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The new ruralism: A clash of cultures
Progressive Farmer magazine recently published their list of the top 20 places to live in rural America. Their list was based on cost of living, crime rate, air quality, access to healthcare, education and leisure activities. According to these criteria, Ontario County, N.Y. is the best place to live in rural America. Two Midwest counties made the top 10 list: Grundy County, Ill. and Boone County, Ind.

Progressive Farmer started publishing this annual list because of what they call the “new ruralism.”

Editor Jack Odle said Americans of all walks of life are interested in moving to the country. Why? Odle said they are seeking a “simpler life.”

You longtime rural residents can stop laughing now. Progressive Farmer editors used to include real estate prices as part of their criteria but dropped it because they found the new ruralists did not care about land or housing prices. The editors at Progressive Farmer told me most of the people looking to move to rural areas are not building McMansions on an acre of land but rather they are looking to buy 20 to 40 acres. Most want to use that land for a specific purpose.

That purpose might be keeping horses, raising fruits or vegetables for direct sale to consumers, or running a bed and breakfast. Most of these new ruralists are keeping their jobs in the city. This new trend is proving to be a blessing and a curse for many rural communities.

Progressive Farmer editors report that, when a community is chosen for their list, they are at first honored but soon fear and trepidation set in as they become concerned about the new tide of neighbors it might bring.

Many of the counties that make the Progressive Farmer list are the same areas that lost considerable population in the 1980s, and the influx of new residents, bringing with them new incomes, are a welcome economic boost. Some of these new residents are entrepreneurs who come to a community to start a new business. Communities who welcome and accept these new ruralists can reap some important benefits. But sometimes a clash of values and cultures can cause problems.

In Boone County, Ind. (No. 8 on the Progressive Farmer list) where a lot of new residents have recently moved, Wal-Mart wants to build a superstore in the town of Zionsville. Local residents say this will destroy the small town character of the community and drive local merchants out of business.

In Grundy County, Ill. (No. 6 on the Progressive Farmer list), a Wal-Mart already exists along with several large housing additions filled with people who work in nearby Chicago. Twenty-five years ago, I lived in Grundy County where everyone farmed or worked at the paper mill in town.

This clash of rural and urban cultures is happening even in areas not near big cities. Hillsboro, Kan. is wrestling with a change in the county zonings that allows homes to be built on plots as small as three acres. This has replaced the previous rule that only allowed homes on 40 acres or more. Farmers in the county have organized to fight the change.

In St. Joseph County, Ind., farmers have organized not to fight urban expansion but to fight growth by other farmers. Local small producers are working to stop a large dairy operation from locating in the county.

So as you can see the country is not such a simple place, and the issues facing rural communities do not have simple answers. Small towns need economic development and agribusiness needs growth and new technology, but these cannot come at the cost of obliterating communities, traditions and ways of life.

A song by Travis Tritt called “Country Ain’t Country No More” sums it up best. But exactly what the country is or is becoming is still being determined by the people who live there and those who are moving there.