From city to soil

Trading condos in the urban jungle for barns in the country, rural transplants hope to find a reprieve from city worries

Thurston Williams and Annelle Durham led a good life in San Francisco. He taught school, and she was a healthcare consultant. They lived only blocks from Golden Gate Park, and their kids, Artec and Kyla, were steps from a city teeming with culture. It was, by many standards, an ideal life. But a quiet urge pulled Mr. Williams and Ms. Durham away.

"The question was: Did I want to remain a teacher for another 20 years," says Mr. Williams, "or ... did I want to do something [else] before retirement age? Going into farming was a long-term attraction for me."

So in 1992, they moved deep into the country - the first step in radically altering their lifestyle.

Leaving the blur of city life and moving to the country is a growing trend. In fact, America's nonmetro population grew by 3.9 million, or 7.6 percent, during the 1990s, compared with just a 1.3-million increase in the 1980s, according to the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

"Our yen for a slower-paced, small-town life is also a reaction to the yuppie-treadmill syndrome of the 1980s, with its single-minded devotion to getting and spending," writes Wanda Urbanska in "Moving to a Small Town" (Fireside, $20).

Will the events of Sept. 11 hasten the move from city to country? While it's too soon to tell, experts agree that the terrorist attacks have, for many people, pushed the idea of rural living from a romantic pipe dream to a more serious possibility.

"A lot of them are saying they are stepping up plans.... They're getting down to the nitty-gritty, instead of just dreaming," says Gene GeRue, author of "How to Find Your Ideal Country Home" (Warner, $16), in a phone interview. "We, as Americans, are longing to return to traditional values."

Evidence of the "rural renaissance," as one expert calls it, is increasing across the US. Sandy Geib, publisher of the Rural Property Bulletin, has seen a 30 to 40 percent jump in subscriptions since the attacks. Some people call her and just want to talk. "Maybe [they think], it's time to act on the dream they had about getting out to the country," Ms. Geib says.

Brad Holcomb, president of RemoteRealty.com, says traffic to his website was steady throughout September, but spiked 30 percent in October.

Many Americans, such as Williams and Ms. Durham, long ago traded their Nigiri sushi and trips to the dry cleaners for fresh vegetables and sun-dried laundry. They've drastically changed their lifestyle, and their stories - and all the ups and downs they've gone through - provide valuable lessons for those toying with the idea of leaving the concrete jungle.

Williams and Durham tiptoed into rural life. They didn't sell their San Francisco house right away, and he took a leave of absence from teaching.

"We rented an 18-acre walnut ranch for $700 a month with a 2,000-square-foot old farmhouse, with, unfortunately, no heat. We found that out in the middle of the winter," Williams says. The bedroom windows were coated inside with ice until they convinced the landlord to put in a wood stove.

While there, they scouted more than 100 other properties until they finally settled on 20 acres of "beautiful class-one, clay-loam soil" near Upper Lake, Calif. (pop. 1,000) for about $87,000. Their property is now valued at twice that.

Indeed, price is often the deciding factor for those longing to return to the land. But rural living's attractiveness also hinges on one's appetite for isolation. For example, RemoteRealty.com advertises a two-bedroom house (sorry, no bathroom) in Maine on 30 acres for $26,900. The drawback? It's 15 miles away from the nearest town (Amity, pop. 188).

But remoteness is only one issue that has to be dealt with. Learning the rhythm of the land and how to make a living on it are equally as important.

"Our knowledge of farming was zero," says Williams. "We just had to start from scratch. We started with a quarter-acre garden, which was huge for us at the time." Now they are up to four acres of vegetables and five acres of grapes, plus plum and apple trees.

Attending agriculture conferences and using Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, a service that researches - for free - agriculture-related questions, helped them along.

The toughest part, Williams says, is the hard work.

"It's hard on the body" he says. Plus, "there can be a lot of stress when you are about to lose your crops."

Drawbacks such as these, warns Mr. GeRue, mean rural living is not for everyone. Septic tanks clog, trees blow across driveways, and towns close at 5 p.m. Beyond that, he says, some people who move to rural areas may clash with the ingrained values and political leanings of the new community.

But if families do their homework, the rewards are tremendous. Williams's children loved their new freedom, roaming the fields and exploring the creek. Their parents didn't have to keep a constant eye on them as they did in the city.

"The greatest thing besides our love that we ever gave our kids was that we gave them the opportunity of being raised on a farm," Williams says.

Isolation may keep some from moving to the country, but it was the main attraction for Steve Schmeck and Sue Robishaw.

The former Dow Chemical employee and computer programmer from Midland, Mich., bought 80 acres of land in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, parts of which Schmeck calls "almost beyond rural."

They planned meticulously for the move, compiling lists of everything they would need, from 200 feet of half-inch nylon rope to a wood-burning cook stove. They aimed to have everything ready in five years. It happened in two. So, in 1978, with only their desire to live in the woods pushing them, they headed to a remote area near Manistique, Mich.

"We built a 14-by-22-foot workshop [and] lived in that for about eight years while we built our house," Mr. Schmeck says.

During those eight years, they framed the skeleton of the house several times with 1-by-6-foot boards and wandered around inside the shell, tinkering with it until they found perfection - perfection only the adventurous would love.

They have no hot water or refrigeration. They even have an outhouse. Yet, they are perfectly content. Solar power (they're now up to 12 solar panels) and a generator provide their electricity. At one point, they even had a solar-powered chicken coop. Almost all the food they eat between June and October is fresh, harvested from their massive garden. The rest of the year, most of their food is dried or canned; it's kept in a root cellar.

But they don't necessarily fit the Grizzly Adams survivalist stereotype. They go to Marquette, Mich., to attend theater productions.

Schmeck now works part time as a computer system administrator at a local school. But the majority of his and his wife's time is spent doing work on their property and reveling in their lifestyle. Ms. Robishaw, an author, is content to write and work in the large garden, and Schmeck enjoys riding his recumbent bicycle on logging roads.

"We don't hunger for intellectual stimulation, and we have a lot of physical things to do to keep us going," he says. "It's just a real nice balance."

"I think people don't realize that this is not a very difficult thing to do," he says, adding that you can't beat the cost. "We could live easily on $250 to $300 a month if we had to," he says. Last year, they made about $15,000, and that was plenty.

While many would think this lifestyle is too extreme, David Shi, president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who has written books on simple living, says it's not necessary to retreat to achieve a less-complicated lifestyle.

"Simplicity is not a single mode of living, but rather it is fundamentally a state of mind," says Dr. Shi. "It's a recognition that we need to adopt an outlook that consciously discriminates every day among our priorities."

Rural living comes in varying degrees. Just ask Wanda Urbanska and her husband, Frank Levering. She was an up-and-coming journalist at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and Mr. Levering wrote screenplays. They ditched the frenetic Los Angeles lifestyle for a cherry orchard north of Mount Airy, N.C. (pop. 8,000), which happens to be the hometown of Andy Griffith and the basis for the fictional TV town of Mayberry.

"[Ours] was a fairly common workaholic story that we're seeing in America today," says Ms. Urbanska. "I think it's very easy to get caught up in material acquisition and financial advancement in a big city because that's so much a part of the culture around you."

She craved the community offered in Mount Airy, something that she never had the urge to get involved with in Los Angeles. Now she's a regular at the Rotary Club and chairman of the board of the chamber of commerce.

"Longstanding relationships count for an awful lot. If you know people, you're less concerned about what car they drive..., how big their house is," Urbanska says. "If you get involved in community life, those things start to fade away."

Is country living right for you?

Finances, experts say, frequently dictate whether families move to the country, and land prices often play one of the most crucial roles. Finding affordable land depends on the area. The average price of farm real estate ranges from $260 an acre in Wyoming to $7,400 in New Jersey, according to the USDA. With such a wide range in prices and properties, Gene GeRue, author of "How to Find Your Ideal Country Home," says if families are considering a move to the country, they should take it seriously and not get caught up in the romantic notion of it. He offers these tips to consider before moving to a rural area:

• Determine who you are and what you want to do. Decide whether you truly want to live in the country.

• Identify the characteristics of your ideal property.

• Locate regions that have the climate, as well as the topographic, demographic, economic, and other characteristics that fit your wants and needs. Narrow your list down to two or three regions to investigate.

• Determine your ideal area. Look at all appropriate properties in your ideal area, measure them against your criteria, and choose the best one.

• Satisfy yourself - through inspections and investigations - that the property has no hidden flaws, and you will be able to do with it as you wish.

• Obtain a fair price on your chosen property, with adequate escape clauses in the contract should you change your mind.

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