiring and new ones are starting up.” The tour was told that regulatory changes will further strain the overtaxed network of providers at a stop in St. Peter’s Minnesota Square Park.

Federal rules will require all-day Head Start programming beginning 2021. Head Start is a child care and kindergarten preparation program for low-income families. So far, only Le Center, New Ulm and Blue Earth have that option, said Chris Marven, who coordinates Head Start for Minnesota Valley Action Council in nine counties. “The biggest challenge is the licensed space needed to do it,” she said.

Most of the locations offer several half-day sections where the morning and afternoon groups use the same space. Creating full-day sections will require doubling the space. Head Start will also require a four-year early childhood degree for teachers. “There are no local colleges who offer it,” Marven said.

Other challenges are in finding staff and paying enough to keep them, especially if they are trained for quality ratings through Parent Aware. Three- and four-star ratings are eligible for added incentives through the Child Care Assistance Program, which provides a sliding scale of payments for low-income families to help them secure child care.

The tour also included a visit to New Sweden Dairy, part of Davis Family Dairies, west of St. Peter. The visitors saw cows calving and milking and heard about agriculture’s growing workforce issues. Mitch Davis, general manager, said agriculture, like other sectors, will increasingly have labor shortages, forcing automation. “There is no developed economy like the U.S.,” he said. “Most places have an immigration policy that fills the ‘climb the ladder’ sector that our parents and grandparents filled.”