Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Rural Exodus?

For a while now, I've been arguing that the first phase of peak oil will see a lot of people leaving rural and exurban areas to live closer to jobs/schools/public transportation. Even though that's the exact opposite of what we need to have happen, it seems to me inevitable. We're seeing preliminary signs here, including a group of 8 butt-ugly McMannsions that have now been on the market 14 times in less than 6 years, and a reader in Vermont may be the real canary in the coal mine. She lives in a rural town a good ways from a major city, and she reports that at a recent community event, many of her friends told her they were either moving or planning to move because it was simply too difficult and expensive to commute to work, drive the kids back and forth to activities and school, etc...

This isn't at all surprising, of course, that people would start feeling the pinch. Gas and oil prices are rising steadily, with $4 predicted for this summer. At the same time, real wages have fallen or remained stagnant for the last decade, so people's paychecks aren't going as far s they used to. Food prices are also rising steadily, in part driven by ethanol production, and 23% of our current economy has been driven by the housing market - a market now in serious trouble. Despite the claim that we've bottomed out, foreclosures in California are expected to rise by *4000* percent by the end of next year. And the problems of the Alt-A market have barely begun. Even the stock market rise is largely fueled by the fall of the dollar and inflation - none of them very good for your average consumer.

The way that Americans have been paying for these rising costs is by increasing their debt. Americans now have a negative savings rate and personal debt has risen steadily over the last decade - the average American carries 14K of consumer debate, not including car, student and housing loans. We have no reserves to tap - our houses can no longer serve as our bank accounts and we can't rely on our savings. Even the people who profited the most over the last decade, the baby boomers have, on average, less than 10K saved for retirement, and boomers are being foreclosed upon at a rate 3 times the national average. And so far mortgage interest rates have remained stable - a rise in interest rates will be disastrous to millions of people carrying adjustable or interest only mortgages.

The people who are struggling the most, however, are younger families, in their 20s and 30s, who often were never able to buy into the housing market before it spiraled out of their range, and who are came out of college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. In _Generation Debt_ X documents that people my age and younger are overwhelmingly doing less well than the boomers at the same age. Not coincidentally, these young families are the ones who are leaving their comfortable rural neighborhood to move closer to things.

And most of the people who moved to the country over the last two decades weren't people seeking to homestead or farm, or even live the country lifestyle. They were people who wanted cheap housing, or natural beauty, or privacy, but expected their lives to come with the full complement of cheap energy goodies. While some of these people came to fit in, others are the ones who moved in next to dairy farms and complained that they could smell manure, or that they heard roosters crowing. It may be, in the end, that some people who leave the countryside are better suited to population centers. But not all of them, and if the move is done badly, it could cripple agricultural communities for a long time.

On the face of it, moving inwards sounds like the right thing to do for most people - after all, don't we all need to drive less and consume less? But the problem is, as my correspondent wisely observed, that they are assuming that the only thing that will change is energy prices - they aren't thinking in the long term. Their assumption is that they will keep their jobs, keep sending the kids to swimming lessons and soccer practice, keep driving to school - that essentially, life will go on as it has in the past. And that's an understandable, but potentially dangerous assumption - both for the people who leave rural communities and those who stay.

Why is it dangerous? Let's play the scenario out, and think about what the consequences for the nation as a whole and the future might be. Now let us also note that I'm not an economist, a real estate professional or a psychic - things might not go this way. The best I can offer is my own version of common sense reasoning. So let us imagine. In the very short term, a migration from outer suburbs and rural areas might seem like a good thing - more people buying and selling houses might fuel the market a bit more. But wait.

Up to now, the strongest declines in housing prices have occurred in cities, especially in poor cities and in the most inflated markets like San Francisco, New York and Boston. But what if there is a mass movement of people who are finally grasping that higher energy prices are here to stay, but don't see the full implications of peak oil and climate change? Assuming that the whole housing market doesn't crash (in which case we'd expect to see a lot of people staying put, unable to sell at all) immediately, what you might begin to see is a lot of people from the outer suburbs and rural areas moving into urban centers and suburbs just outside them, especially those that offer public transportation.

But here's the thing - the young families that moved out to the country to buy houses most likely did so for several reasons, but a big one is because they could afford it. Real estate agents call it "drive till you can buy." The less money you have, the further out you have to go - in some extremes, that means people working in New York City commuting 3 hours to Pennsylvania. In many places, it means living in formerly rural areas that had small economies, and commuting into population centers. Even if they didn't choose where they lived because of money, in many cases, they won't have seen the large equity gains that urban areas did - even compensating for the fall in urban prices, the sale of most country houses won't buy a comparable one near many large population centers.

If many of these families want to move closer to cities, they will find that even in these economically declining times, the houses they sell don't buy as much housing nearer urban centers. That means that this movement away from rural areas will put pressure on the bottom end of the housing market - these young families leaving rural towns aren't going to be competing for the best place in town, but for the cheaper part of the market.

And this is likely to have several results. One is that if possible, I suspect a lot of people who are uncomfortable having their standard of housing and living decline, will take out bigger mortgages and more debt in order to have a home that isn't a big step down. Keeping up appearances drives a lot of us more than we'd like to admit - someone who owned a comfortable home in the country is going to have a tough time going to the rattiest ranch in the neighborhood. So they'll probably push their financial limits, which is likely not to be good for them or the economy as a whole.

The second issue is that a large movement of people away from rural areas towards urban ones will crash rural housing prices. The first folks to make the move will probably do fine, just take out a bit more debt, but what about those who see housing prices fall and houses stall for years on the market? Many of them will probably either take a further step down in housing quality, or they will rent. That means some pressure on rental markets, which haven't grown anywhere near as quickly as ownership. And if that's true, that means that poorer urban folk are likely to feel more economic pressure. In the longer term, they may well end up living in rural areas, commuting four to a car into the city. Which means those rural areas are likely to see a permanent decline in their property taxes, a rise in need for services, etc... Because the cost of energy and commuting will mean all those poor people get a little bit poorer every year.

My correspondent in Vermont was grieved because she stands to lose her community, including her peak aware friends. Because it is young families leaving, she's worried about her small local school closing, the loss of her food coop, and the economic decline of her town. And she's right to worry. Aging populations (since older folks won't feel the same pressure to move), rising foreclosures, falling property taxes, closing shops, disrupted communities are probably the name of the game for those of us in the country.

But let's play out the scenario a little bit further - what happens when rural areas and exurbs lose their commuters, housing prices out in the middle of nowhere drop like a stone and everyone wants to go live near the public transport and their jobs? In the short term, it may even give a flagging economy a boost, but as the inexorable realities of peak oil and climate change begin to strike, the move starts looking like less of a good idea. Most people simply don't grasp that the long term economic consequences of peak oil and climate change are poverty - much more poverty, affecting people who simply don't see themselves as becoming poor, because they never have been. That means all of us.

If, in fact, we are near or at peak, we can expect over the next decade to see the job we moved towards disappear, and the centralized schools we move closer to begin to close because they can't run the buses or heat the buildings (school closings were common during the 1970s oil crisis, which resulted from only a 5% decline in energy assets - we can expect a 2-3% decline per year). We can expect the cost of food and energy, housing and the servicing of our enormous debt to rise, while wages fall and jobs get scarcer. It isn't just an issue of moving closer to the things you are accustomed to in your middle class existence. It is matter of a real and fundamental change in lifestyle.

And for many of us, our economic security will depend upon our ability to meet our needs outside the official economy - that is, when unemployment and poverty rise, our ability to eat is dependent either on the charity of others equally caught up in the crisis, or in our ability to grow food. As energy prices drive inflation, everything costs more - and the things you don't have to buy are the most affordable ones. If you can heat your home and feed your family without money, you can use that money for things like avoiding foreclosure, and buying shoes - even as the price rises.

And the unfortunate reality is that not only is there less land close to urban centers, but the people who move away from the country will probably have bought the houses in their neighborhoods with small yards and little growing space - because that's what their equity from the country could afford. So while in the short term, reduced gas consumption seems like an economically viable idea, in the long term, these people are risking a long term decline, potential foreclosure and in many ways, becoming less well off than they were before - while involuntarily trashing the economies and cultures of the communities they left behind.

I have long said that even very dense cities can grow much more of their food than they do - and indeed, many Asian and African cities produce between 1/2 and 1/4 of their produce and meat within the city limits. This is not intended as a screed against urbanism or moving inwards per se. But I tend to think that for people my age and younger, moving inward represents a long term potential fall in security and comfort. I believe that many cities and regions can feed themselves, or at least meet part of their needs from the cities and immediate suburbs. But some of our food will always have to come from the countryside - every region is going to need people who are producing food on a larger scale than 1/4 acre. And more densely packed populations far away from where food is produced means that people are more and more reliant on energy-powered infrastructure for basic needs like food.

Now at some point in this process, it will become obvious to people that land=security. In most places in the world, that connection was never erased, but here, land represents something to show, a revelation of one's wealth, but not an enhancement of it. Right now, land says "I can afford lots of property taxes and a landscape service." But the time is rapidly approaching when land says, "I can feed my family. I can heat my house."

The thing is, no one's interests (except, perhaps, in the worst case scenario the interests of large corporations) are served by rural depopulation. Those who stay become less able to produce food because their populations age, their tax base collapse and their community structures fail. Those who move, at a minimum, are now dependent in part on communities left behind, as are the great mass of urban and suburbanites who will never meet their whole food needs.

And the question becomes, as rural land is devalued by a move to the cities, who will buy it up. Who will buy land from the farmers, whose average age is in their late 50s and early 60s, and who will be ready to retire soon? Their wealth is in their land. Who will buy the country property that rich urbanites and suburbanites have been using for their gasoline powered projects, like ATVing and snowmobiling - that are now unaffordable? Who will buy the houses on five acres and the old farmhouses half renovated on 50?

My prayer is that the urban poor, especially immigrant populations, will mostly do this. This would be good for rural communities in many ways, although difficult to adapt to in others. But what I worry about is that the land will be bought up by those who see the opportunity to hold a new source of wealth. And when the young families who sold out to begin with realize their future is in the country, with more affordable housing and land to grow food for their families, they will no longer be able to buy in. Instead, new serfdoms will arise, and large landowners will find that sharecropping is remarkably profitable in this new economy.

This has happened in other nations - during economic crises in South America in the 1990s, large landowners took advantage of out migration to consolidate holdings into private hands in many cases. We have seen the colonization of industrial agriculture by Cargill and Monsanto, who now often own the grain elevator, the tractor dealership, the bank, the pigs, the farmer's building, the feed store, the feed and the seed - and effectively own many farmers themselves. Will we see a similar transformation of the countryside into private, corporate hands?

Perhaps none of this will happen. I don't claim to have a useful crystal ball or psychic powers. But it seems to me that we are just beginning to take the first steps on a path that leads, in the long term, to consolidation of rural lands, the destruction of rural communities, the loss of young workers from rural areas, and the further impoverishing of a generation. All of these are bad things.

If we are to ask people who live in rural areas to change their lives and begin producing food, we must offer something to them. That is, we must make it possible for them to make much or all of their living from their land. We must strengthen the urban-rural connection, so that people who live in and around cities have a real relationship with the people 50 miles away who grow their food. The CSA model is one way to do this, but it is tough to make weekly deliveries this way. We need, among other things, a vast expansion of the CSA model - so that grain farmers are growing grain directly for families, and sheep farmers deliver wool, or blankets or sweaters to people who have already invested in them. We need to think about ways to link urban, suburban and rural communities around a central population center not into communities of us and them, but into a shared way of thinking about the massive project of feeding and living together.

I'm no economist, I'm not an expert on real estate, and you should take my advice for what it cost you. But common sense can get us some surprising places, and frankly, taking the advice of economists and real estate experts the last few years is what got us in this mess to begin with.

So use your own judgment. If it were me (and it is me - I live out in the country too), I'd sit tight if possible. I'd do it even if it meant giving up a lot of family activities, homeschooling, advertising for fellow carpoolers, or even spending one night per week at the office or in a friend's apartment nearer work. The problem is that many of the people who moved out to the country to begin with did so with the expectation that their lives would be no different from the lives of their suburban counterparts. But country life is different, and we're going to have to go back to living the country life. Instead of expecting your kids to keep up with the neighbor kids, you'll need to find other things to value - instead of their skill at soccer, value their skill at raising livestock. Instead of swimming, send them out of chop wood or climb trees.

I don't minimize the price of this - I recognize that I'm suggesting people endure real inconvenience and cost. I don't doubt many older children will be angry that their parents expect their lives to change. But it is important to remember that in many ways, the things that we now take as essential to the world of childhood and work are things that are *substitutes* for the things country life provides. That is, shopping is substitute for growing your own, not a virtue in itself. Sports are great, but in part they are commonplace in children's lives because children are now so inactive - but country children have plenty to do. The same is true with the gym - give up the weight lifting, get rid of the riding mower and start mowing your lawn by hand.

It is possible to create in the country a viable, different, rural culture that is less car dependent than the one we have now. For example, in my neighborhood we have had homemade summer camps, in which parents put together "Camp Days" with activities, each family trading off one day to take all the kids. Adults got free time, kids got social exposure and fun activities, and no one spent any money. It is possible to value and validate what you have in rural areas, and it may well be worth preserving them, even at some cost to yourself. In the end, someone is going to hold that land and have the security and resources it offers - who better than you?

This is a choice every family must make for themselves, and there are clearly those who will have no choices - they are too far indebted. But the key to food sovereignty and real food security lies in the tremendous resource of soil around us. Without loving owners to husband that soil, and care for it, we can expect a far bleaker future.



sylvia said...

Just to clarify one point: real estate values have not gone down in NYC. They haven't been skyrocketing like they did from 2002-2006, but they're still increasing. I'm the first to say that this trend is not sustainable, that eventually the housing bubble will burst here as well, but so far we have yet to see that.

So what would you recommend to a young family that lives in the city, rents, and doesn't particularly feel like taking on a 30-year mortgage to be able to afford some land?

David said...

Another great post, and very resonant for my situation: recent arrival in a small town in coastal British Columbia which is currently trying to hang on to the remnants of a once-prosperous local agricultural economy and fight off mega-development schemes. Thanks. The author of _Generation Debt_ is Anya Kamenetz, not the mysterious "X".

Michelle in Ga said...

One of my daughter's friends
lives in a used-to-be-rural
area on 40 acres, new house, old
barn. Most of the land is rented
to a guy who raises his own cattle
for beef. Imagine my horror, my
nail-biting angst, when they put
the place up for sale??? They
want to buy a bigger, fancier
house (while their family shrinks)
in a subdivision on a small lot.
I've done my best to warn my daughter, who in turn would
warn her friend, who in turn
might just mention peak oil to
her parents, who might in turn might
google friggin" peak oil . . .
before it's too late.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some of the land will be brought by Amish families and Hutterite communities. I know the latter look for very large blocks of land, but you never know.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Sharon-

Well said as usual.So many good points. As you noted, the initial and quite rational response of many who are somewhat "peak oil" aware and who observe the daily increases posted at the gas station is to decide to relocate closer to the job/school/kids activities. These people however are dependent on jobs to pay the mortgage, car payments, etc. They may grow some of their own food in a garden, even have some hens, but this is a supplement to the food bill; they are not feeding themselves largely on what they produce. They, as you noted, generally moved to the rural areas as it was quiet and pretty and they could get a lot more house and land than they could closer in. And yes, they complain about the dairy farm next door here as well!
(Well duh- 400 cows, tractors, feed trucks- it's gonna smell sometimes...)

Anway- as it's happening here, I am worried. Will the only people left behind be retired older people and second-home owners? What happens to our school, library, town committees, volunteer fire dept.?

The first ones out are not even selling fast; several houses are on the market here already with several more to go. Some will just rent them out if they can't sell- and having lots of renters will create a transient population-not likely to sit on the boards, join the school committee or get involved with the neighbors pot-lucks.

So who will be the people to populate(re-populate) our rural and exurban areas? Will they have to have trust-funds? Have jobs they can telecommute from? Be retired?

How do we recreate a rural culture that values what we can provide? So that families don't feel the need to emulate what city/suburban kids do- endless afternoons of paid activities(dance, karate, swim team) and weekends spent traveling to far off soccer and lacrosse games?
I think that too many parents believe their kids will never get into a good college if they aren't doing these things. But what about the things that rural kids can do? Build treehouses, learn to forage/wildcraft, ride horses, fish, swim, train an ox team, raise chickens/rabbits, make cheese, grow food; the list is endless.

So maybe the shift needs to happen? If so, how do we attract people to move here who will want to live a true rural life(and I don't mean beer,a satellite dish, ATV's and NASCAR!)

And is there any way to talk to those who are planning on leaving to ask them to reconsider? Should we?


elitrope said...

Great post, right on, though unfortunately I think it will be lost on many folks. You mention the canary in the coal mine...I live in a resort coastal town and have recently turned part of my 1/8 acre lot into a food garden (much to the shock of most of my neighbors). I started scouting around for locally farmed eggs and chickens, but to my surprised have been met with extreme disappointment (forget abundant local produce). The one farmer an hours drive from me that responded to my quest, says he won't be selling eggs at the farmers market anymore because of the increase in fuel prices. Oh, and sorry, he's only providing to his local community.

On another adventurous search to purchase agricultural land about 50 miles inland, say 5-10 acres to start my own little farm, has been met with equal disappointment. The majority of listings that size are being sold to subdivide and almost every real estate listing that meets my criteria gleams with the exclamative statement "great location for dream home estate" or "fast expanding area". OR it's being touted as the "new ruralism" for elite private equestrian living. Doesn't anyone else find this startling? Seems I'm alone over here with my crazy thoughts that maybe all this growth expansion with nowhere to purchase local food might actually be a really bad idea.

~stricken in the building addicted fog of the emerald coast

Anonymous said...

Another though as to whom will fill the emptied land -- what about recent immigrants who aren't too far removed from the land already. It may turn out they have exchanged subsistance farming in one climate for susbsistance farming in aother, but if they can make of go of it, think what others could learn from them.

RAS said...

This is slightly new to me. I hadn’t thought of the possibility of people fleeing the country for the city. What I have thought of is farther down the line, where the opposite will occur, as you suggest. I have long been concerned about the possible rise of serfdom in the future. Most of the productive rural land in this country is all ready in the hands of big landowners, rather corporations or otherwise. Sharecropping or tenant farming was a big thing here in the South until a few decades ago. Most of the land was owned by a rich white family but was broken into smaller chunks and sublet to (mostly black) poor families who acted as sharecroppers. This was an outgrowth of the plantation system after the downfall of slavery and was a highly inequitable system. In fact, vestiges of it are still around today –in the form of the migrant workers (mostly brown and black immigrants –things haven’t changed much, for all the talk) who are brought in to harvest the crops, paid a pitifully small penance, and sent on their way.

How can we stop this? How can we convince people to stay? All right, maybe there isn’t much hope for the folks who moved to the country for the housing and hate roosters and manure, but what about the rest? Furthermore, how can we convince other young families and even single adults to move to rural areas, either to live on farms or in small towns? Furthermore, how can we make it affordable?

I live at the edge of a medium sized city. With preserved land backing up to my small bit of property, thanks goodness. (I couldn’t stand living anywhere there were more people than trees.) The reasons I haven’t moved yet are a) I’m in school and need to acquire the means to earn the capital for my land. b) with climate change around the corner and approaching fast, buying land in the south isn’t a good idea, imo. One of the latest models I read predicts that Arkansas will have the same climate as Cuba by 2100 (and I live in Alabama). No offense meant to Cuba, but that climate is not my idea of desirable. And finally c.) I’m a lesbian in the South, and most of the small towns around here are literally owned and ran by fire-breathing fundamentalists with apocalyptic visions. I moved here from the small town I was in because I couldn’t take that –or the chance of being murdered while buying groceries. Most of rural New England seems to be much more hospitable (or at least tolerant) of different lifestyles, and I want to look at moving up there when I finish school.

Elitrope, here it is the same way. Grrr.

Anonymous said...

Elitrope- Wish you were here- I have plenty of eggs for sale- your choice of duck or chicken!

RAS- Yes- New England would definitely be much more your scene I would think. There are a number of gays and lesbians out here and nobody pays it much attention, even in a small town.

But- here's what I wonder.Even though my town is very rural- many of the people who live here are well educated and liberal in their outlook. THESE are the people who have for the most part moved here in recent years. And THESE are the people I see deciding to move closer to the jobs/school/kids activities, etc. So- what will it be like here if they are mostly gone? I know that most of my friends in this area didn't grow up here either- we all chose to live here. I don't have any particular affinity for the most part for many of the "natives"(not all of course)- in general a different outlook on life. Many of them are heavily into snowmobiles, ATV's, hunting, drinking, NASCAR, country music, etc- not my thing. So- will the whole feel of the place change?

And I too find it interesting that there is what appears to be the beginning of a "flight" from rural areas to closer in to the city, etc- so much of what you see when people discuss the implications of Peak Oil is the picture of the hordes moving up from NYC or Boston out to the rural areas to forage for food......


Anonymous said...

Great discussion, thank you all. Real food for thought in ANI's comment on emigrations/immigrations: "will the whole feel of the place change?" So far, it's been pretty rare that any of us get to create the communities we are part of, even in rural areas. Born in or moved in, we end up negotiating the terms of neighborliness on a situational basis; if we're lucky, we actually experience "needing" one another, and this goes a long way toward creating a sense of community. Maybe shared values will become more apparent once they are truly "shared". Necessity is a great teacher; if we are skilled, and can reach out to whomever we live among, we may be able to help shape new values more consistent with a rural (and less car-facilitated)lifestyle; the "old values" will eventually become less satisfying (and,in most cases, less attainable!); knowing how to model or encourage alternatives might help. I understand the Mystery Informant's sense of loss that her neighbors (young, peak oil aware, and cooperative/collaborative) are heading out... or heading in, as the case may be. What will happen next? Perhaps for awhile some of that land will go to those who want country, but don't know what that's going to entail. Perhaps she can lure a few rural lifestyle-committed folks to join her --but, as Sharon pointed out, we've got to give them something they can do to live on/by if we want to maintain rural communities! That is a task facing Vermont right now, as we have an economically-based youth emigration underway, even without a tangible peak oil influence. Perhaps we'll see a return to serfdom; perhaps not. We can't predict the transition; we do know there will be one, and in many phases/guises. Seems like its underway... Remaining skilled and committed ourselves, educating about and encouraging local economies of scale and doing what we can to pressure lawmakers to preserve agricultural land is my best guess at how to move things along no matter where we are... we won't always succeed, but we can do the work in the meantime, and perhaps affect the changes to "the feel of the place" in a positive manner.

- Another Vermonter.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Sharon. But I see some issues that you aren't addressing. Today's young people (let's say 14-24) are less interested in having anything to do with an actual rural economy than any group in history. And yet, you are proposing that they basically get down with the idea of becoming peasants like their foreparents. (I know that Americans don't like the term peasant, but as you know, it simply means independent, property-owning farmer.)

But, the whole "upward" sweep of American history has been about getting away from working the soil and all the hard physical labor and long hours that farming requires. "How are you going to keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Paris?" the old song asks. Well, after three generations or so of television and one of the internet, they've all seen Paris (and Hollywood and New York) and they have not the faintest interest in getting dirt under the fingernails or getting out of bed and going to work before dawn.

The goal of most young people today seems to be living the life of a rock star, or failing that, a member of a rock star's "posse" of sycophants and groupies. Even the prospect of going to college and earning an engineering degree which could bring them upper middle class incomes looks like too much work to an ever-increasing number of them.

Will anything short of real starvation get these young people to go back to being peasants? Won't most of them join gangs and steal their living before earning it by working hard with their hands out in the country many, many miles from the night clubs?

Anonymous said...

Actually- although that may be true for some young people, I know quite a few that desperately want to farm and cannot afford land in any place they'd want to live. In fact two of my neighbors with their baby, are moving away out-of-state because here they are living in a house in the middle of the village on a tiny piece of land(fine for a garden), with their draft horses and cows grzing all around the village in other peoples yards! They would love to stay-and they have just what it takes to live a good rural life. But the land here has been priced out-of-sight by wealthy second-home owners and people moving here with a big chunk of change having sold homes in other places.

We have a program that purchases the development rights from some farms- so that the farm is taxed at a lower rate and can be sold at a lower price. I believe there were 35 applicants for the last sale of such a farm(this couple included)- and there were so many good applicants as well.

In this area,we have a large dairy farm that has bought up a lot of the available land to expand. The rest is owned by people who don't necessarily use their land but want to have it, a retired farmer and relatives who are selling it off in 5 acre pieces, and out-of-state owners who are just sitting on it. So I'd say that the problem is larger than that. Many of these young people are educated and aware and socially progresive and don't want to live out in the middle of South Dakota for instance- they do want to live someplace within reach of some culture. And that land is often priced out of their reach. I know a number of people in this situation here. My own land is mostly not-farmable- and I use what there is of it that can be planted so I'm not in a position to do anything personally- but I don't know what the answer is. I do know that having more and more homes and land held by second-home owners, used for vacation camps, and just vacant isn't good for my community either.


jewishfarmer said...

Thanks for those who offered clarifications and corrections, including Ulu, who wasn't able to post it but correctly pointed that what I wanted to say was that American average consumer debt was about 14K.

Anonymous (could you folks please make up at least some way of referring to you other than "Anonymous #4" ;-)), I'm not sure that either your assessment of younger teens and early 20s folks is wholly fair (that is, I'm not convinced they are radically more stupid and selfish than my generation is ;-), but more importantly, at least at the moment, they won't be the ones making the decisions - they can't buy land anyway at the prices things are at, and many of them are too young to decide who moves.

I think immediately, the question is how do we keep young families, old enough to have kids or have bought a house where they are, and, offer some kind of living to those who *want* a farm and to come back. The larger question of how we keep them down on the farm in the long term is probably one that will self-solve - but not in a good way.


jewishfarmer said...

RAS, I would tend to think (if you don't mind the climate...for now), that the northeast would be good for you. Unfortunately, land prices are still very high in the areas near cities. I grew up in Massachusetts, on Cape Ann, and as a kid always wanted to farm in the little depressed fishing/rural towns along the coast. By the time I was old enough, unfortunately, I'd been priced out of the whole state. I would consider NY/NJ (south Jersey still has some reasonable property prices, good soil and warm climate), and New England as fairly liberal (out here in rural upstate NY, we joke we're a red state, but not real red ;-).

BTW, Eliot Spitzer just put gay marriage on the legislative agenda in NY - YIPPEE!!!!!


RAS said...

I agree with Ani. I'm a young person who wants to farm as well, and land is increasingly being priced out of reach by the *%!#!#@! weatlhy second home owners who want to come in for the weekend "to get away from it all" and look down on the locals.

Furthermore, my generation seems to be divided into two groups: one is the one that the media focuses on. The Paris Hiltons and such. But also the upper middle class kids who've never worked, have IPODS and such, and meet the stereotype you present.

The other group actually comprises the majority of us. And we work our butts off to make ends meet. Many of the kids I know are working 2 or 3 jobs to pay the rent and buy groceries. Watch tv? When? Others are only working one job but using that, and financial aid (mostly loans) to try to get through school in the hopes of getting a better life. What they don't know is, with wages begin what they are, and their student loan payments, they'll be making about the same as they did at Macdonald's. Read Generation Debt, as Sharon suggested, or Strapped, to get a good look at the challenges facing the tail end of Gen X and all of GenY. (I'm on the border between the two, btw.)

Here's one other thing that bothers me about our cities. Most of them simply are not sustainable in the long run, or maybe not even without cheap fossil fuels. They are simply too big and wasteful. You might be able to grow half of some cities food inside it, but not of a place like New York City -and even then the other half has to come from somewhere. I just don't see anyway to feed 8 million people (the current population of New York City) from the surrounding farmland. I also see no way to deal with the waste generated by that many people, provide them with water, etc, without cheap fossil fuels. And what will happen when those things are no longer available?

MSquirrel said...

One of the Anonymous bloggers mentioned that the Amish and Hutterites are looking for more land...They are right. The Amish in our area complain that rural prices are too high for them to buy land, forcing them to turn to more commercial work...which works against them, as they traditionally apprentice 14-year-olds, and the law disallows these young boys in the type of jobs they are picking up. So a mass exodus back to the city and falling-price rural land will be advantageous for them. And frankly, I couldn't imagine a better steward of rural land than the Amish and Hutterites.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't at all mind it if the Amish started settling here- but many of the homes are on small acreages-the old farms have been subdivided and everyone has their 5-10 acres- or some homes are just on small lots really. So this wouldn't be what they are looking for..... Besides, I would expect that the wealthy out-of-state landowners who are just sitting on land will continue to do so unless something changes so radically that they no longer can.


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OK, I'm "Anonymous #4" and my name is Alan and I live in Portland, Oregon.

I was being a bit of a devil's advocate in that post about today's young people and their disinterest in occupations that don't fit the celebrity lifestyle model. But it's truer than many think and getting truer all the time.

Why else are there all these elderly farmers who might pass their farms to their kids (or a relative's kids) to farm if any of those kids had any interest in farming?

Really, how bad does a young family want to farm, if they are unwilling to move out to South Dakota or anyplace else that's not near some "culture"? Either farming is important to them and they can take their culture to remote agricultural land (not so difficult or isolated as it was 100 years ago) or being close to shopping malls, night clubs, big schools, and other facets of urban culture is important.

Having one's cake and eating it, too, is always the more popular option, but it's rarely possible and in the situation we're discussing, it's mostly not.

And yes, city slickers moving out to McMansions on 10 acre ranchettes and driving up property prices are a big problem in some areas. But so are farmers who regard their land as their retirement fund and know that they can get a much more comfortable or even luxurious retirement if they sell to a subdivision developer. After all, land use in the United States isn't based on what land should be used for, it's based on what is called "highest and best use" which means, in most cases, single-family homes on the largest piece of land available. After that comes multi-family housing, commercial, industrial, and way down on the list, agriculture. Truly screwed up, I know, but reality nonetheless.

As long as our society enshrines "property rights" as the be-all and end-all of land use law, then farm land which happens to lie in an area where people with money want to live is going to get subdivided and built on. At least as long as petroleum supplies and the economy make it feasible.

Here in Oregon, we have the nation's most advanced land use laws and they were doing a darn good job of protecting farm land from development. But a couple of years ago, republicans, libertarians, property rights-uber-alles fanatics, and big corporate landowners spent a boatload of money to convince a majority of Oregon voters that our laws had unfairly deprived landowners of the right to make as much money as they wanted to from their land.

Now, we're fighting desperately to undo the horrible damage that deceptive initiative did to our land use laws which have been a source of pride and a beacon to forward-thinking people from other states for 30 years and the main reason for Oregon's lack of sprawl, close-to-cities farms and protected scenic beauty.

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous #4- I have a brother named Alan who lives in Portland Oregon! You're not a lawyer are you??

Anway- I farm- but I wouldn't want to live in South Dakota. Sometimes I want to do something besides farmwork- and I want likeminded people to hang with. And farming, for me, is not 3,000 acres of wheat. So to state that people who are serious about farming must be willing to do it anywhere is unfair. Some of us like to grow produce and sell it at Farmers' Markets and places like that. So we need to live closer to "the action".

In terms of retired farmers sitting on their land waiting to sell it to a developer- unfortunately for many farmers their only wealth is in their land- other than that they have nothing. Farmers in general earn so little- they don't have 401K's, IRA's, Pensions, etc. Just their land.


jewishfarmer said...

Hi Alan - thanks so much for the name, it just makes it easier for me to keep track of which anonymous responder I'm talking to.

As for your critique, fair enough, but let me play Devil's Advocate right back.

First of all, the average farmer in South Dakota is almost 60 years old, so his kids aren't the 14-24 year olds you were talking about - his kids are 25-45.

Second, I wouldn't be willing to farm in South Dakota - no *WATER* -depleted aquifers, hideous water right laws, long term drought projections that scare the heck out of me and prairies that would be better as prairies. Not to mention right wing politics galore. Those things do matter for quality of life. But that doesn't mean I don't want to farm.

I've occasionally thought of picking up and moving to Malaysia or Belize to farm (or various other places), but the other issue is that I value my family connections, and I'm not willing to have my kids never know their grandparents. So those are big things for me - it isn't that I don't care about farming, it is just that there are other factors in there. So I don't think you are being quite fair.

As for the farmers wanting to be able to afford assisted living someday - I can't say I blame them that much. Their kids don't want the land, they often don't want their kids to be farmers - because the work is incredibly poorly paid, stressful and dangerous - and this is the only alternative to poverty they have.

I admire Oregon's history of progressive land use, but I'm not convinced that the blame falls on teh farmers and their grandkids, so much as the yuppie assholes who want the houses in the first place ;-).

Just for the sake of argument ;-).


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OK, Anonymous #4 (Alan) here again.

Maybe I shouldn't have used South Dakota as an example. Maybe I should have used Back of Beyond, New York; or Way Out In the Sticks, Illinois. My point is that our current reality is that land that is close to urban amenities ("culture") is way too popular to be reasonably-priced farm land, unless we can institute land use laws which protect farm land as farm land and keep it priced and taxed as farm land -- not priced and taxed for its "highest and best use". The problem here is that property rights fanatics are ready to go to war to preserve their "right" to do any damn thing they want with their land including and especially develop it as non-farm land.

Telling property owners that they "ought" to be willing to sell their property to young families who want to farm for a price that is a small fraction of what they can get from a developer is guaranteed to get you laughed out of the room if not out of town.

Young people who want to farm someplace other than Up the Boohai, Nebraska, need to be organizing and agitating to change our property rights laws, not allowing republicans and other greedheads who want to eliminate the whole concept of land use planning to take and hold power in middle America.

I certainly understand farmers who want to turn their farms into retirement annuities by selling them to developers. Farmers have been getting the dirty end of the stick from just about everybody in this country for a very long time. As long as the U.S. doesn't provide any real social safety net and it's every man (and woman) for themselves, then people will do what they need to do.

Our farmers are screwed by our capitalist market system and our government has the gall to pressure European governments to stop supporting their farmers so that cheap American agricultural products can screw their rural people, too.

And I hope you didn't think that I was blaming Oregon's predicament on farmers. Most of them opposed the "takings" initiative because they realize that our land use laws are what protects Oregon agriculture.

BTW, you're right about South Dakota being better off as prairie. Check out the Great Plains Restoration Council at
I think there is an excellent chance that circumstances may eventually bring back the prairie ( or The Great American Desert, as it was called in the mid-nineteenth century.)

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What hysteria!

anna said...

ANI--if you're still out there, and I may take this slightly off topic--which ducks are layers? I'm wondering, just for the sake of information (and hoping that I can have around 5 acres one day to farm on, instead of a 65-130 foot lot!), because any of the breeds I've run into so far have been raised for meat, and don't lay but a few times a year . . .

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Big difference between declining home values and declining rural land values. I'd sure like to know where good farm land is declining in value, and in most small communities, there are no bubbles in real estate. Real estate markets are local, not national. Some overheated coastal markets aren't representative of a large number of rural communities.

Young people can start farming, and are doing so every day. You just don't hear much about it unless you live in true farming communities, because these guys usually don't put up blogs every time they wipe a hen's ass. Frequently, they have relatives (parents, grandparents) who are farming or start working on farms. To go this route, you have to hustle up extra income by doing custom work, taking a town job to put some money back. If you grew up on a farm or in a small town, this ain't a news flash, but to pilgrims who don't understand you might need to go short on sleep in calving season or put in 3-4 days straight in planting or harvesting time and not be able to piss around on the web and whatnot, it's a tough beat.

The sad truth is that there are a helluva lot of people who have a sense of entitlement and who aren't willing to work hard, day in and day out, get dirty and shitty, and do without some luxuries to make a go of it. That's true in farming and many other jobs where manual labor is required. When I used to build silos, there were a lot of guys that never came back after the first day; same with building stone walls.

To the poster trotting out the tired "let's slam rednecks" material: maybe you should get over yourself. There's nothing wrong with people who have ATVs and drink a couple beers and watch NASCAR -- they are the backbone of many rural communities. Rural teens training pairs of oxen -- you need to flush out your headgear.

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