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The Value of Rural

By Steph Larsen

In a recent post that was crossposted on Gristmill, there were a few comments that reflected a view of rural areas by folks who I can only assume have chosen not to spend much time in the country. They asked questions like:

“What’s so special about rural communities? Why isn’t it better if half these people just moved to the cities?”

I find myself defending rural communities more frequently lately, even though I’ve never been a permanent resident of one (yet). To my city friends, the statement that I’m spending three weeks in Nebraska is almost always met with raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. While they understand the desire to leave the swamp that is our nation’s capital, most of them are coastal people who haven’t given the Midwest more than a cursory glance as they drive by or fly over on their way to somewhere else.

There are a lot of answers to the question “Why care about rural communities?” One might be that with 55 million Americans living in rural areas, it would be undemocratic to categorically ignore their voices. Another would be equality–we routinely spend tax dollars revitalizing run-down parts of cities, and rural communities deserve similar treatment.

Another person commented:

“Explain to me why is it important to keep these small towns alive? Those who have left the small towns are gainfully employed elsewhere. Note that our food production has not fallen off in tangent with the decline of these rural centers. So, this is not leading to starvation. The future may be one of profitable organic farmers in close proximity to major urban centers, if that is what the market creates, and if the government and everyone else would stop trying to prop up a lifestyle that is an echo of our former agrarian economy.”

While it is certainly the case that our food production has not decreased dramatically because of the decline of diversified agriculture, it is also true that agriculture has gotten more consolidated and unsustainable, adopting many practices that are arguably much worse for the environment than ever before. As an advocate for local organic food, I personally make sure that as much of my food as possible comes from local organic sources, but I speculate that every major urban area does not have the space for profitable local organic farmers to feed all the residents in the nearby city, especially with rampant urban sprawl.

In addition, if even a majority of rural residents suddenly moved to the city, there would be a huge strain on infrastructure and resources, not to mention that a flood of labor would likely not do good things for wages and working conditions. In fact, today’s farm policy is partially a legacy of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, whose “Get big or get out,” “Fencerow to fencerow” style led to an influx of rural residents to urban areas that provided cheap labor for urban manufacturing.

There is one argument, however, that I think we can all relate to regardless of our roots. I want you to picture the place you consider home. Perhaps you are in that place now, and can look around, and feel how good it is to be there. Then, imagine what you would feel or do if someone told you that you couldn’t, or shouldn’t, live there anymore. Approximately 20% of Americans live in small towns and rural areas, and many of them are passionate about protecting their homes and communities. It’s unfair for folks to suggest that rural residents leave the places in which they want to live.

Many of us, whether we realize it or not, have rural roots or depend on rural areas. The idea of allowing rural communities to go to waste would have unintended and unforeseen consequences. I admire that our country still allows for equal opportunity to all our residents, and I hope that these opportunities would not be denied due to geography.

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