Saving the rural landscape. Local conservationists focus on barns and farms

`DISCOVER the relaxing Kansas prairie,'' says a brochure from Council Grove, Kan. Visit the ``Last Chance Store,'' it recommends. ``Rural Conservation: Preservation in a Living Landscape,'' says another pamphlet; this one, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, encourages farmers to rent a film on how to ``use the past to create your future.'' Headlong into a farm crisis that may make the prairie seem anything but ``relaxing'' and the rural landscape anything but ``living,'' such invocations might seem ludicrous. Can farmers really polish and preserve ``The Little House on the Prairie,'' as an image and identity in such impoverished times?

Here in the heartland, where the National Trust held its 20th annual convention last month, community activists offered hope and some examples of how historic preservation could become a catalyst for the economic and social well being of the farm belt. They vocalized a trend touching many parts of rural America.

``I've seen an incredible range of things happening for an incredible range of reasons,'' says Marilyn Fedelchek, field representative from the trust's Chicago office. They range from nostalgia and memory to the pragmatic recycling of a vintage corncrib for storage. Either way, they signal a growing number of advocates trying to overcome enormous obstacles. Times are desperate. ``People are receptive to anything,'' she says.

A farm organizer who switched from Washington-based lobbying to labors on the local level, Ms. Fedelchek culled some of the most creative of the rural activists, planners, and preservationists to chart how they were using the legacy and identity of days past to ease the crisis.

Against vast odds, farmers everywhere tally up specific results: here, some covered bridges saved; there, some Finnish barns refurbished; elsewhere, zoning and easements to save the larger landscape. More important, they offer hope that the pioneer energy seen in hard-pressed urban areas a decade-plus ago can help, despite the catastrophe of falling incomes and suburban incursions on the landscape.

``Our businesses are few and far between,'' Margaret Kinnunen of Embarrass (``the cold spot''), Minn., observed. The town clerk took her first plane ride to Kansas City to report the results of trying to save the legacy of Finnish barns. ``Our town is in dire need,'' she said, telling how her preservation group focused on saving the barns and the Finnish craft heritage through fairs and handicraft revival.

Self-discovery of that heritage comes slowly, usually launched by an outsider who substantiates the worth of the local artifacts and architecture.

In Embarrass, Alan Pape, site manager of Wisconsin's ``Old Wade House'' and an admirer of Finnish vernacular forms, noted the beauty of such rough-hewn barns. ``They signify ancient cultural life styles and farming techniques that give insight into Old World peoples,'' he noted. Without upkeep, such structures vanish. ``People had no idea of what their historic resources were,'' says Fedelchek.

The same hands-on spirit galvanized farmers to save the covered bridges of Rush County, Ind. Field surveyor J. Marshall Davis of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana had just begun a survey of the county's historical, architectural, and landscape features when he learned that the county commissioners planned to demolish four of the six bridges. Struck by the beauty of the structures, he reacted enthusiastically to a letter from local accountant Larry Stout, helping to found Rush County Heritage Inc. to rescue them. In short order, the rural preservationists had collected 7,000 signatures (in a county of 19,000 residents), sold T-shirts to raise funds, hired an engineer to do a feasibility report, and ``elevated public awareness.'' On Nov. 4, they crowned their labors by defeating a county commissioner who opposed the bridges' rescue.

Befriending the farm environment like this does more than save a special heritage, say preservationists. It encourages a sense of personal worth and identity in the farm community.

But the impulse extends beyond singular architectural labors to larger conservation measures - from the need to watchdog how the federal government disposes of thousands of bankrupt farms without disrupting the historic landscape, to developing sophisticated strategies in threatened metropolitan areas.

The loss of rural land in the last decade, as Americans moved outward, sparked conservation.

With one-third of the population on rural lands, asphalt covered vast acreage. By 1982, even New York's State Preservation League held a conference; an exhibition on ``New York State Barns'' circulated. Last summer the League sponsored an article on ``Vanishing Landmarks: New York State Barns'' as part of its series on the state's distinguishing architecture - all to call attention to the 30 percent of its land still farmed.

Beyond the single structures, however, those concerned lest farmlands turn into house lots have instituted devices from public zoning and purchase of development rights to private land trust.

They have tried to barricade or buy the pastoral landscape to save its scenic vistas and topographical features from the development that often devours the best farmlands.

Pressed for cash, farms in even remote areas sell their cornfields for ranch houses. Sue Weidmann, a psychologist concerned with rural issues for the landscape architecture department of the University of Illinois, was ``horrified'' to find that the 75 acres next to her family's farm had been sold for use by recreational vehicles - this 2 hours from Chicago.

``Some of the development is occurring on prime land,'' she observes. This observation reinforces a recent study by the American Farmland Trust, which shows the attrition of the most fertile fields near urbanizing areas.

Stephen Arras, planner for McHenry County, Woodstock, Ill., is somewhat more sanguine. ``We've begun to see that rural conservation is a necessary part of the planning process,'' he says, citing the American Planning Association's establishment of a division on rural areas. Rural conservation has spread, he says. ``It's a result of growth going on everywhere, and not paying attention to costs.''

His own county started planning to stop the onslaught of development, designating areas as ``agricultural'' with a 160-acre minimum lot size. The plan passed. Today, when a building proposal comes in, the developer has the burden of proof: He must show that his proposal is compatible with the farm-based land use plan. ``That's music to a planner's ear,'' Arras says. ``You can fight city hall.''

Private practitioners have also sprouted across the landscape to reverse the loss of the rural landscape.

In Vermont, the Ottauquechee Land Trust has tried to save the farmscape from the second-home onslaught in the same fashion, making fast some 10,000 of the state's 600,000 acres of prime lands by buying easements or, in the case of such an architectural prize as Bennington's Park-McCullough mansion and farm, using a variety of devices to keep the grounds along with the home.

Box socials and sophisticated stewardship notwithstanding, can this sort of rural preservation stem the down slide of the farm economy and save the landscape? Advocates recognize the tough odds.

Nonetheless, ``the number of communities and counties that are looking for new ideas is growing,'' says Ralph Grossi, dairy farmer and president of the American Farmland Trust.

``Farm preservation is an ethical and an economic issue,'' he says. ``The important thing is that they address the issue. Then, the important thing is that they have the tools.'' The number of communities is growing. The sophistication is growing. The constituency is growing. The amount of action is growing, he reports. ``That has to be positive,'' he says.

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