Encouraging newcomers

I was given a copy of a magazine called “Mary Jane’s Farm” a few weeks ago. It is a very well put together publication geared to women dreaming about and pursuing a life in the country. From the tone of the articles and the subjects featured, I would guess that most of their readers are 25 to 40 years old, well educated women who fantasize about the idyllic life in the country, raising a few chickens, a hive of bees, a goat and with a big garden and orchard. There are recipes for using the produce grown. There are “how to” articles and encouragement for women seeking a “simpler” lifestyle.

My initial reaction to reading “Mary Jane’s Farm” was one of superiority. I, after all, was born on a farm, grew up on a farm and have been living in the country most of my life. I am ashamed to say that I have thought, more than once, when meeting a city-dweller-turned-farmer, “Yeah, well, we’ll see how long you last. You have no idea how hard life is here. Unlike you, I am tough and have what it takes.” After all, for most of my life I have known how to garden, can, bake bread, sew, cook, pitch manure and fix fences. While these city-slickers were sitting in their cushy office somewhere, I was out in the sun trimming fence lines and pulling weeds. Why do they think they can just move out here and become farmers?

In my nearly 40 years of involvement with organic and sustainable agriculture and small farms, I have met many recovering urbanites who have moved to the country with dreams of farming and ranching, direct marketing, selling at farmers’ markets and online. Some of them have been very successful and have developed very profitable and sustainable farming and marketing operations. Some come with realistic expectations and maybe even a background in country living. Others are dreamers with fantasies of rosy sunrises and amber sunsets, warm fires in the wood stove and bountiful harvests and little practical understanding of the work needed to get there. Very few of the new farmers I have met are lazy. They work hard and sometimes, their hard work makes up for what they lack inexperience.

Once my ruffled feathers unruffled themselves, I began to wonder if the success of new farmers isn’t as much a result of how their neighbors perceive and receive them as what they know or don’t know. When someone new moves into our rural community, do we laugh at them if they don’t know one end of a box and open end wrench from another? Do we act defensively and jealously if they can afford to build the barn or shop we have only been able to dream about? Do we gossip about them in the coffee shop? Do we take advantage of their naivety when we sell them a piece of used equipment or a breeding animal? Don’t we derisively call their operations “hobby farms” because they may consist of only a few acres?

I have a friend who followed her dream to raise sheep on a small acreage. She had worked hard in California and was fortunate to sell her home there in the middle of the real estate boom times. She was able to buy land (not in North Dakota) and to build a beautiful home and state-of-the-art barns and fences for her pricey purebred sheep. Her neighbors resented her comparative wealth and expensive facilities and made her life miserable. Some went so far as to steal her animals and block her road. She  eventually sold her ranch and moved to another part of the country. While the reaction of my friend’s neighbors was extreme, I think we are all a little guilty of something similar. Perhaps our reaction is one of being less than friendly or helpful rather than one of outright hostility, but how we welcome newcomers to our rural community does make a difference in the success of their ventures.

This place we call home has seen a 17 percent loss of population in the last ten years. While the major cities in North Dakota and the oil patch have seen growth over the same time, we still see a stream of people leaving our county. We are reaching a point where many of the organizations we think of as essential to our community do not have enough members to fill all the offices. Township government involves nearly every resident in an office. Businesses have a hard time finding employees and an even harder time keeping enough customers to generate a profit.

We cannot afford to be condescending to new neighbors. We need to get over our attitude of “-40º keeps the riffraff out” and everyone else is “riffraff.” Perhaps we should be looking for ways to attract these young, enthusiastic dreamers who read “Mary Jane’s Farm” to come here and follow their dream. Perhaps we could find a way to support the sale of unoccupied farmsteads and small parcels of land to new, young farmers. There is room here for both large-scale farming and smaller more intensive operations. We can find ways to live together even if our definition of farming differs. When new farmers come, we can find ways to mentor them, encourage them, and support them. These newcomers and their families may bring with them skills and experiences that would make our lives and our communities richer and more interesting.

After all, didn’t our ancestors come here with little more than a dream?

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains