The depopulating of America’s countryside is an odd trend in an era of locavore foodies, environmental consciousness and a supposed interest in authenticity and sustainability. Often, these notions are created by editors about millennials, as the young flock to places like Brooklyn and turn cities like Richmond, my formerly staid hometown, into hipster hotspots.
But the reality is far different. People migrate to places for jobs, and there are fewer and fewer jobs in rural areas, and many more in the growing creative cities around the U.S. As middle class jobs have left small towns, so too has opportunity, and thousands, literally thousands, of small downs and rural areas are declining. Young people go where jobs are, and if there are no jobs, they just hang around, sometimes malcontent and sometimes at peace, with marginal jobs in college towns.
This is nothing new. In the 1970s, rural towns in the U.S. and in my home commonwealth of Virginia were already in decline, and few had been gentrified except for those that had a quality of life that was attractive to wealthy outsiders. My home county of Lancaster, Virginia, has held its own as an attractive place to live, both because it is a destination for retirees and a summer destination for the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., Richmond and Norfolk. But even as it has kept its population and a semblance of a middle class with local banks, retirement homes and hospital, hundreds of rural houses have gone empty, and there are fewer and fewer farmers. Working class people have a hard time staying around, and there are only seasonal opportunities for those who do remain.
Many around the country are documenting this issue. I am a particular fan of Tarboro, N.C. photographer Watson Brown, who photographs many of these historic places. The television show A Chef’s Life describes the perils small towns face, as Vivian Howard and her beleaguered husband Ben run their Chef & Farmer restaurant in Kinston, N.C. Poor Ben, he didn’t know the challenges of the spiritual and economic depression that is non-gentrified rural America. He seems to be getting gray; I find Ben and Vivian’s arthritic mother, the true heroes of the show. The Avett Brothers song Will You Return, used on the show, puts the issue of small town America in perfect perspective:
“I wish you’d see yourself, as beautiful as I see you. Why you can’t you see yourself as beautiful as I see you.”
What can be done? The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the issue as it faces Japan, and so-called “minka” houses. Minka houses are historic handmade, rural houses of wood and bamboo in Japan that have been abandoned by the Japanese, as population numbers decline, and the youth gravitate to small, cheap, urban dwellings. The government of Japan is launching a database of the 211,437 minka houses and the Bank of Japan has created a 50 million yen public private fund to invest in this history. The problem for Japan is that people are not reproducing, and no manner of government scheme can help unless the Japanese begin to celebrate the idea of children again.
In the U.S., the problem is much larger, though it has been masked by the scale of the country and pockets of successful rural revitalization. As a child in the 1970s, I saw thousands of old houses fall into disrepair, some of them even on family and friends’ property. As a family, we went against rural exodus; my father moved us from Virginia Beach to our grandparent’s farm, Belle Isle, in Lancaster County. He gave up a career in paper sales to gentrify a homely country store in Irvington, Virginia. His brother and sister also moved to Lancaster County, and opened up businesses, including a nursery, women’s clothing store and construction business.
But we were the lucky ones with the financial means and urban connections to make a go of it. In addition, we were inspired and in some cases capitalized by my grandfather, who moved from D.C. in to the country in 1939, and created business after business in the Northern Neck (tomato cannery, subdivisions and seafood packing houses) with skills learned from life and his time as one of the first Harvard M.B.A.s.
When we moved in the late 1970s, the folklore writings and art of Eric Sloane were all the vogue, and a back-to-the-earth notion took hold in books like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. The Bicentennial also added fire to the movement, as passion for romanticized authentic rural America played out in TV shows like Michael Landon’s Little House on the Prairie and Earl Hamner’s The Waltons. When we moved, we renovated a small cottage on my grandfather’s farm, and heated the place with a kerosene stove and an actual fireplace. (For those curious about this experience, the house is now for rent as part of Virginia’s Belle Isle State Park.)
My wife’s family also had the rural bug; my father in law Jack Blum moved his family from Greenwich to Lakeville, Conn., where he and his wife Jeanne operated a successful black Angus farm that is now part of Hotchkiss School. He later became Commissioner of Agriculture under Gov. Lowell Weicker, and did his part to promote farming to the state.
The rural reality, particularly in the last 20 years, has been grim. Even in the 1970s, things were falling apart. Local canneries had closed and even my grandfather, because of age, had begun to lease out his farm, to an entrepreneurial neighbor, Tommy Lee Towles. This scene has played out across the U.S. Often, Walmart gets the blame for destroying small towns. But that is a lie. The reality is that in rural areas, the opening of a Walmart is often a saving grace, as it provides jobs and cheaper goods to locals.
What can be done in the United States? The National Trust has a Main Street program, and other federal agencies I am sure are claiming to help. But really, what is needed is easy to name, and harder to accomplish. The reality? To save old houses, you need strong families, that love good food, know how to work hard, and like to have time together on the farm.
In particular, there needs to be a sustainable, fashionable and practical economic and social model for the smaller, modern rural farm. The challenge is that this model cannot be the same everywhere, as agriculture, by definition, is different wherever you are. Following that, you need to have strong families that have plenty of children, so that the enterprise can continue after the first generation. While these are considerable challenges, and ones that have not been met systematically by such a clever country as us, they are nevertheless achievable.
My high school friend Stephen J. Douglass operates the family Turner Family Farms in Teachey, N.C., and is one of the many who is attempting to figure out a new model in selling and growing produce. With an investor, he is even experimenting with LED lighting and shipping containers to grow produce organically, in addition to tomatoes grown in Atlas Greenhouses.
For those searching for an answer, the Canadian television program Heartland attempts to deal with the issue; it’s a soap opera somewhere between Dallas and the Waltons. The family stays on the farm, and M.B.A. educated children come back to do things like open a B&B and children eke out a living between the local cafe and traditional fields like cattle and horses, all in a surprisingly scandal free atmosphere.
From our earliest days, the farm has been the center of an American ideal, and because we all have and like to eat, it is one that will always be needed. Certainly there is a way to make true, authentic rural America fashionable and profitable again. It does not need to be ultra fashionable or ultra profitable. Just modestly so; the charms of a rural life, with good food and family, are enough to attract the average person back to the land. As Steve Douglass wrote on his website to describe a day in April:
April 26, 2016. Spent the day planting Celosia and Zinnias in the field. I did manage to get 252 row feet of basil into a tight corner bed of the high tunnel. Got ready for tomorrow’s Poplar Grove Farmer’s Market from about 4:30pm to 9:00pm or so.
Not too bad.
Below, a view of my father in law’s Fairfield Farms as it now operates, with Hotchkiss. While the farm is of course sustained by many rich donors to Hotchkiss School, it is training a new, influential generation to not only love the farm, but to actually understand the difficulties and potential of day-to-day life there.