Seeing rural America

AMERICANS have become increasingly concerned about the economic crisis in rural America. Tragic events such as farm foreclosures, farm owner suicides, and assaults on bank loan officers have garnered nationwide headlines. We may well feel a legitimate concern for those touched by these tragedies. At the same time, we can increase our understanding of the situation by viewing it within the context of ongoing change in the rural landscape. What we need is a realistic view of rural places. An intelligent appraisal of what we see in the countryside, the landscapes of rural America, reveals changes that need not be considered threatening.

The magnitude of concern for the farm crisis suggests that we are seeing more than just a rational reaction to an economic challenge. We are witnessing the public perception that values represented by the American pastoral image may disappear. The unspoken fear is that the perceived rural virtues of independence, hard work, and stable social conditions will decline with the family farm. It is as if people are questioning: If old barns, wood stave silos, and windmills vanish, will our rural heritage be next?

Some of this feeling represents a historic dichotomy in American thought that has equated rural areas with stability and urban places with social disruption. Personal tragedies in rural America often get more attention than those in cities because social instability seems incompatible with our image of farm country. In truth, prevailing social conditions affect both rural and urban places.

Rural America has never been the scene of a stagnant social or economic life style. Scientific agriculture and mechanization have increased harvests and decreased the need for labor throughout this century. Larger farms worked by smaller families have led to farm landscapes that look different.

The buildings of the American farmstead were not constructed to last forever. Material structures deteriorate. In this sense, structural decay is a natural process. Preservation and renovation of some farm homes and barns are desirable, but also intervene in the normal course of structural replacement.

What kind of farm structures do we see today? Large machines do not fit in old barns. Thus, the single-story, metal-sided pole barn on most farms represents innovation in agricultural technique and investment in the future on the part of families. New feeding methods lessen the need for picturesque, high-loft barns. Airtight metal silos maintain higher-quality silage than wooden ones. Modern houses, containing the conveniences most families desire, have replaced large, hard-to-heat homes that once sheltered many laborers.

Farm fields have taken on a new look. Intensive cropping on large acreage allows smaller, rougher plots to be returned to forest cover that supports wildlife. New fertilization and cultivation techniques mean that farmers spend less time in the fields. In many places, part-time farmers operate small farms. These marginal land operations may not look prosperous but are similar in many ways to farms of pioneer days.

Rural towns are changing, too. The more isolated ones are losing population as mobile farm folk travel greater distances for goods and services. Some villages near recreational sites have reoriented their economic life toward visitors. Meanwhile, towns closer to urban centers are growing as commuting workers seek the amenities of country living.

The look of the land has changed somewhat, but fundamental values survive despite periodic economic crises. This is not to suggest that all the challenges of rural America have been met. But if we look at rural landscapes with a perceptive eye, we will see there is no reason for despair.

Ary J. Lamme III is a geographer at the University of Florida and editor of North American Culture.

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