Searching for Green AcresBy Joan Waldoch
It seems rural America is getting a new look.
Just 10 years ago, the rural counties bordering the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area were truly rural. It was possible to make it from "downtown" to "the country" in minutes – and country meant corn and soybean fields, dairy barns, gravel roads, and lots of open space.
Today, many of those fields have been replaced with housing subdivisions and strip malls, connected by more roads filled with more cars. The distance between downtown and the country is greater now. The same trend has been occurring in cities all across the nation. Productive farmland is increasingly being taken over by sprawling metropolitan areas.
Who is living in all those subdivisions? In many cases, especially in agricultural areas, it's likely to be country kids who have grown up and left the farm for jobs in the cities. So who is living in the country? That seems to be changing too, even in America's heartland. A new study from Iowa State University says farmers now make up a minority in the rural parts of that state. Dr. Willis Goudy, an ISU sociologist, reports that there are more non-farmers living in rural areas than there are farmers.
The trend in Iowa mirrors a national trend, with three-fourths of the nation's 2,304 non-metro counties increasing in population. Growth is most likely to occur in areas surrounding urban counties. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the populations of rural counties surrounding cities like Dallas, Chicago, Cincinnati and Minneapolis have been steadily increasing.
There's an ironic twist to this trend. Many of the new rural residents are living in the country because they can afford that "luxury." They are likely to be corporate executives turned hobby farmers. They have done well in the stock market, purchased land at low interest rates and given up at least some of the rat race for a more serene lifestyle in the country. Perhaps they were influenced by the '60s sitcom "Green Acres."
The hobby farming trend is apparently so pronounced that county Extension agents have started night classes for the former city dwellers on such topics as manure disposal and watershed management. Manufacturers are producing smaller versions of tractors, seeders and tillers, and circulation of magazines geared toward small farms is increasing. Feed stores now stock supplies for all types of exotic animals, from llamas to emus to chinchillas.
Farmers and ranchers have been hearing a lot recently about how they must adapt to changes because agriculture is entering a new era. No doubt many of them can look around the rural landscape and see that for themselves.
Joan Waldoch is editor of Farm Bureau News for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C.