Monday, October 01, 2007

Rural America from a Different Perspective

The posting of Iris Dement's "My Town" was a musical treat - great song by a great artist.

Can't quite agree on the anthem idea though. As pretty as the song is, I just can't say it reflects my views on rural life.

As a rural resident, I don't see rural life as in decline. To the contrary, my only real frustration with our rural life - our dial up internet connection - was just replaced with a high speed broad band connection that is faster than what I get at the University of Arkansas. My access to information equals that of my most urban counterpart, and I can have that access in my country rocker sitting on the back porch. I "go into town" when I want (that's a phrase from my youth growing up on the farm) and when at home, I have my own private "green space," akin to the kind of park that you have to pay extra to live next to in the city. Although it is taking longer than anticipated, the connection of rural America through technology still promises rural residents the opportunity to enjoy the advantages of connectivity while preserving the natural amenities of rural living.

But, what is "rural," anyway? The National Agricultural Library's Rural Information Center provides us with some good suggestions in its online publication, What is Rural? And, it points out that defining rural is not an easy task. By most definitions, however, it is not limited to living "in the country." Typically, metro/urban areas are defined, and then any area that is not metro/urban is considered rural. Under this system, small towns that do not meet the level of whatever number is used to define a metro or urban area and that are not subsumed by a metro region become "rural." According to official U.S. Census Bureau definitions, rural includes open country as well as cities with fewer than 2,500 residents.

It gets more complicated though. As the ERS also reports in its Briefing Room: Measuring Rurality: What is Rural? counties are frequently classified as metro and non-metro counties based on population and economic ties to urban areas. This classification results in the odd fact that "for the first time, a slight majority of rural people now live in metro areas."

But - back to the song. The ERS also published an informative analysis, Rural America at a Glance - 2007 that indicates that a number of the traditional concerns about rural communities may be turning around. For example, last year, the non-metro annual growth rate was three times what it was in 2000, with a significant increase in the number of people moving from metro to non-metro counties.

Other data indicates that those classic rural residents - farmers - are using the inventiveness that they have always been known for to change in ways that "Our Town" could never imagine. Direct and niche marketing, the local food movement, and the growth in organic production all indicate that farmers are engaging in creative and sustainable efforts to adapt. "Been forty years, and I'm still sitting here" just doesn't capture this innovation.

For those needing a boost in their rural spirits and a more optimistic look than that presented in "Our Town," I suggest visiting the website from the recent conference, Rural Lands - Rural Livelihoods. And, don't say "goodbye" just yet.