America has been worried about its rural life since the nineteenth century; indeed, one finds debate over country living almost from the beginning of European settlement in North America. Ideological positions were staked out by the time of the revolution. Numerous, inventive, positive claims accompanied America's brash development. Country living based on family owned farms without the presence of a landed aristocracy was the basis of democracy, said the Frenchman, Crevoceur. Small farmers, working their own land, were God's way of keeping virtue in humanity, said Jefferson. Plantation agriculture based on slavery created a morally admirable paternalistic culture and code of honor, said the planter class. The cultivated pastoral landscape, situated between wild nature and the city, was the setting for a closer connection to God, said Emerson, Coleridge, and many other romantics.
Farmer's house and fields, Colbreth, North Carolina, 1939. Peas and corn in front of house. Tobacco pack house in rear left. Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
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Yet, in the last half of the nineteenth century, when America's country living reached its continental extent, its greatest population, and economic height, fears were raised for its passing. The beginning of industrial agriculture, global competition in agricultural exports, and the end of free (or nearly free) land squeezed the small, diversified family farm toward unprofitability and signalled its eventual demise. Farming began its rapid decline first in New England, ideological homeland of the pastoral ethic, as New England farmers left for lands in the Midwest and West. Alarm bells rang. The Country Life Commission, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of the twentieth century to study the decline of America's countryside and make recommendations for its remedy, was but the first of many such study groups. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal had many programs to promote rural life, support farmers, and assist agriculture; but government studies were so much spitting into the wind.
The rural decline continued unabated, hastened by natural disaster of the 1930s and the high capital requirements of mechanization of farming.
Bean threshing, Colorado, 1939. USDA Historical Photos.
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Today, the nation surveys an abandoned countryside from the east coast to the west coast, from the northern border to the southern border. Empty barns and uninhabited farm houses rise out of the countryside like ancient ruins. Rusting tractors and farm implements lay half-buried like dinosaur skeletons. Woodland invades fields and pastures, undoing two hundred years of hard labor. Market towns are boarded up. Unused railroad track is torn up and sold for scrap.
Can anything be done to revitalize American country life? Certainly, some think so. "Rural development" is a widely practiced governmental exercise (the Rural Development Act was passed by Congress in 1972). County and state governments endlessly study how to bring jobs to rural areas. Agricultural and food departments study how to save farming, even as they annually raise the cost of farming with new regulations. The USDA has rural development programs. Land grant universities have research departments in agriculture and rural economics and sociology. And newspaper stories abound reporting the presence of illegal laborers living near concentrations of commercial agriculture. Concern about the demise of the countryside is now a hoary tradition of subsidized handwringing.
To think about whether anything can be done to revitalize country living, perhaps we should begin with some definitions, figure out what we are talking about.
I am going to start by defining "country living", rather than defining the "country", or "countryside", or "rural area":
Country living is residing on the land and making a living from the land.
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This definition has two conditions, both of which imply a special relationship between people and land.
First, people must reside on the land, meaning that they must be in physical contact with land. People must live on the land in a way in which the land directly creates opportunities and difficulties in daily life.
Second, they must somehow make their living off the land, perhaps by farming, or mining, bottling water, logging, hunting, skiing or woodworking. They might make their living from several different activities, as from truck gardening, plus making furniture from local wood, or from owning a ski resort plus raising Angus. Diversification of sources of country income is desirable (and traditional in some areas of the nation).
For both conditions of country living, the land is not completely dominated or domesticated. The land is something that the country resident must contend with, as well as be made content by.
By this definition of country living, "countryside" is easily defined as the geographical region in which a majority (or some critical mass) of people are residing on the land and making a living from the land. In the following discussion, I refer to country and countryside synonymously.
In discussion today of "rural problems" by policy experts and researchers, a vision of the countryside is largely absent. Governmental policy is oriented toward solving social problems. Google "America rural problem" and you get a large literature of reports on low income and poverty, joblessness, ill health, poor education, and alcoholism and drug addiction in "rural America". Rural America in these reports is basically urban America distributed into "open territory". Because only 1 in 10 residents in rural areas works in farming, the inference is drawn that the problems of rural america are not associated with the land. With this inference, we can be certain that solutions involving the relation of people to land will not be offered. I think this approach to rural America is a tragic mistake. We need to perceive that the countryside is essential to rural areas and seek to preserve and enhance it. This identification of the countryside in rural America is why I title this series of articles, a theory of rural life.*
Our definition of the countryside makes it easy to distinguish city living from country living. People living in cities have no direct contact with land, instead they live on concrete. They--and also suburbanites--make their living from secondary and tertiary economic activities, not from the soil or trees or animals. The definition also makes it possible to see that the homes of exurb commuters are not involved in country living. Putting a suburban house, surrounded by grass, twenty miles out of a city and two hundred yards from another dwelling, when its residents have no relationship with the land and commute to city jobs, does not make it part of the countryside. Similarly, situating a small manufacturing establishment in a rural area and enabling its workers to live in suburban-style housing developments out in the country does not revive country life; it hastens its demise.
If we want to revitalize country life and rural America, it should be country living that we are revitalizing. It is revealing that a Congressional Research Service study (p. 40) of America's rural areas in change does not even identify the relationship of the rural population to land as an issue to be discussed under the rubric of rural problems. That omission is a mistake. We cannot revitalize country living by spreading an urbanized way of life onto "undeveloped land" or "open territory".
*The Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture sorts all counties of the US into six different economic categories:
- federal-state government-dependent,
Categories may overlap. A farming-dependent country is defined as having 15 per cent of its labor force engaged in farming.
A rural place is traditionally defined as a place within a county that is outside a metro area, that has fewer than 2,500 persons, and that has open territory. It has also been defined as fewer than 320 persons per square mile. Twenty per cent of Americans (55 million persons, year 2001) live in rural places so defined. Some 316 counties in America are farming-dependent (defined by the Congressional Research Service somewhat differently than by the USDA's Economic Research Service, as counties where at least 20% of labor's and proprietor's income is derived from farming). Only two per cent of all rural residents everywhere say that farming is their primary occupation. The Midwest has the highest percentage of workers (19.49%) employed in farming, with another 8.34% of workers employed in food processing (not the same as food service). The Northeast has the lowest percentage of workers (2.23%) employed in farming and 4.45% employed in food processing.
Observe the difficulty encountered by the State of Washington's growth management plan (1994) in defining rural. Notice also that it defines as one of state's top priorities the economic development of rural areas to provide employment for rural people, without recognizing that economic development that generates large numbers of jobs would destroy the rural area.
Here are comments on defining "rural" by a historian. Note that the historian is trying to define by description, not, as is the case in this series of articles, to define by prescription.
Of land in agriculture today (year 1997), 578 million acres are in grassland pasture and range, 553 million acres are in forest, and 445 million acres are in crops.
- small family farms (less than $250K in annual sales),
- large family farms (annual sales between $250K-$499K),
- very large family farms ($500K and more in annual sales,
- non-family farms.
As a technical point, family farms might be corporate in legal organization, even though corporate farm is usually meant to refer to non-family farms. Large, very large, and non-family farms comprised only 8% of all farms, yet accounted for 61% of value of farm production. The report of the National Commission on Small Farms (1998) states that small farms comprise 94% of all farms. For a more detailed breakdown of farms by the USDA typology, see source, pp. 7-8.
A Theory of Rural Life
1. What is Country Living?
2. Social-Economic Classes.
3. Conditions for Successful Production.
4 pt. 1. Land-Use Stability.
4 pt. 2. Landscape Preservation.
5. Country Living Values.
6. What Are Values?
7. A Home Place.
8. Education and Identity.
9. Marketing the Countryside.
10. Conclusions and Recommendations.
(Revised, April 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 24, May 1, 15, 2007.)