Michigan Today, Vol. 35(1)

Some who’ve seen Paree are heading back to the farm

The Rural Renaissance

Story and photos by John Ivanko

Kivirist and Ivanko left advertising jobs in Chicago seven years ago to open Inn Serendipity, a bed and breakfast in rural Browntown, Wisconsin, where son Liam joined their family two years ago. Exit the fast lane, pick up the pitchfork and plug in the laptop. Owning a few green acres is not just for farmers any more. After a few years with advertising powerhouse Leo Burnett in Chicago, both my wife, Lisa Kivirist, and I had overdosed on lattes and the big-city life, squeezed between long hours in the office and stressful yuppie careers. Realizing we had opted into the consumption-driven world which we received paychecks to promote, we jumped off the treadmill of success — at least as many Americans have come to define it — and instead of a starter home, seven years ago we planted roots on a starter-farm outside Monroe, Wisconsin.

Everything here was so new to us that our copy of Rodale’s Organic Gardening Encyclopedia has soil-stained pages from our reading it in our gardens while we tried to figure out what direction the eyes of a potato needed to be planted. Perhaps that’s why the locals call what we have a “hobby farm.”

But we’re far from hobbyists. Lisa and I also operate Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast and numerous other small enterprises and creative endeavors from the second floor of our 80-year-old farmhouse. We are stay-at-home parents for our 2-year-old son Liam. Our focus from the start has been to consider the intersection and interrelationships among food, energy and living systems as well as how these can support our livelihood and quality of life.

Rural America

“Rural America is home to a fifth of the Nation’s people, keeper of natural amenities and natural treasures, and safeguard of a unique part of American culture, tradition and history, [comprising] over 2,000 counties and containing 75 percent of the Nation’s land.” Source: the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Strawberries, llamas and chickens

Over the years, not only have our gardens met about 70 percent of our food needs, but also the wind and the sun help power the farm and heat the showers for our B&B guests and us.

The absence of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and our return to organic farming methods have resulted in riotous frog concerts and mouth-watering strawberries in spring. A dilapidated corncrib received a new lease on life by being turned into a greenhouse made out of straw bales. The dairy barn houses llamas now. And a flock of chickens freely range the land.

Funding these changes is a diversified portfolio of business activities, from writing articles to selling eggs, from welcoming guests to consulting about community conservation. While our household income has plummeted, our quality of life has sprouted in many ways. Sometimes the wind turbine spins the electricity meter backwards; eggs are shared with neighbors; a pie might be delivered, still warm from the oven; a meadowlark has once again been spotted in our field; distant friends congregate regularly around our dining room table, enjoying cuisine almost entirely from our gardens or our county. In all of these activities, neighbors or organizations like the Midwest Renewable Energy Association guide and support us.

But stepping back and looking at the larger perspective, we are part of the Rural Renaissance, aka Rural Rebound, which many American demographers are studying. More people moving into — or returning to — rural counties than leaving them. About 56.1 million people now live in a rural county according to 2000 US Census data, roughly 20 percent of the population.

The ethnography of everyday life Tom Fricke, founding director of the U-M’s Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life and professor of anthropology, has found from his ethnography research in a North Dakota farming and ranching region that “most of the movement from urban areas to the rural Great Plains comes from people with already existing family connections.”

By locally generating electricity from the wind and sunlight, as well as collecting downed trees for wood, the couple have made their inn energy self-reliant. It’s also fossil fuel free. A 10-kilowatt Bergey wind generator produces 7,000 to 9,000 kilowatt hours a year of electricity, more than meeting Inn Serendipity’s needs. The free-range chickens lay about an egg a day, feeding the local barter economy and our numerous potluck guests.”They’ve either grown up in the region or come from families just a generation removed from that growing up,” Fricke continues. “What that means is that people re-establish a connection and use their existing links to foster a re-integration. This goes on near the bigger towns in Dakota, too. Bismarck and Fargo, for example, have people moving back who buy small acreage out of town and do things like establish truck gardens that sell their produce in the city during biweekly farmers markets.”

Although the new rural residents may farm, farmers they’re not. US Department of Agriculture data show only about 2 percent of rural residents are farming. (USDA’s census defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year. Operations that received $1,000 or more in government farm program payments were also counted as farms.” The majority of agricultural operations [59 percent] had less than $10,000 in sales of agricultural products in 2002, the census reported.)

If the new rural residents aren’t farmers, what are they? First of all, despite the fact that retired persons have long been seen as rural resettlers, many are relatively young. Kenneth Johnson and Calvin Beale, demographers who wrote The Rural Rebound, say, “The increasing propensity for those in their 30s (and their children) to move to or remain in rural areas…may now be contributing much more to the rural migration than those over 65.”

Many of the rural settlers or rebounders — from the young and the old, the farming and the professionals, the hobby farmers and the second-homers — are what Brian Hoey ’02 PhD calls “lifestyle migrants.” Hoey, a research fellow at U-M’s Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life, says, “The so-called rural renaissance has been driven by non-economic migration — relocation patterns that reflect decision making on the individual level motivated by something other than economic concerns.

‘Lifestyle migrants’ are going ex-urban

“Because lifestyle migrants are typically those who have been downsized, displaced or voluntarily downshifted from other, frequently corporate, jobs, this has meant that they generally begin in urban or suburban areas.” But it’s a mistake to overemphasize the impact of economic factors in this group’s relocation to the country, he says. Lifestyle migrants “go ex-urban,” Hoey says, “as a deliberate step on a personal quest to remake themselves. Lifestyle migration is a category or subset of this larger phenomenon of non-economic migration that I use to emphasize the central concerns that include lifestyle and a concern for quality of life. Relocation is a necessary part of the equation for lifestyle migration.”

Kivirist bringing in part of her strawberry crop.The nonprofit organization Renewing the Countryside is documenting stories across North America of those who have returned to the boondocks to remake a better life rather than merely earn a living. The pages of Mother Earth News and numerous other publications are peppered with similar stories.

Thanks to the Internet, plenty of rural migrants are remaining connected to the larger economy or plugging into it in new ways. The Internet is akin to the rural postal delivery and electrification of the last century, offering the opportunity to be connected in ways never before imagined. Hog farmers swap stories with South African counterparts; information about building with straw bales or harvesting the wind is only a click away — including information about how to get the projects funded. As for the boomer population heading into retirement, Social Security and pension checks can be delivered to a mailbox at the end of a gravel road just as easily as one in a condo lobby. And the money tends to go a whole lot farther at a local diner in the country than in an urban restaurant.

Finally, an explosion of freelance and subcontractor opportunities in a rapidly changing workforce has created a “free agent nation.” In his book of that name, Daniel Pink says, “One out of four American workers work for themselves.” While the number of free agents with rural zip codes is difficult to ascertain, the capabilities of computers and the Internet make it possible for some highly skilled workers to do at home what they once did in a cubicle.

Homesteaders on the Plains

Not all lifestyle migrants are economically secure, however. In the Plains States, where examples of any renaissance are far and few between, some rural communities, in Kansas, for example, are struggling to survive by borrowing the 1800s idea of homesteading, giving away free land to “new pioneers” in exchange for their agreement to build a house and stay in it for a year.

Such opportunities might turn small towns into bedroom colonies, with residents commuting 30 miles or more to job prospects that offer livable wages — and health insurance. According to Jeffrey Jacob in his book New Pioneers, however, this type of rural homesteading falls short of the concept of sustainable development, given the hours spent commuting to nearby urban centers.

Another area in which the rural renaissance may fall short is diversity. William H. Frey, a demographer with U-M’s Population Studies Center in the Institute of Social Research, has found a new form of “white flight” from both large cities and their surrounding suburbs spilling into the countryside. Urban centers have become more ethnically diverse from foreign immigration while losing white residents who departed for greener pastures, he says.

A rise in Hispanic residents

Whether this trend continues or is offset by the sharp rise in Hispanic immigrants (many of whom are quite familiar with farming and compose a large part of the nation’s temporary migrant workers) remains to be seen. The Economic Research Service of the USDA, for example, found that the number of Hispanics in rural areas grew 70 percent between 1990 and 2000.

Will the rural renaissance foster a more sustainable, less destructive and consumptive American way of life? That will depend largely upon those who call their 10 acres — or 100 — home. The growing “simplicity movement,” swelling interest in local food, widespread commitment to historic preservation and a determination to put the conservation ethic into practice, is a sign of a changing worldview that places greater import on ecologically healthy, safe and secure communities.

Perhaps it’s not too hard to imagine a time when our food, energy and viable livelihoods need not rely on sources 2,000 miles away. Only then might homeland security and the rural renaissance be viewed in the same light, illuminating a rural route toward greater sustainability — economic, social and ecological.

At Inn Serendipity, sustainability is not about subsistence. It’s about the things money can’t buy, like having time for friends and family, drinking clean water, dancing with Liam, savoring delicious and safe food, witnessing the return of healthy soil, breathing fresh air, engaging in meaningful work and witnessing nightly summertime firefly performances. After all, a healthy life comes from a healthy planet — regardless of where we live.